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Herrick Bunney

Herrick Bunney, musician and organist; born May 12, 1915, died December 17, 1997

BORN and educated in London, with All Souls, Langham Place, as his first major appointment, Herrick Bunney could have seemed destined to become organist and choir master at one of England's greatest cathedrals. It was Scotland's good luck that in 1946, after war service in the Royal Signals, he settled in Edinburgh and devoted the rest of his long and creative career to music in the Festival City. What lured him northwards was St Giles', where he held the important posts of Organist and Master of Music, with responsibility for all the cathedral's numerous services, until his retirement in 1996 at the age of 81. By then, thanks to the installation of a glorious new Austrian-built organ, he had managed to fulfil what had long been one of his greatest ambitions. The instrument, with its brilliantly clear and precise sonorities as well as its great visual beauty, proved itself to be a major addition to Scotland's musical resources, immediately increasing the cathedral's international musical importance. It was good that he himself had ample opportunity to play it, and to share it with other distinguished organists, before his retirement. Yet that instrument's predecessor, too, had served him well, enabling him to present four complete cycles of Bach's organ works at the Edinburgh Festival (two of them as part of the official programme) and helping him to establish St Giles' as a major centre of musical activity not only during the Festival but throughout the year. From 1962 until 1986 he organised the St Giles' at Six recitals in an unbroken series for 50 Sundays each year; thereafter they ran from Easter till October. Side by side with his work at the cathedral, he was organist to Edinburgh University from 1946 until 1982 and conductor of Edinburgh University Singers for most of the same period, appearing with them at the Edinburgh Festival and at the Wigmore Hall in London. For 35 years he organised the weekly organ recitals at the McEwan Hall and, with Peter Williams, was closely involved with the installation of the fine new classical organ acquired by the university for the Reid Concert Hall. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Edinburgh University in 1990. The Rev Gilleasbuig Macmillan, minister at St Giles' Cathedral, said: ''For almost half of his splendid half century as organist at St Giles', Herrick Bunney worked with me as minister, and few privileges compared with that of collaborating with this master craftsman, who not only knew how to do church music superlatively, but also understood profoundly the purpose of music in worship. We think of him as a unique friend of so many, whose readiness to regard young people as equals enabled them to bridge the gap of generations and revel in his delightful company.'' Always an upholder of the superiority of good new instruments over those that had been built during bad periods of organ design, he argued strongly against Edinburgh District Council's sentimental desire to renovate the Usher Hall's monstrous Edwardian organ, claiming that the money would be better spent on an organ worthy of the hall and more appropriate to the needs of music today. As a conductor, Bunney's tastes were wide and by no means confined to church music. He established Debussy and Ravel alongside Bach in the repertoire of the Edinburgh University Singers, and at the Festival he conducted the premiere of Kenneth Leighton's fine Mass for Double Choir. As chorusmaster of Edinburgh Royal Choral Union between 1947 and 1966, he worked frequently with the SNO and prepared the choir for its Edinburgh Festival appearances under such conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Otto Klemperer, and Bruno Walter until the Festival formed its own large-scale chorus. Although for nine years (1967-76) he was conductor of the Elizabethan Singers in London, and during the same period was professor of organ at the Royal College of Music - he was elected a Fellow of the college last year - he chose to merge these duties with his work in Edinburgh rather than uproot himself from the environment to which he had so productively settled. For 21 years he was chairman of the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, which he founded in 1964. His work with the Choral Union involved a big-scale Messiah each New Year at the Usher Hall, but his more intimate Easter performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion with his own small group of St Giles's Singers seemed to lie closer to his heart. As the years passed, these gained powerfully in intensity and authority until they became one of the high-points of Edinburgh's musical year - searing, unmissable events, in which eloquent soloists (perhaps Peter Pears as the Evangelist, Joan Dickson as cellist, Kenneth Leighton on harpsichord) were regularly featured. It is for his final greatly moving St Matthew - and for a single memorable St John, a work towards which he admitted himself to feel less strongly drawn - that I shall especially remember Herrick, though he was always capable of springing surprises in music outside his usual fields of operation: a lovely, silvery account of the harpsichord part in Bach's fifth Brandenburg Concerto, a contribution to John Cage's multiple keyboard work HPSCHD performed in the round at the McEwan Hall, and, towards the end of his career, a piano recital at the Reid culminating in Schubert's big B flat major sonata - not note-perfect, but played with the same total love, the same understanding of pace and colour, that stamped his conducting of Bach.

Conrad Wilson

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