Bernarr Rainbow (1914-1998) and Rainbow Dickinson Trust

Bernarr Rainbow was a unique figure in the history of music education in the second half of the twentieth century. He was a charismatic personality, admired by his colleagues and students, and an inspiring lecturer. In 2010 Professor John Paynter said: ‘He was, by any measure, a great man: a pioneer, single-minded in the tasks he set himself’. Rainbow was passionate about the history of English church music; about all aspects of music education through several centuries and the people who made it happen; and his books and articles embodied these enthusiasms so that music teachers and policy makers could benefit. No other figure in music education has received such lavish documentary treatment covering a remarkable legacy.

It was from the later 1960s that Rainbow began to be recognised as a leading authority. His 400-page book, Music in Educational Thought and Practice has been widely recognised and used as a standard text in music education courses in many parts of the world. His collection of primers on music teaching from originals in various languages from over 400 years – the Classic Texts in Music Education - is a major landmark and reached completion when seven further facsimile reprints were added to mark Rainbow’s centenary in 2014.

Bernarr Joseph George Rainbow was born in Battersea, London, on 2 October 1914 and died at Esher on 17 March 1998. His grandfather was a member of the Royal Household at Sandringham; his father was a cabinet-maker at Buckingham Palace; and finally Curator of Pictures at Hampton Court, where the family moved in 1931. Bernarr went to Rutlish School, Merton, and held various posts as a church organist whilst still a schoolboy. He then attended Trinity College of Music part-time whilst working in the Map Branch of H. M. Land Registry, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. 

As for so many, the Second World War interrupted his studies and he spent four years in the army serving in North Africa and Italy. Soon after his return he became Organist and Choirmaster of All Saints Parish Church, High Wycombe, and then the first Music Master to be appointed at the Royal Grammar School. He started the influential High Wycombe Festival in 1946 and as conductor, performer and entrepreneur, affected the musical life of the entire region. His Festival was admired by Benjamin Britten, who started his own at Aldeburgh two years later. Hubert Foss declared: ‘If 1,000 other towns would follow the example of High Wycombe, then English music would be vitally alive again as it was in the days of Queen Elizabeth I’. 

Rainbow’s appointment in 1952 as Director of Music at the College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea, the Church of England teacher training establishment, brought him new opportunities and it was here that he began his research. In addition to the music diplomas he had taken over many years, he gained three post-graduate degrees from the University of Leicester – the M. Ed (1964); Ph. D (1968); and that university’s first D. Litt (1992). From 1973-79 he was Head of the School of Music, Kingston Polytechnic (now University), and  he was made an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College of Music in 1995. 

Rainbow’s writings were both practical and scholarly, as a list of titles shows. He began with Music in the Classroom (1956, 2nd edition 1971) and A Handbook for Music Teachers (1964; 2nd edition 1968). All Rainbow’s subsequent books are now available from Boydell and Brewer and have been published or republished under the auspices of the Rainbow Dickinson Trust - The Land without Music: Musical Education in England 1800-1860 (1967; reprinted 1991); The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church 1839-72 (1970; reprinted 2001); Music in Educational Thought and Practice (1989; 2nd edition with further chapters by Gordon Cox and a Foreword from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, 2006/paperback 2007); Four Centuries of Music Teaching Manuals 1518-1932 (2009; Bernarr Rainbow on Music: Memoirs and Selected Writings (2010); and Music and the English Public School (ed. 1991, new enlarged edition as Music in Independent Schools edited by Andrew Morris (2014). The Trust supported a series of lectures, now complete and published as Music Education in Crisis: the Bernarr Rainbow Lectures and other Assessments (2013).

Rainbow married Olive Still in 1941; they had no children; and soon after she died in 1996 he set up the Bernarr Rainbow Trust (now the Rainbow Dickinson Trust) with Peter Dickinson . All Rainbow’s assets went into the Trust, which now represents in contemporary terms some of his interests. He was a traditionalist and claimed: ‘experimental music in schools should augment, not replace, the development of basic skills – skills that are neither too difficult nor too boring for children to acquire if tackled early enough’. All the same he valued new approaches which were reflected in appointments to his Department at the College of St Mark and St John. The Trust has a continuous record for supporting musical projects involving training for young people, performance and research, spending over £300,000 since it was established. It has supported the publication or republication of writings by Rainbow, often brought up to date by specially commissioned further material, and has completed his series of thirty-five Classic Texts in Music Education.

The Bernarr Rainbow Archive is at the Library of the UCL Institute of Education,University College, London; his family papers are at Hampton Court; and his collection of Christian and Jewish Hymnals and other Liturgical Music (688 items) is at the Foyle Special Collections Library, King’s College, London. 

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson