CD 136: G.D.Cunningham - Organ Recorded 1926-1937 Columbia
& HMV recordings
This CD pays tribute to the great G.D.Cunningham (1878-1948), considered by many as the finest British organist of his generation. Born in north London he became organist of Alexandra Palace when he was 21 years old. He delighted and educated his audiences for over 50 years and was a frequent broadcaster on the BBC. In his time he introduced much new repertoire to Britain.His recordings have become well know for their flair and power. From 1924 until his death he was organist of Birmingham Town Hall. Cunningham was Professor of Organ at the Royal Academy in London and taught many of the outstanding generation of British organists that followed him, names such as Geraint Jones, E. Power-Biggs and Arnold Richardson.
Bach: Toccata & Fugue in C BWV. 564. Fantasia & Fugue in G minor. BWV. 542.
Chorale Prelude: Nun freut euch BWV. 734. Toccata & Fugue in D minor BWV. 565.
Mozart: Fantasia in F minor. Wesley: Air & Gavotte. Mendelssohn: Finale from 1st Sonata.
Liszt: Fantasia & Fugue on B.A.C.H. Introduction & Fugue "Ad Nos".
Reubke: Introduction & Final from Sonata on the 94 Psalm. Gigout: Scherzo. MacDowell: AD 1620.
Geraint Jones remembers his teacher, G.D.Cunningham
I had the good fortune to have G.D.Cunningham as my organ professor at the R.A.M. in the years leading up to the Second World War. He used to come down from Birmingham for a whole day each week, usually a Thursday, and his lesson was the event of the week - the anticipation sharpened by the recital relayed by the B.B.C. from Birmingham Town Hall at 1.15pm on most Wednesdays, which for me was essential listening long before I became his pupil.
Orchestral concerts were much less frequent events in those days, particularly in the provinces, and Cunningham's programmes often included transcriptions of orchestra movements. But there was invariably Bach, and in the course of the year most of the main items of nineteenth and twentieth century repertoire would find a place.
At lessons he was meticulous with regard to both technical and musical matters; at one moment suggesting alternative fingerings or pedallings for awkward passages (always inserted personally by him in your score); at another usurping your place on the organ bench to illustrate some musical nuance which had escaped you, occasionally even having recourse to a piano, on which he would play extracts from the "48", a Beethoven sonata, or whatever else seemed to him likely to bring home some musical point he wished to make. His memory was remarkable, and the way in which he would produce illustrations from the piano or orchestral repertoire or compare the manner in which performers on instruments other than the organ would treat a passage similar to the one you were currently trying to play was of enormous benefit to a student's musical development. I remember Cunningham telling me during my first lesson on Mozarts'' K. 594 that he always aimed to emulate Sir Thomas Beecham in this music, then, of course, demonstrating what he meant. His conversation, revealing a wide cultural background was equally calculated to stimulate the imagination. He had a penetrating, quizzical gaze which made one instantly aware of a keen sense of humour. This constantly illuminated the lectures he gave under the auspices of London University in the thirties on the organ repertoire. These were full of asides such as his comment on Reger's reputation in Germany as J.S.Bach's successor - "in Germany the mantle of Bach has fallen on Reger covering him with a strange superfluity of raiment".
Cunningham was held in great affection by his students, and this was undoubtedly true also of his audiences. More than any organist of his time he had the gift of communication with his listeners. This, and not "authenticity" is what performing is all about. My own style has changed very much since the days when I had the privilege of being his pupil, but no praise from public or press has ever given me as much satisfaction as being told in my young days in the profession that my playing reminded people of my teacher. Now, more than sixty years on, with a much wider experience of performers than when I first heard him play, I still regard him as the finest organist of my lifetime, and one of the most remarkable musicians I have ever encountered.
© Geraint Jones 1997.
George Dorrington Cunningham (1878-1948) by Felix Aprahamian
In the first half of this century, G.D.Cunningham could be counted among the world's finest organists. Happily, some of his playing was preserved on 78s made in the early years of organ recording. The present CD provides representative examples of his work at that time. Even those surviving towards the end of the century who remember him as a teacher or friend may need to be reminded of his background, but will already recognise him from what the Archdeacon of Aston wrote in the Birmingham Post when Cunningham received the degree of D. Mus. Birmingham University in 1944. "It is impossible in a few words to do justice to so noble a character. Humility was perhaps his greatest virtue...He was a man of deep religious conviction from which there sprang a profound sense of awe which coloured his whole life."
