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The life of David John Sanger

Background and education

David John Sanger was born on 17th April 1947, in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. He was the second son of Stanley Charles Sanger, a master baker and confectioner who had recently taken over the family bakery at Larkfield (near Maidstone), and Ethel Lillian Florence Sanger (née Woodgate), a gold medal winning piano teacher. David and his brother Peter had no other siblings.

Within a year, the bakery was sold and the family had moved to Bexleyheath (which was then in Kent, but later became part of the London Borough of Bexley). Stanley continued to work as a baker for some years, until his asthma required a change of lifestyle: he became an insurance agent, and also took singing lessons (with Ethel as accompanist). The house was often filled with the sound of music: Ethel had resumed her piano teaching, and both her sons were practising the piano and wind instruments.

After starting at the local primary school, David attended Eltham College from the age of 9. David’s interest in the organ was sparked at the age of about 10, when all the family were members of the choir at the Congregational Church in Bexleyheath. David had been reluctantly learning the piano from his mother, but when he was invited to try the church organ, he took to it like a duck to water. Soon after that, the organist moved away and David was appointed to replace him – initially with his mother as choirmistress, but David soon took over both roles.

At the age of 11, in 1958, David became a founder member of the Bexley and District Organists and Choirmasters Association, which gave opportunities for performing on many different organs around the borough. (In later years, he became Patron of the association, and gave their golden jubilee recital in 2008).

David’s entire focus was now on his music, and he was soon having organ lessons in London with Professor Douglas Hawkridge. When it became clear he would not pass any of his school exams, the headmaster agreed that he should leave school at 15 to concentrate on his music. By the time he started as a student at the Royal Academy of Music at 16, still under Douglas Hawkridge, he had already gained an LRAM diploma for organ playing. He proceeded to pass the exams for ARCO in his first year at the Academy and FRCO in the second.. He also continued with the piano, and gained an LRAM diploma for teaching piano in his third year.

After three years, David felt he had learned all he could from the Academy, and left (at the age of 19) to study privately with leading organists Susi Jeans (near London), Marie Claire-Alain (in Paris), and briefly with Anton Heiller (in Vienna). His inspiration as a teacher must have come from them as well as his mother. He was later appointed an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (ARAM), and in 1985 he became one of the Fellows of the Royal Academy of Music (FRAM), an honour limited to 300 living former students of the RAM.

Organ recitalist

David’s career as an organ recitalist took off after he won first prize at two international organ competitions – St. Albans in 1969 (at the age of 22), and Kiel in Germany in 1972. (In later years, he served on the jury of many international organ competitions, including those at St Albans, Paisley, Speyer, Biarritz, Alkmaar, Nuremberg, Lucerne, Kotka and Odense).

David quickly became known as a recitalist, particularly in Scandinavia. During his career he gave recitals in many countries – including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Italy, France, Russia, Iceland, the United States, Mexico and South Korea. He also gave many recitals in the British Isles, notably at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, the City of London Festival, the Bath Festival, the Chester Festival, the West-Riding Cathedrals' Festival, and many similar occasions in churches and cathedrals large and small, in some cases returning time after time to places where he had links with past pupils.

He was frequently partnered by Hans Fagius from Sweden for organ duet concerts.

David was dedicated to achieving historically informed performance, seeking out treatises, composers' autographs and first editions to find what composers actually wrote and what their notation meant, and attempting to play the music as they intended. He became recognised as an authority on 18th century European organ music, and was appointed by the Academy of Saint Cecilia as an Honorary Fellow and a member of their Early Music Advisory Panel; but he was also diligent in researching works by later composers, notably César Franck and Louis Vierne.

Always keen to share his insights with others, in 2000/1 he wrote a series of articles for the Organists’ Review, entitled “My fascination with the sources”. These listed many of the errors he had discovered in the published editions of works by over 25 composers; he always carried them with him for reference when teaching.

Based in London

David left the Congregational Church in Bexleyheath to become organist at a large and prestigious Christian Science Church in London, until 1969 when he was appointed Organist and Choirmaster at St Laurence’s Church, Catford, in South East London. This enabled him to become familiar with the Anglican liturgy, and also to teach the organ and train assistant organists, which gave him increasing freedom to travel on recital tours. David soon left his parents’ home to share a flat nearer the church.

Throughout his 20 years in Catford, he was greatly respected by the many members of his choir. Many of them remained good friends after they left the choir, even after he moved to Cumbria in 1989. David also conducted the Bromley Boy Singers for a time.

The move to Cumbria was long in the planning …

The move to Cumbria

In 1978, responding to an obscure advert in a national newspaper, David bought a disused chapel in Embleton near Cockermouth – much to his parents’ amazement! Over the following years, he often brought friends from London to camp out in the chapel, to help with clearing the rubbish inside and the undergrowth outside, and to enjoy the pleasures of the Lake District.

