It's not an everyday experience, even for an accomplished musician like Norman Bearcroft, to be invited by the conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to be his guest at a concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. But that's what happened earlier this year.
Bramwell Tovey, in New York to conduct a series of summer concerts, also suggested that they have dinner together before the concert.
Over the meal, conversation quickly turned to the 1960s, when Tovey had been a student at a summer music camp Norman directed. The conductor confided to his mentor, now a retired Salvation Army lieutenant colonel, that Norman had not only taught him a good deal about conducting per se but had also helped him learn how to get the audience "on your side" with a few well-chosen remarks before each item.
Tovey's instructor of yesteryear is well known around the world as a composer and conductor of Christian music. But he is first a Salvation Army officer.
"I was planning on making a career as a professional musician, but the Lord had other plans for me," Norman says.
Norman, who celebrated his 80th birthday this year, was born in Wallsend-on-Tyne, England. The town got its name, "Wallsend," from its location at the end of the England-Scotland border wall built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D.
Norman comes from Salvation Army officer stock; both his parents were officer-
pastors. In fact, Norman's father led his teenage son to the Lord. Norman recalls that during an evangelistic meeting, his father put his arm around him and said, "I spend my time preaching to others, and here's my son."
"He didn't tell me I was a sinner, but the Holy Spirit used the occasion to bring me to salvation," Norman recalls.
From childhood, Norman was also involved with music. One of his first musical memories comes from a time when he was a beginner cornetist in the junior band.
"I had learned to play the second cornet part to the tune 'Sawley,' to which we sing the words 'While shepherds watched their flocks by night,' " Norman recalls. "We were out caroling, going from street to street, and I kept hoping they would play 'Sawley' because that was the only tune I knew. But, of course, they only played it occasionally."
As a 15-year-old, Norman made his first attempt at writing music when he transcribed a vocal piece for brass band. He presented it to Colonel Bramwell Coles, the head of the Army's Music Editorial Department.
"We don't really need this type of music," Coles said, but he encouraged Norman to write something original, "perhaps a march."
Norman accepted the challenge and soon delivered a march entitled "To Regions Fair." Accepted and published without any changes, it was the first of more than 150 published Bearcroft works for bands and vocal groups.
Norman was surprised re-cently to discover that "To Regions Fair" is not only still popular as a concert piece but is also available on several jukeboxes in Japan.
Becoming a Life Guard
As a young man, Norman was plunged into the reality of World War 2. In the early months of the war, his older brother was killed by enemy fire over Germany. Sensing that he needed to do something himself, Norman enlisted in the Life Guards, an elite regiment charged with protecting the lives of the monarch and the royal family.
"It was while I was doing my recruit's training at Windsor that I heard the Life Guards' band playing. I was quite proficient on the cornet, so I made application for the band and was granted an audition," Norman says.
A burly sergeant-major who ushered Norman into the presence of the director of music asked what he planned to play.
" 'At the Cross Where I First Saw the Light,' " Norman responded. It was a solo by composer Erik Leidzen, who wrote for classical groups and Salvation Army bands.
"At the what?" the sergeant-major growled.
"So I explained what [the Cross] was all about, and I played the solo, and I was in the band," Norman says.
His term in the Life Guards, which included professional musicians from the best orchestras in the country, was a time of great learning for the young musician. Norman did some writing for the Life Guards, including a transcription for military band of a Mozart horn concerto. The former principal horn player of the London Symphony played the solo part.
Gifting from God ...
Aside from his band training in The Salvation Army, Norman had no formal musical schooling either as an instrumentalist or a composer.
"I learned by reading and studying scores and by reading and re-reading Harmony and Counterpoint by Ebenezer Prout," he says. "Years later, someone suggested I needed credentials, so I took some examinations at Trinity College in London although I never studied there." As a result of those exams, Norman became a fellow of Trinity College.
God has blessed Norman with two great gifts. One is the ability to look at a score and to hear in his mind what it will sound like.
"I don't know where it comes from, but I've always been able to do it," he says.
The second gift is perfect pitch. This is the rare ability to hear a tone and be able to identify it as a C or an A, in the same way that most people can see a color and identify it as red or green.
Music played an important part in Norman's call to full-time ministry. These words of the Salvationist American songwriter Sidney Cox inspired him:
Follow thou Me, He calls again,
And I will make you fishers of men.
As by the shores of Galilee,
Jesus is calling you and me.
"I couldn't get away from it," he says. "That song stuck with me. Everywhere I went, it kept coming to my mind."
In response, Norman and his wife, Jill, entered the Salvation Army Training College and became officers and ordained pastors in 1951. The ceremony took place in London's Royal Albert Hall. In subsequent years, Norman was back in that hall on scores of occasions, often as the organizer and producer of music spectaculars.
Among his outstanding memories are leading a 1,000-voice mixed choir; arranging music for and directing an 800-voice male chorus; major responsibility for three international congresses of The Salvation Army; and scoring music for several other large events.
Norman recalls one occasion at Royal Albert Hall when a massed choir presented one of his compositions, "Reflections."
"The man operating the lights was an employee of the hall. Apparently he was moved by the music and reacted without any previous instruction from me. The last few lines of the piece, we sang very quietly and [finally] the sound died away. As the music got softer, [the man began turning down] the lights. At the conclusion, the hall was almost dark, and there was absolute silence. It was magic. The man came to me afterward and apologized for taking the liberty of dimming the lights. But it was absolutely the right thing to do."
There were humorous moments as well.
"I'm leading a large chorus in a number when suddenly the London Fire Brigade, wearing helmets and carrying axes, walk right across the stage to put out a fire reported to be blazing in the organ loft. Of course, there was no fire; and by the time the song ended, the firemen had made their appearance and left. Some of the audience, I believe, thought it was a part of the program."
About five years ago Norman's beloved helpmate, Jill, was "promoted to Glory," as Salvationists say of a Christian who dies. Subsequently Norman married Kathleen, an American Salvation Army major who runs the Heritage Museum at USA Eastern Territorial Headquarters, and he moved to New York.
Earlier this year, the Army celebrated Lt. Colonel Bearcroft's profound influence on Salvation Army music at London's Regent Hall Corps, where a capacity audience gathered to honor him on his 80th birthday. His music was played and sung by the International Staff Songsters (a Salvation Army choir he organized in 1980 and led until he retired), the Household Troops Band, and three outstanding soloists. Tributes were paid by his sons: Bram, a Church of England vicar living in France; Norman, who resides in Worthing, England; and Mark, a Salvation Army captain who currently serves in Australia.
The colonel continues to write music, guest-conduct bands and songster brigades (choirs), and lead spiritual meetings across the United States, in England, and throughout the world. He scoffs at the idea of real retirement; he believes his talent is God-given, and he intends to use it in the service of the King until God calls him home.