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.