David then engaged local builders for the first of several projects to extend the building and turn it into a home large enough to hold an organ, from which he could pursue his career as an organ teacher and recitalist. The opportunity to buy a suitable organ came when the first organ he had ever played became redundant, as the church in Bexleyheath was moved to a new, smaller building. The organ was re-erected in David’s chapel in Embleton, with much help from his parents and friends working with the organ builder. David eventually moved into the chapel in July 1989 (at the age of 42).

Shortly before that, David’s parents had decided to leave Bexleyheath and move to Cumbria, eventually buying a cottage just down the road from David’s chapel. They acted as caretakers for the chapel when David was away teaching or on recital tours, and his father greatly enjoyed helping David maintain the old building and its extensive grounds.

The Old Wesleyan Chapel in Embleton gradually became known to many organists from around the world, who visited David or came for occasional lessons. It also featured as a concert venue for local music societies. His brother remembers an early family Christmas at the chapel: David invited local carol singers into his home to sing with the organ. This became a regular annual fund-raising event, which was very popular with many local people, who all greatly respected his friendship (see this eulogy).

His wider involvement in Cumbrian music included hosting events at his chapel for the Cumbrian Society of Organists, and organising concerts featuring his advanced students at St Bees Priory.


David gradually became a much sought-after teacher of the organ. He returned to the Royal Academy of Music as a professor, and was appointed Chairman of the Organ Department there in 1987. He was retained as a Consultant Professor when he moved to Cumbria in 1989. From 1991 David was Visiting Tutor in organ studies at the Royal Northern College of Music, and from January 2010 was Consultant Tutor in Organ at Birmingham Conservatoire. He was also guest professor for a period of two years at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen.

Over a period of 25 years, David taught the organ to students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, as well as in London and at his home in Embleton. Students often came to him from abroad for short intensive courses or occasional lessons. Many of his students were successful at international competition level, including two winners at the Calgary International Organ Competition.

He gave Master Classes in many places, including Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, and was 'Headmaster' of the Church Music Seminar in Bergen for fourteen years.

An organist in Cambridge recently wrote this tribute to David, in a programme note about a piece of organ music by César Franck:

“I have returned to this piece after many years, working on it earlier on in May with David Sanger at the organ he designed for Bromley Parish Church. I doubt that I could produce such informed readings of these chorales as David – after all, he had thoroughly researched and recorded them all. I am grateful for his insights and encouragement in the short time that I have known him and been privileged to study with him. His sad death is an immense loss to all his students.”

Based on his extensive teaching experience, David wrote a best-selling tutor in two volumes, entitled “Play the Organ”, aimed at beginners starting directly on the organ rather than converting from the piano.

Composing and Editing

David wrote a number of compositions – some for organ, and some for particular choirs or chamber groups. Many of his compositions and arrangements for choir are still in use, particularly at St Laurence’s church in Catford. Two of his choral items provided a very moving beginning and ending to the celebration of David’s life in Cambridge

He also edited a number of earlier works by various composers, notably the complete organ works of Louis Vierne, which he edited jointly with Norwegian organist Jon Laukvik, the 13 volumes of which were published in 2008 by Carus-Verlag. These are noted for their meticulous research and scholarship.

Recording artist

As a recording artist, David made over 20 CDs, all of which received favourable reviews. His recordings included the Organ Symphonies of Louis Vierne, the complete organ works of Franck, and a selection of trifles by Lefébure-Wely. He had recently resumed the mammoth task of recording the complete organ works of Bach with a set of three discs recorded at Bodin Church, Norway.

Organ Consultant

As consultant for new and rebuilt organs, David worked with many different organ builders on a number of prestigious projects, including organs for: Exeter College, Oxford; Trinity Hall, Cambridge; the Usher Hall, Edinburgh; the Barony Organ at Strathclyde University; Leeds Cathedral; and Haileybury College in Hertfordshire. At the time of his death, he was working on projects in Sheffield, Whitehaven, Ambleside, Chester Cathedral, and a concert hall in Denmark.

Overview of David’s achievements

To summarise David’s wider impact on organists and organs in general, I can do no better than quote (with permission) from a letter of condolence I received from Charles Wooler, who is Secretary and Chairman of the Newcastle and District Society of Organists:

Many of our members grew up with their formative years as organists inspired by David’s playing on recordings and in concerts. The standard of these was such that David’s name became a byword for excellence.

Others looked forward to devouring the scholarly articles he wrote for journals such as “Organists Review” each month, which for them provoked new thought and illuminated the path to better playing.

Younger members of the association, myself included, have benefited during the 1990s and 2000s from his tuition on courses run by “Oundle for Organists” and The Royal College of Organists – a legacy that will continue in the future as he produced both brilliant performers and teachers of the organ from his long lists of former students, many of whom will doubtless continue to propagate his excellent work.

