Tributes flow for Brisbane cathedral music director

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Dr Ralph Morton
Dr Ralph Morton

Tributes flooded in from around the world for Dr Ralph Morton, former director of music at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane, who died on 20 February.

Dr Morton, 67, had been battling illness since last July.

He has been remembered as a humble, gentle man and as a giant in the choral and church music worlds.

Ralph was the firstborn of Methodist minister Bill and piano teacher Rhona who were passionate about their faith and their children.

As a result, service to the church through music became a hallmark of Ralph’s career beginning as organist in the Moorooka and Rocklea Churches at the age of 10.

Throughout his life he ministered musically in the Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Uniting, Lutheran Churches, the Jewish Temple Beth Or in California, and most recently the Catholic Church which exemplified his ecumenical spirit.

In paying tribute to Ralph, Andrew Reid, international director of the Royal School of Church Music, said: “I am grateful to have known a man with no apparent ego, who served others, the Church, the RSCM and his Lord so faithfully.”

An outstanding musician, Ralph was never one to trumpet his achievements.

He held a Doctorate in Musical Arts (in organ performance) from the University of Southern California, where he also completed masters degrees in organ and in choral conducting. He also earned a Bachelor of Music (with honours); a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma of Education from the University of Queensland. He was an Associate, a Licentiate, and Fellow of Trinity College Music, London. He will be posthumously awarded a Fellowship of the Royal School of Church Music.

Friend and colleague Christopher Cook said Ralph was “meticulous in what he did, a thoroughly gracious man, and a musician who was underestimated only by those innocently bewitched by his humility”.

Ralph’s performance of Larry Sitsky’s Seven Meditations on Symbolist Art recorded on the St John’s Cathedral organ is a climb of epic proportions that few organists have attempted since, and the recording remains the only one of its kind.

Ralph served as chair of the national board of the RSCM, on the national council of the Australian Choral Conductors Association (1989-1990), ANCA (1999-2005), and as a life member from 2010.

He also worked with the National Youth Choir of Australia (2008-2014), and was a former director of music and director of chapel music at Anglican Church Grammar School in Brisbane.

His legacy is the influence he had on a generation of young singers and musicians whom he directed and inspired.

Redmond Lopez, current chorister and organ student said: “I was blessed to call Ralph my choir director, my organ teacher and my friend.”

In 1995 Ralph was invited to be conductor of the Australian Catholic University Choir, Brisbane.

ACU senior lecturer Judy Fromyhr said: “Ralph had a passion for community choirs with 20 years dedicated service to us. He had a deep commitment to everyone who was conducted by him.”

It was in the field of church music that Ralph combined his musicianship, his deep faith, his love of teaching, his desire to be of service, his sense of community, and his regard for ritual and ceremony.

It was at St Stephen’s Cathedral where Ralph’s faith and gifts nurtured so many lives in his choirs, the clergy and the congregation through rehearsing and conducting three choirs each week, leading the assembly in at least two Eucharistic liturgies each weekend, preparing and conducting music for ordinations, playing for weddings, founding the successful St Stephen’s Concert series involving international and national vocal and orchestral soloists and ensembles, and collaborating with his brother, Graeme, on large scale choir concerts.

Ralph’s years working with former dean Fr Ken Howell created a tradition of uplifting choral and congregational music faithful to the principles of liturgical music to encourage participation by the congregation.

While Ralph’s great passion was music, his greatest love was his wife Cheryl. The pair met in the US while Ralph was organist at La Mirada Presbyterian Church and Cheryl a member of the choir.

Courtship and marriage followed, and Cheryl gave up her career in the US and moved to Australia to allow Ralph to pursue his vocation.

During Ralph’s tenure as conductor of the ACU choir, Cheryl once quipped that she joined so she “could just spend three hours with my husband”.

Cheryl was often seen turning pages at the cathedral or concerts as Ralph played the organ. This was a true partnership in every sense, and she was by Ralph’s side through every moment of his illness.

In his final moments, Ralph was surrounded by Cheryl, his brothers Graeme and Paul, his family and close friends as his favourite anthem Like as the Hart by Herbert Howells played in the background.

Ralph was farewelled from St John’s Cathedral on 2 March, following a Thanksgiving Mass at St Stephen’s Cathedral on 28 February and a Memorial Mass, officiated by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, on 4 March.

All three liturgies featured an ecumenical choir of present and past choristers.