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Bairstow learned the organ at Balliol College, Oxford, and while articled under Frederick Bridge of Westminster Abbey he was taught by Walter Alcock. He studied organ and theory at the University of Durham. His first jobs were at the parish churches of Wigan and then Leeds. In 1913 he became organist of York Minster (the cathedral in York). He kept this job until his death. He was knighted in 1932.
Most of Bairstow's compositions are for church services. He wrote 29 anthems. It includes the famous Blessed city, heavenly Salem It has a very dramatic organ accompaniment. It is about the heavenly city where the souls of people who have died will go. Two other popular anthems I sat down under his shadow and Let all mortal flesh keep silence, both of which are for unaccompanied choir. He also composed service settings, psalm chants, hymn tunes, and a cantata, The Prodigal Son, for choir and chamber orchestra.