London-born on October 2, 1878, Cunningham came of musical parents. Early piano lesson from his mother were followed by some at the Guildhall School of Music. Soon the organ proved a stronger attraction. On leaving school, he had been having lessons from Josiah Booth on the 'Father' Willis instrument at Park Chapel, a Congregational Church at Crouch End in North London. Booth, a pillar of non-conformist church music, contributor of some fifty items in the Congregational Hymnary, possibly remembered today as the author of the marching hymn-tunes: Holy War ("Christian! dost thou see them, on the holy ground") and Valour (for Bunyan's "Who would true valour see"), was proud of the progress of the young Cunningham who went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, becoming an FRCO at eighteen and organist of the Alexandra Palace at the age of twenty-two.
The turn of the century had marked Cunningham's steady progress, both as musician and caring human being. His eminence as a recitalist was established at the Alexandra Palace before the 1914-1918 war. Its outbreak ended organ recitals there. The German nationals interned in the Palace were eventually replaced by British soldiers about to be demobbed. Not until the restoration of the organ in 1930 were Cunningham and others heard there as guest recitalists.
Church appointments followed Cunningham from1895: West Hampstead Congregational Church (to 1901), then St. Jame's Muswell Hill (where one of his choristers, George Thalben-Ball, also became his pupil). Church music became a prior concern for five years from 1919, when Cunningham became organist of St. Alban's Holborn until 1924 when he was appointed Birmingham City and University Organist. He was active at the Town Hall almost till the time of his death.He was appointed conductor of the Birmingham City Choir, which under his direction performed some of the largest choral and orchestral works, In 1941, his six hundredth recital there was celebrated by a presentation made to him by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, while in 1944 Birmingham University made him a Doctor of Music.
The civic and academic awards that rewarded Cunningham's career were paralleled by his ever-growing distinction as a teacher, to which some of the finest young English players of the following generation bore witness, but also by his personal commitment to original organ music. If, as a Town Hall organist, he inherited a popular tradition that permitted transcriptions, few more conscientiously explored the true organ repertoire and were more supportive of the ideals of The Organ Music Society. Cunningham played in its very first series. At the fourth recital (18 June 1931), he played Healey Willan, Bach Maleingreau, Reger and Vaughan Williams. He opened the fifth series (30 October 1932) with Bach, Sweelinck, Franck, Saint- Saëns, Smyth, Parry and Vierne.
A series of Musical Opinion articles on "Some British Organist" by the Birmingham based writer on music, Sydney Grew (1878-1946) began in July 1935 with a biographical and notably perceptive critical assessment of Cunningham and commented on his playing;
".......the process appears to be that of mastering the form and of, as it were, photographing this upon the mind, so that the music is seen as by a recollective vision. A very fine intellectual observation of a piece is required by this method of committing music to memory".
......."It is by unremitting practice, aided by continual thought of the art of music, and by an unflagging enthusiasm, that Mr. Cunningham won his position in the world of the organ, and continues to advance.......he raises his fingers high even in legato playing. At the end of a phrase he throws his hand away from the keyboard. If at such a close one note is sustained, then he tilts his hand sideways. He exercises a very firm touch, on notes and on pistons alike, and he seems positively to grasp the balanced swell pedals with his foot: evidence of a great nervous energy of mind and body. He uses the swell pedal very freely,-and with such art that he often seems to mould a melody as a violinist.......he uses the tremulant occasionally, but very judiciously; often for no more than a short episodic section in a piece. His sense of climactic values in certain harmonic progressions (as in the Mozart Fantasia in F minor) is such that the organ seems to acquire what is impossible for it,-namely accent, He changes stops frequently, but with no disturbance of the fine rhythmical movement he has established for the piece."
In the 1930s Birmingham's Town Hall organist appeared at the Alexandra Palace as an honoured guest on the restored instrument. In 1939 he was to have played the final recital in the last series given there, curtailed, alas, by Hitler's war. George Dorrington Cunningham died in Birmingham on August 4, 1948.
© Felix Aprahamian 1997.