Peter O’Brien – Forgotten Man of Exeter Music

This year as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Exeter Festival Chorus (EFC), not to overlook the 50th anniversary of the Exeter Music Group (EMG) orchestra last year, it is worth remembering the founder of both, Peter O’Brien (1936-1998), the rather forgotten man of classical music in university and city. Peter showed musical talent at an early age and gave his first organ recital when he was eleven, an d a piano recital at the Wigmore Hall when he was fourteen. While at school in Aston he became an Associate of the Royal College of Organists (ARCO). He won an organ scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. On completing his degree in music, he taught at the Skinners’ School, Tunbridge Wells, moving to Brighton College in 1963. In 1964 Peter moved to Exeter to a lectureship in St Luke’s College, where he set up the B.Ed. degree course in music. Characteristically he galvanised the student body, and musical activities flourished – choral society, chapel choir, orchestra – with performances in Exeter Cathedral. Peter was undoubtedly a very good and enthusiastic teacher, and generations of students were inspired by him. When the College merged with the University in 1978, only Peter of the music staff survived, later to be joined by new staff. He remained Chairman of Music in Education till his retirement in 1990. He was Honorary Director of Music at the University, very much its public face, conducting the Choral Society and University Orchestra for nearly 20 years, finally retiring in 1996. He guided hundreds of students and senior members of the University through major choral and orchestral works, including memorable performances of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Britten’s War Requiem in successive years in the mid-1980s. Performers would give their all for him, and he achieved remarkable results, treasuring certain, what he called “magic moments.”

Outside the world of Academia Peter was equally active. As a fine pianist who could sight-read anything you put in front of him, he was in much demand as an accompanist. He gave a recital of Schubert Lieder with local soprano Janet Howd in 1973, subsequently recording it on an LP, and accompanied leading soloists such as Emma Kirkby at the Dartington International Summer School, whose choir he also conducted. He was Director of Music for the Minehead Festival from 1972 to 1982. He co-founded South West Opera and started the Exeter Music Group in 1967. It is still going strong and is widely considered the best amateur orchestra in the region, well-known for recent performances of daunting large-scale choral and orchestral works, such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” and Britten’s War Requiem. In 1993, Paul Patterson, the distinguished composer and Manson Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, then Director of the Exeter Festival, an Exonian who had attended Vincent Thompson High School and been a protégé of Peter’s, invited Peter to form a choir to accompany the Opera Gala on the last night, featuring Lesley Garrett and Robert Tear. In tackling this Peter typically insisted on and maintained very high standards. The Chorus really took off, putting on three to four concerts a year, including memorable performances at the Festival, including the first performance in England of Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe, an Opera Gala with the BBC Concert Orchestra broadcast on Radio 2, Paul Patterson’s Mass of the Sea with the BSO, and Haydn’s Nelson Mass with Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia. It survived being dropped by the Festival and Peter’s tragic early death from cancer, and under the inspired leadership of Nigel Perrin, original high voice of the King’s Singers, has gone from strength to strength. But it was Peter who founded it, who stamped his character on it, and whose high standards helped establish it as one of the outstanding choirs of the South West, with an impressive and wide-ranging repertoire and many first performances of challenging works.

Finally, one should mention Peter’s talent as a composer of choral pieces, particularly carols, written for the St Luke’s Choir for performance in the annual Cathedral Advent Service, and sung from the Minstrels’ Gallery (alas no longer used). They include: Green Grow’th the Holly, Nova, Nova, and Out of your Sleep, the last recorded by EFC under Nigel Perrin on their 2006 CD, ‘A Time of Snow’. Overall Peter made a lasting contribution to choral and orchestral music in Exeter and beyond, inspiring amateur performers to unexpected and unforgettable heights, and providing superb accompaniment to great professionals. He was especially proud of his connection with Sir David Willcocks, which went back to his Cambridge days, and led to Sir David conducting EFC and agreeing to become its Honorary President. Appropriately Sir David conducted Peter’s Memorial Concert in Exeter Cathedral in February 1999, featuring Beethoven’s monumental Missa Solemnis. We all owe Peter a great debt of gratitude.

Alastair Logan

EFC Member (1993-) and Chair (2000-10) (with grateful acknowledgements to Philippe Oboussier, who supplied the bulk of this article, and to Peter’s son, Alasdair).