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Obituary: Peter Hurford

29 March 2019

Kenneth Shenton writes:

THE organist, Peter Hurford, who died on 3 March, aged 88, was a dynamic and diverse musician whose influence permeated all aspects of the subject. Soloist, arranger, teacher, writer, designer, conductor, composer, lecturer, and undoubted enthusiast in seeking to restore the organ to the mainstream of contemporary music-making, the remarkable breadth of his industry brought not only greater recognition for the instrument itself, but also proved pivotal in inspiring countless generations of aspiring performers.

Born in Minehead on St Cecilia’s Day 1930, Peter John Hurford was educated at Blundell’s School, before studying at the Royal College of Music with Harold Darke. He won an organ scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read music and law. In 1950, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, and, having come second in a competition at Geneva, he then spent some time in Paris. Here, he refined his technique with the organist of Saint-Eustache, André Marchal. From 1954 until 1956, he undertook his National Service in the Royal Signals Regiment.

While in uniform, in 1955, he married a schoolteacher, Patricia Matthews. A few months later, in April 1956, he added further lustre to his burgeoning reputation when he made the first of what would be many appearances at the Royal Festival Hall. By then, he had been appointed Organist of Holy Trinity, Leamington Spa, and he also taught at Bablake School, Coventry, and conducted both the Warwickshire Orchestral Society and the Leamington Bach Choir. In January 1958, aged only 28, he succeeded Peter Burton as Organist of St Albans Abbey.

Hurford’s arrival proved propitious, coming as it did with an opportunity to replace the cathedral’s increasingly dilapidated Hill instrument in collaboration with the builder, Cuthbert Harrison, and consultant, Ralph Downes, in. Its internal disposition realigned, with a new Choir case, it now embodied the French concepts of colour, so vital to Hurford’s musical outlook. A splendid grand jeu ensemble of foundation stops, cornets, and reeds was balanced by a plein jeu of bright principals and mixtures. Primary and secondary principal choruses were also ideal for Bach and his contemporaries. It was completed in 1962.

The next year Hurford founded the St Albans International Organ Festival. Initially intended to be an annual event, from 1965 onwards it became biennial. Doing much through its concerts and competitions to promote understanding of the instrument, it also helped to launch the careers of many young performers. Hurford himself bade farewell to the cathedral in 1978 and, after a brief spell standing in for George Guest at St John’s College, Cambridge, he devoted himself full time to a busy worldwide career as a concert and recording artist.

The first fruits of this new career proved to be the most international recordings yet made of the complete organ works of J. S. Bach. Breaking away from previous traditions and making each of the 40 records a balanced recital, he used hand-picked modern tracker organs in widely separated locations, each built by indigenous talents. Throughout, Hurford places an emphasis on lively tempi, clear articulation, and a restrained use of ornamentation. In a rare accolade for an organist, Volume Three of the Argo series won the Gramophone Award for the best instrumental recording of 1979.

Subsequently one of Decca’s relatively few house artists, amid numerous radio and television appearances and extensive overseas tours, Hurford was rarely out of the recording studio. For a time, he enjoyed a productive artistic partnership with the guitarist, John Williams. As visiting Artist-in-Residence at Sydney Opera House during the 1970s, he acted as consultant for its new large-scale tracker organ. He completed his definitive book, Making Music on the Organ, in 1988, and two years later, in honour of his 60th birthday, the BBC made a series, fittingly entitled The Singing Organist.

Although never a prolific composer, Hurford’s music for organ includes the six-movement suite Laudate Dominum, dedicated to Ralph Downes, the taxing Passingala, Two Dialogues, and a delightful set of Five Chorale Preludes, each cleverly and precisely imagined, their structures handled with fluency and care. Treating the hymn tune Nicaea with stylish humour was a Toccatina, written for the Organ Club’s Golden Jubilee Celebrations of 1976. Of his choral output, particularly memorable remains that most skilful setting of Robert Herrick’s verses “Litany to the Holy Spirit”.

In demand as a judge at international competitions, while teaching at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Hurford also held Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Cincinnati and Western Ontario. A longstanding member of the Council of the Royal College of Organists, he served as its President in 1980. He was appointed OBE in 1984, but, sadly, in recent years he had not been in the best of health. Nevertheless, he leaves not only an unmatched body of classic recordings, but also an approach to his art and craft which will long continue to influence all who came into contact with him.

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