Remembering James Whitbourn

14 March 2024
4 min read
James Whitbourn (1963 – 2024) © David Fisher

British composer, conductor, and producer Dr James Whitbourn has died.

His family has confirmed that following a cancer diagnosis and at age 60, James passed away peacefully on 12 March 2024 at his home in Kent. 

Dr James Whitbourn was an internationally renowned musician recognized by The Observer as “a truly original communicator in modern British choral music”. A graduate of Magdalen College, University of Oxford, his career in music began in the BBC, for whom he worked as a composer, conductor, producer, and presenter. From 1990 to 2001 he served as Editor of BBC Radio 3’s weekly Choral Evensong series. He had a close association with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, having produced the BBC TV broadcasts of Carols from King’s for more than thirty years. He also worked for many years as the Executive Producer for the Royal Opera House’s cinema, music, and video label Opus Arte.

His substantial catalogue of compositions focuses on choral writing, often in combination with instrumental or orchestral forces. His choral works have been performed on every inhabited continent of the world, especially in North America and mainland Europe, with his most popular works including his concert-length portrait of Anne Frank, Annelies; the multi-media choral work Luminosity; and the early Son of God Mass, a work for saxophone and choir based on his original BBC orchestral scores. Recent works include Apollo, for solo organ, and the choral works Arise, my love, Christmas Welcome, O magnum mysterium, Shchedryk, Solitude, and Our Gold, published as part of Carols for Choirs 6.

Whitbourn’s final work, Requiem, orchestrated by John Rutter, will be premiered this spring, on April 13 2024 at Carnegie Hall in New York. Long-time collaborator and friend James Jordan will conduct Westminster Choir College of Rider University alongside several other participating choirs and the New England Symphonic Ensemble. The Requiem was commissioned by Westminster Choir College of Rider University.

Whitbourn was the recipient of a TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellowship (2019–21) in furtherance of his research interest in the music of Egypt. In 2023, Zahr Al-Khayal (‘Flowers of Imagination’), for soprano and symphony orchestra and sung in Arabic by Fatma Said, was premiered at Konzerthaus Berlin alongside three of Whitbourn’s orchestrations of songs by Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

Whitbourn’s orchestral catalogue includes the award-winning work Pika, based on the bombing of Hiroshima, one of three large scale compositions for symphony orchestra written with the poet Michael Symmons Roberts and performed by the BBC Philharmonic, who have also recorded many of his television scores.

Commissions include the music to mark several national, and international events, including the BBC’s title music for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and music for the national commemoration of 9/11 at Westminster Abbey—subsequently performed in New York on the first anniversary of the attacks. He also composed music for the BBC Events’ coverage of the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day.

Many of his choral works have been recorded by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge with saxophonist John Harle and tenor Robert Tear under Timothy Brown (Et Cetera KTC 1248); Commotio, with violist Levine Andrade, and tenor Christopher Gillett conducted by Matthew Berry (Naxos 8.572103); the Westminster Williamson Voices conducted by James Jordan (Naxos 8.572737, Naxos 8.573070, Naxos 8.573715), with saxophonist Jeremy Powell, organists Ken Coan, and Daryl Robinson, soprano Arianna Zukerman and The Lincoln Trio, and the Chicago-based ensemble Cor Cantiamo under Eric A Johnson. The Williamson Voices’ Naxos recording of Annelies under James Jordan was nominated for a GRAMMY award under the Best Choral Performance category in 2014 – one of four GRAMMY nominations for Whitbourn. As well as conducting the BBC Philharmonic, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and other leading orchestras, he directed the London-based vocal ensemble The Choir, whose acclaimed DVD recording of John Tavener’s choral music received a Gramophone nomination.

Whitbourn was deeply committed to education, the development of the next generation of musicians, and the nurturing of musical thought. He was Fellow and Director of Music at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford; Senior Research Fellow at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford; Director of Music at Harris Manchester College, Oxford; and a member of the Faculty of Music in the University of Oxford. He held long-standing associations with the University of Cambridge, and with Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, USA. He delivered lectures and masterclasses at Princeton University, Northern Illinois University, and other institutions of education in the USA, and served as a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London.
The music of James Whitbourn is published by Chester Music, Encore Publications, and Oxford University Press.

James Whitbourn is survived by his wife, Alison; his children, Hannah, Naomi, and Simeon; his sister, Katherine; and his parents, Philip, and Anne.

For further information contact

Kate Johnson: [email protected], +44 (0)7920 197 354 (London, Chester Music)

Rachel Lindley: [email protected] (Oxford, Oxford University Press)