Similarly, the organists of this country will continue to rejoice in the many outstanding organ building projects for which he acted as a consultant. On a personal note, I will always be grateful to him for insisting that my former school, Berkhamsted School, retain their very fine Henry Willis III instrument rather than discard it for a newer, more modern instrument. That instrument alone has inspired many young people since it was brought back from silence.

Later years

David never married, and music was his whole life. Briefly, once or twice, he had a girlfriend, but quickly realised he could not support a wife in a normal family life, and marriage would get in the way of his career. Effectively he was married to his music, his chapel, and his beloved organ.

David’s parents died in 1998 and 1999, leaving their cottage to their two sons. Peter and David chose to let the cottage for about 7 years. They then sold it in March 2008, which allowed David to pay off the mortgage on his chapel.

David was now in his 60’s, but continued to devote himself wholeheartedly to all his musical activities, and to maintaining the chapel and grounds, but now without the practical and moral support he had enjoyed for years from his parents. Several neighbours now took turns in caring for the building when David was away.

Various aspects of his health began to give cause for concern, but he bounced back from treatments for skin cancer, a heart murmur, and floaters in his eyes. He continued with his active lifestyle, including fell walking and badminton.

David was delighted and surprised to be appointed President of the Royal College of Organists in the autumn of 2008 – a post he was expected to fill until June 2011.

In the last three months of his life David gave recitals in – among other places – Birmingham Conservatoire, Bergen Cathedral, Alton Parish Church, Chester Cathedral, and Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. On 8th May, he also gave an organ recital at his home in Embleton in aid of the Cockermouth Music Society. He was also given an opportunity (by Euridice in Norway) to revive his aim of recording all of Bach’s organ works. The fruits of these recording sessions were eventually released on a set on 3 CDs in March 2011, with programme notes by Hans Fagius.

Future plans

David’s future plans involved no let-up in his itinerant lifestyle. In June 2010 there were bookings for recitals in Leeds Cathedral, Birmingham Conservatoire and Finland, besides acting as External Examiner at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. Recitals and other activities in the second half of 2010 were due to take him (in this order) to: Leicester Cathedral, San Diego, Jamaica, Cambridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, Derby Cathedral, Falaise-Gubay in Normandy, Paisley Abbey, Harrow School, a church near Copenhagen, and St Michael’s, Cornhill in London.

Events already in prospect for 2011 included recitals at Alton in Hampshire and Possneck in Germany, and appearing on the jury at the Canadian International Organ Competition in Montreal.

The last few days

But sadly, none of these plans came to fruition. On the night of Saturday 22nd May 2010, police raided David’s home and arrested him on eight charges of child abuse. All the charges were based on the allegations of one man, and related to events around thirty years previously; David strongly denied them, and they were disbelieved by all who knew him. David was released on bail, but his bail conditions were such that he could no longer fulfil any of his obligations or pursue any aspect of his career, so he set about the soul-destroying task of cancelling all his appointments and contracts.

He received much encouragement and support from friends and neighbours, but he was devastated when he saw the full-page coverage on the front of a local newspaper. He was found dead on Friday 28th May, 2010.

The funeral was a quiet one, limited mainly to his immediate family and supporters and his many local friends in and around Embleton, together with a representative from the Royal College of Organists. As David had requested no ceremony, either religious or secular, a simple appreciation was read out, based on the reminiscences of local friends - the text is available by clicking here.


At the inquest in Workington on 18th January 2011, the summing up and conclusion by Mr David Ll. Roberts, HM Coroner for North and West Cumbria, included the following:

“It’s not my concern to form any view as to the rights and wrongs of the inquiry, or the charges that were brought against him, but I again emphasise that any person charged in courts in this country are deemed entirely innocent until proven guilty, and everyone is entitled to the benefit of that doubt in that context…

“Now, it’s clear that Mr Sanger had considerable support from his friends, from his brother, who was going to come up and see him as soon as he could. He had the benefit of legal advice… The overall evidence I have, however, is that he was managing to cope with the strains he was undoubtedly under during this time. The watershed … was clearly the publication in the newspaper of the charges… It’s quite clear that his demeanour changed following that publication…

“The evidence … clearly point[s] to a deliberate intention to end his life. And as I said earlier, and I stress again, none of that means that he was culpable, so far as the charges brought against him. It doesn’t mean that he had ended his life because there was any truth in those allegations…

“I’d like to pass on my personal condolences and those of my colleague … and the Coroner’s Service to you, all your family and friends, as clearly the world of music, and organs in particular, has suffered a great loss with the passing of your brother.”


A musical celebration of David’s life took place at Great St Mary's, Cambridge, on Saturday 5th March 2011. Nearly 400 people attended, and heard moving performances by about a dozen leading organists, all former students or colleagues of David’s, and choral items sung by friends and choral scholars. The programme notes included personal tributes from the performers and numerous humorous anecdotes. All agreed that the occasion was a fitting tribute to the friendship and fun, as well as the superlative music, that David had brought into their lives.

Peter Sanger, last updated 18 September 2011