James Bowman: An Appreciation

by Roderic Dunnett (originally published in Cathedral Music magazine)

1 May 2023

How deeply we will miss James Bowman (1941-2023). To lose him, even at 81, is like losing music itself.

He was, and is, an exemplar, above all for the guidance, reassurance and encouragement he gave, generously and unselfishly, to so many who asked for it, or who needed it. A former chorister himself (at Ely Cathedral), he inspired, and indeed sang alongside choirmen and choristers alike. 

James was an exceptional, gracious human being: ‘a matchless, matchless man’ (John Blow). He loved helping others; no request for advice was too demanding. His warmth and kindness were as legendary as that unique, beautiful voice – intoning not just the Baroque, but the modern as well: Tippett’s exquisite Songs for Ariel; the music of Alan Ridout and Francis Grier; or Geoffrey Burgon’s Nunc Dimittis. Could anything match the haunting beauty of that? James could. The poignancy, the pathos, and the tenderness were there in everything he sang. There was wisdom, insight, perfection. 

But wisdom in the man, too. A big guy in every way, not least in heart, ever-inspired and -inspiring, James shared with us so many marvels. One thinks of Dowland, Pergolesi, Britten, or of Andrew Gant’s ‘Epitaph for Salomon Pavey’: the star Jacobean boy actor who died heartbreakingly young (at 13): an (impounded) chorister of the Chapel Royal (where James himself latterly sang). 

His inheritance from Alfred Deller of the role of Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of those miracles that peppered James’s career. With him, the countertenor voice came into its own in England. Unquestionably there were praiseworthy male altos in many cathedrals and colleges. But they remained that: fine, loyal choir members. Iestyn Davies, one who did ascend fabulously to lead the field today, makes clear the huge inspiration James was to him – and, he assures us, for so many others.

James Bowman sings Purcell's Sound the Trumpet

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How happy that we have so much of his work still to treasure. Originally with Raymond Leppard, David Munrow, Christopher Hogwood. Then, wonderfully, on Hyperion, with The King’s Consort: Handel operas (the explosive, and the lulling); Bach cantatas; Bach’s great predecessor, Kuhnau; Couperin’s unbelievably beautiful Léçons de Ténèbres; and surely above all, the sensational collection of Purcell’s sacred and secular works – not least, the church anthems.

Peter Nardone, formerly at Chelmsford and Worcester cathedrals (and Croydon Minster), cherished James as ‘singer, artist, encourager, inspirer, bon viveur, fairy king, diva, friend’.

But Bowman also appeared and recorded with countless other eminent, even historic, choirs and ensembles, at home and abroad (France, especially), each enriched by his presence among them. For aspiring young countertenors among today’s cathedral choristers, try, and learn from, the disc ‘Contre-ténors’ (Naïve V5328): seven for the price of one. Bowman and friends.

James was a modest man, the last one to sing his own praises. A lovely man, a sharer, a mentor of genius, an enhancer, a bringer of joy. Amazingly funny (‘wickedly indiscreet’), but also incredibly profound. Someone to be held up as an ideal – as a peerless musician, and as an exemplary human being – to all young choristers passionate and craving to join the music profession as singers  themselves.

He will be so sadly missed – but his legacy is immortal.

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