My talented, kind, generous and totally wonderful friend and colleague Nick Gale died yesterday morning in a road traffic accident. He was only 39 years old. I cannot begin to comprehend how his family must feel, but among his friends there is total shock and devastation. As the news spread yesterday evening my phone was barely quiet and only this morning, having spent last night in some kind of state of suspended animation, is the reality of what happened yesterday sinking in.
Nick was the Director of Music at St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark (the other Southwark Cathedral!), for over a decade, transforming the choir there from a ramshackle collection of have-a-go heroes into the kind of group capable of giving multiple live BBC broadcasts, both on radio and television. That this happened within a few years of his arrival was truly extraordinary, but he had a knack of getting things done, and being at St. George’s in those days was not only hugely fulfilling professionally, but also plain fun. I laughed out loud as I drove home yesterday when I remembered some of the good times – the entire congregation being locked outside the Cathedral two years in a row during the Easter Vigil by some overzealous holder of the keys, for example, or our annual “let’s swap organists in the middle of the hymn” at the same service, which always delighted the choristers so much. In particular I remember one responsorial psalm which was so chromatically outrageous that the then organist simply became more and more nervous and less accurate with each passing verse. Singers went down like skittles, convulsed with laughter, until there was barely one standing. Happy days.
I came to the Cathedral almost by accident, but worked there alongside Nick for over a decade until I realised that I had run my time there. Many, many of my pieces bear the dedication “For Nicholas Gale and…”, including Dominus Regit Me, his favourite, and Nick was a tireless and dedicated supporter of my music. The second live BBC1 broadcast of Midnight Mass from the Cathedral featured my Missa Sancti Nicolai as its centrepiece, and I know that Nick sat in several meetings and resolutely shot down the concerns voiced by others that the piece was “too modern” for the audience. He was performing my piece, and that was that.
I taught alongside Nick for many years as well, and was part of his musical passions, especially plainchant. We spent, with the gents of St. George’s, a wonderful few days at Solesmes in France studying this music with the inspirational Dom Daniel Saulnier, the quality and inspiration of the musical experience matched only by the amount of schoolboy naughtiness that went on during the meals in the monastery, supposedly eaten in silence during Lent, of course. Happy days, again.
I left the Cathedral at the end of 2010, but had the chance to show my support for Nick when he went through some tough times a couple of years ago. These times, as it transpired, were generated by somebody formerly very close to him, the same somebody, as it happens, who never paid me for a commission, and I managed, in difficult circumstances, to do the right thing. I also know that Nick was aware of this, although, men being men and all that, we never discussed it with each other. It is some consolation to know that he was aware that I had stood by him.
Nick was also a fabulous cook, and I remember his beef Wellington with awe. My partner and I had been due to go and have dinner with him a few months ago, but in the end we bought a house and moved out of London, so the opportunity never came up again for the three of us to get together, which is such a terrible shame.
Nick accompanied the Parliament Choir rehearsal only last week. As often happens to conductors, people were keen to ask questions and make comments at the end, and so I did not have a chance to chat to him. I had intended to be in touch with him to say thank you, but had just not got round to it. As it turns out, there is so much more for which I need to express my thanks but I, like many others, will now never get the chance.
I am glad to report that I think that Nick was happy in his life, working hard and content in a new relationship. I shall miss him very, very much indeed, and it is hard to comprehend that he will not be around any more, that every time I think of him there will be that smallest of split seconds between that thought and the realisation that he is no longer here.