Remembering Jacob

5th May 2011 | Concerts, Daily Life, Inspirations | 8 comments

Jacob at his 21st birthdayA few weeks ago I attended an astonishing concert given by the pianist Jacob Barnes and three of his friends from the Royal Academy of Music. Jacob had been suffering from a rare kind of leukaemia for two years. His presence on the platform was a source of wonder and trepidation to everyone who had been following the course of his illness. Yet he was determined to play the concert, and we were all so glad he did, because it was a memorable occasion. The memory is even more poignant now that Jacob has died at the age of 21.

I had always known he was a talented pianist (when he was 18, he was offered scholarships to all the prestigious UK music colleges) but I think it was only at that concert that I understood the true depth of his musicianship. Although he was no longer strong enough to play all the notes, it was inspiring to witness his utter determination to make clear the musical shape and emotion, to extract every grain of meaning from the twists and turns of the harmony, and to relish communication with his three lovely colleagues. As one of the musicians in the audience said afterwards, ‘It was such wise playing’.

Music was meat and drink to Jacob, and he was just the kind of person that the music world needs. He had an inexhaustible appetite for playing his beloved chamber music, and on music courses he would gather people up to play during lunch breaks and late into the evening. He was also one of those rare musicians interested in the whole range of music. Not long before he died, we met for lunch and he told me he was off to the dress rehearsal of a new opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, ‘just out of interest’. He continued to go in to the Royal Academy to take part in lessons, classes, concerts, and competitions (which he won) – even when it seemed medically inadvisable. But Jacob insisted that music was literally keeping him going, and his doctors seemed to agree. He spoke eloquently about the strength he drew from music-making with his friends, and from the support of his devoted family. Though there must have been many dark moments, I never heard him speak bitterly about what was happening to him, even though it must have seemed monumentally unfair. Somehow he continued to be friendly, caring and courteous. He was a truly inspiring example of courage under fire.


  1. Rebecca Totterdell

    I only met Jacob once. He was accompanying for a bizarre DVD recording when he was still at school, and sight-read my Saint-Saens accompaniment with ease and confidence. I was amazed at how comfortable it felt playing with him when he was just 16 I think. But mostly I remember that the pay he had been offered for this several day long accompanying gig was a pair of trousers! We thought this was quite hysterical. He seemed a gentle soul. I don’t know if he ever received those trousers.

  2. Sharon Cooper

    How beautifully you put this. Such a great loss, he is an inspiration. <3

  3. SGN Bagnall

    I agree with Sharon that you posted that sad news with admirable sensistivity. I did not know of Jacob but it is always upsetting to hear of talented people dying so young. As someone said to me only yesterday: the only important day is today.

  4. Anna

    Very moving. I have heard of Jacob, but never had the pleasure or priviledge to hear him play. Thank you for giving me some small idea of what that must have been like.

  5. jonathan barnes

    Thank you so much for a sensitive and honest tribute to our dear son Jacob, it means a lot to us and we know that he was deeply honoured by your interest in his music making. We hope that the Jacob Barnes Award we will shortly institute at the Royal academy will not only perpetuate his name but encourage creative, imaginitive and wise music making for many years to come

    Jonathan and Cherry Barnes (Jacob’s parents)

  6. Rebecca Sloane

    Thanks for your comments about Jacob. I was also at the concert you mentioned and will never forget it. I first knew Jacob when he was about 16 and he played with my daughter Hannah and others at Music Works chamber concerts. Later Hannah and Jacob played together in a group at the junior Royal Academy and I remember having a long chat to him when driving them down to play in Chichester. i was struck by his modesty and good humoured nature, his love for life and his passion for all kinds of music. In March he was here at our house playing with Hannah and another friend Bea. They played the Rachmaninoff trio and it was so very moving. He will be missed by everyone. Its seems too hard and sad to believe that he is gone.

  7. Ben Barnes

    Thank you for your lovely words about my brother. These words mean such a lot my family and me. We are so proud of everything that Jacob achieved through music and our own special relationships with him. I was at this concert and I knew he was very happy that you were there watching as he admired you greatly. the memories of these concerts will live with us always and we cherish the recordings we have of him playing, I feel like I am with him again when I listen to them as he communicated so delicately and passionately through each note he played.


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