Beckett, John Stewart (1927–2007), musician, conductor and composer, was born 5 February 1927 at the Red Cottage, Kilgobbin Road, Sandyford, Co. Dublin, youngest of three children (two sons and one daughter) of Gerald Beckett, medical doctor, and Margaret ('Peggy') Robinson Beckett (née Collen). Gerald was the brother of William Beckett, father of the writer Samuel Beckett (qv). Gerald and William came from a family of master builders, and Gerald's wife, Peggy, born in Portadown, Co. Armagh, was a member of the noted Collen family of builders from Northern Ireland. In 1933, after Gerald was appointed county medical officer of health for Co. Wicklow, the family moved to Greystones.
In 1935 John Beckett started at Aravon Preparatory School, Bray, and at the same time began to learn the piano. At age 12, he composed a short piece of music; his teacher, John F. Larchet (qv), wrote: 'This is really very promising. Work hard and you will be a good composer some day.' Sent to St Columba's College in 1940, Beckett came second in the entrance Lefroy music scholarship. Joseph Groocock, the precentor and a great admirer of J. S. Bach, taught him piano. Beckett and his schoolmates were regularly invited to the Groococks' home for afternoon tea and music; at age 14, Beckett wrote his first fugue there, standing against a tallboy.
Beckett left St Columba's early, at the end of 1943, to concentrate on music and composition. In December 1943 he won the Coulson exhibition in organ and piano, enabling study on scholarship in the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) for the academic year 1944–5. His first composition played in public was 'A short overture for orchestra', performed by the Dublin Orchestral Players and conducted by Brian Boydell (qv) in May 1944 at the Metropolitan Hall, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin. Beckett submitted three songs to the feis ceoil in the summer of 1944; the composer E. J. Moeran (qv), who adjudicated, wrote him a letter stating that the songs showed talent, and asking to meet him. Beckett started at the RIAM in September 1944, working towards a Bachelor of Music degree. Studying piano and composition with Larchet and organ with Thomas Weaving, he won the Coulson academy scholarship in 1944, and was awarded the Fitzgerald organ trophy at the 1945 feis ceoil.
With Moeran's help, Beckett went to the Royal College of Music (RCM), London, in September 1945; his subject was composition (taught by Edmund Rubbra and Dr R. O. Morris) and his instrument was organ (taught by Dr George Thalben-Ball). He also studied orchestration and theory, and had piano and viola lessons. Returning to Dublin in 1947, Beckett obtained his B.Mus. degree in July. He met his wife-to-be, Vera Slocombe, daughter of the cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, at around this time. He studied harpsichord with Gertrud Wertheim in Morley College, London, and completed his studies in the RCM in July 1948, having won the Julian Lyttelton travelling scholarship, worth £120, for study in Paris, where he had some private lessons with Nadia Boulanger. Unable to cope with avant-garde music, he decided to give up composition in any serious way and instead taught English at a school in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Back in Dublin in 1950, Beckett met Michael Morrow, who was interested in art and early music. Beckett's father died in September 1950. Later in the month, Beckett played on a harpsichord loaned by the National Museum for an important performance of Bach's B minor mass, conducted by Otto Matzerath, to mark the bicentenary of the composer's death. Accepted henceforth as a performer of note, Beckett played in public concerts and radio recitals, presented radio programmes, gave lectures, wrote on music for The Bell (nine articles from May 1951 to November 1952), gave music lessons, and conducted. A lover of music by composers such as Dowland, Purcell, Bach, Schubert, Fauré and Mahler, he became well known for his hatred of Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, Bruckner and Messiaen.
Beckett and Vera Slocombe, and then Morrow, moved to London in 1953; they lived in Hampstead, where John and Vera resided at a number of addresses. Approaching the BBC Third Programme with a four-part series on John Dowland, which was accepted and recorded in 1955, Beckett presented the programmes, which included musical illustrations. From then on, he presented and performed frequently on the Third Programme. Towards the end of 1955, he wrote music for Samuel Beckett's mime 'Acte sans paroles' (Act without words), which was performed by Deryk Mendel in April 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, along with 'Fin de partie' (Endgame). In 1957, John Beckett wrote incidental music for a reading by Patrick Magee from Samuel Beckett's novel Molloy; similar productions followed of Malone dies in June 1958, and The unnamable in January 1959. From this period until 1968 he wrote music for various Third Programme radio plays.
At around this time, John Beckett, Michael Morrow, recorder player John Sothcott, and the singer Grayston Burgess became seriously involved in the revival of medieval and early renaissance music. Their group, named Musica Reservata, gave its first proper public recital on 30 January 1960 in Fenton House, Hampstead. Various small-scale concerts followed. Around 1960, Beckett began to teach harpsichord and viol at evening classes in Belmont Primary School, attached to Chiswick Polytechnic. In 1961, Schott's of London published two volumes of pieces from Purcell's The Fairy-Queen, arranged by Beckett for recorders.
When in Ireland in March 1961, Beckett had a serious car accident; both his arms were broken, and a hip and ankle were badly damaged. He was hospitalised for five months in St Columcille's Hospital, Loughlinstown, Co. Dublin. To cheer him up, his cousin Samuel invited him to write music for a new radio play, Words and music, which was broadcast on the Third Programme on 13 November 1962. John convalesced in Dolphin Cottage, Coliemore Harbour, Dalkey, with Vera, whom he married on 23 October 1961. They moved in 1965 to Brampton House, Church Street, in Chiswick, west London, and in 1967 moved across the road to The Guardship, Church Street, where they lived for the next two years.
In 1964 Beckett was employed as a freelance tuned percussion player with the London Symphony Orchestra for two years or more. Starting in August 1964, he taught the recorder (and later viol) in An Grianán, Termonfeckin, Co. Louth, for many years. In the beginning of 1966, John, Edward and Samuel Beckett performed music to accompany a reading by Jack MacGowran (qv) from Samuel's works for Claddagh Records. In the same year, John Beckett composed music for Irish rising 1916, a short film by George Morrison. Other Morrison films featuring Beckett's astringent music were Two thousand miles of peril (1972; broadcast on RTÉ in 1974), Éamon de Valera (1973) and Look to the sea (1975). Beckett made two LPs for the budget Saga label: Scarlatti sonatas for harpsichord (1966) and The classical mandoline: music by Beethoven and Hummel (1967).
Musica Reservata's performances were now being broadcast on the Third Programme, and a record was made in 1966. A sell-out concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 2 July 1967, conducted by Beckett, was dubbed their 'debut concert'. Now established as one of the main groups in the revival of early music, Musica Reservata gave many more concerts in the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal. They also made more records, the most successful being Music from the time of Christopher Columbus (1968), for which Beckett was given an Edison award. In 1969 Beckett began conducting Bach cantatas with the Musica Reservata Orchestra and Choir for four BBC Radio 3 broadcasts.
Beckett's marriage to Vera broke up at this period. He had met Ruth Hilton (née David) in 1963, and she joined Musica Reservata as a treble rebec player in 1966. She had studied viola at the Royal Academy of Music and also played the violin. She and Beckett moved to her house in Azof Street, Greenwich. John and Vera Beckett formally separated in June 1970. Leaving London in 1971, Beckett and Hilton settled down in a simple cottage named The Paddock, Old Long Hill, Kilmacanogue, Co. Wicklow, their home till 1978, when they moved to a small terraced house, 4 Parkview Terrace, Dargle Road, in Bray. Beckett continued to conduct Musica Reservata concerts in London and abroad until November 1973. He taught piano and harpsichord in the RIAM from September 1971, and also led a chamber music class once a week, and then a viol consort class. He became involved in various RTÉ radio programmes over the coming years, and his music was used in The state of the nation 1921–1939, a television documentary marking the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Anglo–Irish treaty, transmitted in December 1971.
The first of a series of Bach cantatas, conducted by Beckett, in St Ann's Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, was performed in January 1973. Featuring the New Irish Chamber Orchestra (NICO), members of the Guinness Choir (later the Cantata Singers), and soloists, the series of three concerts at the beginning of each year (excepting 1976) lasted until 1983. Some of the concerts were recorded by the BBC. Using the same forces, Beckett conducted an all-Bach concert at one of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in 1979. While in Italy with NICO and Our Lady's Choral Society in 1975, Beckett was presented with a papal medal from Pope Paul VI while conducting the choir in St Peter's Square. Following two RTÉ television programmes about the contralto Bernadette Greevy (qv), an LP of her singing Bach arias with NICO, conducted by Beckett, was recorded in 1976, and issued by Claddagh in 1980. The Dublin Training Orchestra, formed in April 1976, gave its inaugural concert, with Beckett conducting, in the RIAM in June of that year. Beckett continued to be musical director for two more years.
By now, Beckett was very fat and heavy. Warned of the consequences of obesity, he went on a crash diet and almost starved himself. He succeeded in losing weight but looked very unhealthy. In July 1980, NICO, conducted by Beckett, performed in the Festival of Flanders in Bruges, and then flew to China, where they toured and gave six concerts. Beckett conducted the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra in March 1981 in the St Francis Xavier Hall, Dublin, in a performance of Schubert's unfinished symphony (no. 8) and Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's monumental symphony no. 10; the two works were broadcast in April. On Beckett's appointment in 1983 as a producer for BBC Radio 3, he and Ruth Hilton left Ireland and moved to Greenwich. From September 1984 he produced Morning concert, and from December This week's composer. Beckett formally retired from the BBC in 1987, but did freelance work for a while thereafter. He conducted concerts in Dublin occasionally during this period, but after he suffered a heart attack he did not conduct or play in public again.
Beckett's former wife, Vera, died in 1992; in 1995, his partner, Ruth Hilton, died suddenly, and was cremated in Lewisham Crematorium. Beckett, who had no children, was devastated, and thereafter lived a lonely life in Greenwich. He paid occasional visits to Dublin, where he stayed with his twin sister, Ann. In 1997 he went with his friend Vera Škrabánek to the Czech Republic to visit places associated with Kafka, Mahler and Dvořák. He toured Germany in 2000 with an Irish friend, Paul Conway, visiting places associated with Bach. Soon afterwards, Beckett had a hip replacement operation, and then his sister died of cancer. Beckett went with Conway on two more holidays: to Switzerland in 2003, and for a tour of Elgar's countryside in 2006. It was Conway who found John Beckett dead in his house on the morning of his 80th birthday, 5 February 2007. Like Ruth, he was cremated in Lewisham.
Setting no store on his own music, Beckett destroyed it all. A formidable, larger-than-life character, he loved Chinese, Japanese and Indian music, and certain types of jazz. His handwriting was spiky and virtually unreadable. His artistic tastes included Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and old icons; one of his favourite artists was Paul Klee. In literature, he wallowed in the works of Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, James Joyce (qv) and Samuel Beckett. He loved to go to out-of-the-way places on holidays with Ruth, such as remote mountain villages in Spain.
A bronze head of Beckett, made by his friend Werner Schürmann and exhibited first in the Living Art Exhibition in August 1954, is now in the RIAM. A portrait, painted by Reginald Gray in 1953, hangs in St Columba's College. Another portrait (1958?), by Hilda Roberts, is in Woodtown House, Rathfarnham.