Magazine article Musical Times

In Memoriam: Peter Williams

Magazine article Musical Times

In Memoriam: Peter Williams

Article excerpt

born 14 May 193J, Wolverhamptondied 20 March 2016, Cheltenham

Observing the musical legacy of Peter Williams, one is struck by the sheer volume of his writings, the quality and quantity of his musical performances and his influences as an educator. He was unique, combining skills as an organ historian, internationally renowned Bach scholar, brilliant harpsichordist and organist, distinguished organologist and curator of historical instrument collections, indefatigable editor of both Handel's and Bach's music, editor of journals and book series, and an inspirational educator in performance practice studies. In later years he was also a probing philosopher in music and musical aesthetics, an acute and perceptive reviewer of new books and music volumes, and a fearless and merciless critic of the latest trends in musical scholarship. But three subjects occupied him throughout his career - the organ, JS Bach and performance practice.

His most formative influences were studies with Thurston Dart at St John's College, Cambridge (1955-62), where Peter obtained his BA, MusB and PhD degrees, and with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam. His approach to research was instinctively informed by his empathy with the instruments which he played, which led to the study of English Georgian organ music and organs as the subject of his doctoral dissertation. In 1962, at the remarkably young age of only 25, he was appointed lecturer in music at the University of Edinburgh, later becoming Professor, Head of Department and Dean while still in his forties. His specialist knowledge of period instruments, as both performer and scholar, made him in 1968 the ideal person to be appointed Director of the university's Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments. From 1985-97 he was Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor at Duke University, North Carolina, USA, a period during which he led an extremely active life lecturing, as university organist, and giving public concerts and teaching at summer schools. From 1996 until 2002 he was John Bird Professor at Cardiff University, supervising PhD students and performing memorable concerts including Bach's Goldberg variations. From 1996 to 2006 he served as Chairman of the British Institute of Organ Studies, subsequently becoming President, and he was Patron of the Cambridge Academy of Organ Studies from its inception in 2004.

It was first-hand experience of performing on historical harpsichords and organs, particularly the organs of Gottfried Silbermann, which inspired his writings. His first major publication, The European organ, 1450- i85o (1966), described the major European organ-building traditions that were little understood in England at the time. Performing as harpsichordist in concerts at St Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh, led him to write Figured bass accompaniment (1970), and the installation of the Ahrend organ in the Reid Concert Hall was a catalyst for the magnum opus that defined his international reputation in Bach scholarship: the three-volume The organ music of J S. Bach, first published by Cambridge University Press in 1980, and re-thought and revised in 2003. His mission to elevate organology and performance practice to new critical levels is enshrined in The Organ Yearbook, the annual journal which he edited from its inception in 1970. Further books followed: A new history of the organ (1980); Bach: the Goldberg variations (2001); The organ in western culture j5o-125o (1993); The chromatic fourth through four centuries of music (1997);J.S. Bach: a life in music (2007); The king of Instruments (2012). His editions of Handel's and Bach's keyboard music are full of information concerning sources and performance practice considerations, which inspire enthusiastic engagement and have led to a generation of more enlightened and authoritative performances.

Peter's writings on Bach, organological and performance practice issues were all founded on historical sources, and characterised by intellectual precision and literary conciseness. …

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