The succession of organists at Durham Cathedral

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 Philip Armes (b.1836, d.1908)

[article written for summer recital Programme 2008]

2008 sees the centenary of the demise of Philip Armes, good reason to   share information about the organist of Durham Cathedral for 45 years, 1862 to 1907 - through much of Queen Victoria’s reign. 

Armes was born in Norwich, eldest son (one of seven children) of Philip Armes, a schoolmaster and bass singer and his wife, Mary, and began his musical career as a chorister in the cathedral as a pupil of the celebrated Zechariah Buck. On the appointment of his father as bass lay clerk at Rochester Cathedral the family moved there in 1848, and young Philip became a successful solo singer in the choir (singing on one occasion for Jennie Lind), and receiving a Broadwood grand piano as a present on leaving the choir. He then studied the organ with and acted as J.L.Hopkins’s assistant at Rochester, as well becoming organist at Trinity Church, Milton, Gravesend. In 1857 Armes moved to St. Andrew's, Wells Street in London, and in 1861 to Chichester Cathedral, before soon moving north, succeeding William Henshaw as organist of Durham Cathedral in 1862 at a salary of £260.

Armes 1

He had graduated BMus at Oxford in 1858, and the same degree ad eundem at Durham in 1863. He proceeded to DMus at Oxford in 1864 and at Durham ad eundem in 1874.  Armes drew up the first scheme and became examiner for Durham’s external degrees in music introduced in 1890, was an Oxford examiner from 1894, and in 1897 was appointed Durham University’s first Professor of Music.

Armes was also a string player – by choice, the viola.  He composed three oratorios, various anthems, services and other church music, and the madrigal, Victoria, that gained the Madrigal Society's first prize in 1897.

Soon after arriving in Durham, in January 1864, Armes married Emily Jane
Davison, six years his junior, daughter of the chief justice of the supreme court
of Madras. The Armes subsequently had two sons [Augustus and Algernon] and
two daughters [Emily and Alice] – the family with up to 4 servants is to be found
in the Census records for Durham living first at No.20 and later No.17,
North Bailey. Included in the occupation entries are “Captain of Volunteers” [1881]
and “Retired Major 4th V.B. Durham” [1901].


Thomas Collinson’s Diary contains many mentions of Armes’s roles (not least in dismantling and dispersing the old Smith organ, and acquiring the Willis organ in 1876, and his territorial army activities], the musical, Cathedral and city life when Collinson was an "organist's apprentice” at Durham 1871-75. In an article written 60 years later, he also recalled his master:-

          "...Apprenticeship to the sound musician and contrapuntist, Dr.Armes brought me into touch with the Father Smith organ of the Cathedral, amended "up-to-date" by one Postil [sic! ] of York.  My fellow pupils shared with me the wonder felt for the Doctor's handiness and impetuosity in playing this instrument.  If, as sometimes happened, the tumbler coupler, Swell to Great, got out of gear and caused trouble, he would accompany the choir with one hand, while undoing the front boards with the other, to push into place some erring sticker.  His impetuosity shewed itself on the occasion of a rebellious stop-handle refusing to go "in", by his planting his back against the Choir organ panel behind the stool and booting the unfortunate stop in with the full thrust of his right leg. This was quite effective and the Principal humbly became dumb to order……The lack of a 16ft stop on the Great organ seemed to be atoned for by the old fashioned ponderousness of Dr.Armes' playing; he was really great at "filling up" his harmonies, and was a Handelian player of the first water..."

Armes 3

Shortly after the rebuilding of the Willis organ by Harrison & Harrison in 1904/5, Chapter requested the Dean to confer with the organist as to his retirement, and the SubDean was desired to consult the Precentor as to “the present grave condition of things musical”.  It was agreed and Armes retired 2 years later in May 1907 on a pension of £250 pa. He died the following year, at home on 10 February 1908, and was buried in the cemetery of St Mary-le-Bow, Durham.  A memorial is to be found in the Cathedral west cloister.


© Richard Hird [2008]
Pictures courtesy the Web.

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Placed by Richard Hird  [] - October 2008