Trained in both music and law, Peter Hurford has enjoyed an enviable reputation for both his organ playing and his musical scholarship. The latter has produced not only revised ideas about performance of early music, but also different notions about the construction of the instruments upon which such music ought to be played. His extensive recordings for the Decca label (earlier, London Records in the United States) have passed into the realm of the legendary and his live performances have attracted positive reviews, as well as stimulating numerous discussions regarding performance practice and the art of organ building.
After initial studies with Harold Darke, the famous and much-respected English organist and composer, Hurford read both music and law at Jesus College, Cambridge University, graduating with dual degrees. Through study in Paris with the blind French organist André Marchal, Hurford explored the music of the Baroque period, with a particular emphasis on J.S. Bach and the French masters, and he acquired something of his teacher's brilliance as an improviser. His own singular notions of authentic performing style also took form at that time and were soon regularly implemented before the public once he had received an appointment as music master at St. Albans Abbey in 1958. There, he experimented, rebuilt the organ to comply with his convictions, and soon began to attract the attention of other English organists unsatisfied with the traditional and often heavy-handed Baroque style customarily heard in English churches. By 1963, Hurford's stature made possible the immediate success of the International Organ Festival he devised for St. Albans. There, organists and organ scholars were able to gather to hear and discuss performances and share scholarly findings regarding performance style, registration, repertory, and audience building. Winners of competitions at the St. Albans Festival have included such international virtuosos as Gillian Weir and Thomas Trotter. Many a competitor counted himself fortunate to have received an autographed copy of Hurford's recordings of Bach's complete organ works. After decades at St. Albans, Hurford resigned to fulfill the demand for solo performances. By that time, his recordings had made his name a familiar one even to those who had not heard him in live performance. In addition to his concert appearances, Hurford began to devote time to teaching and made himself a welcome visiting scholar in numerous venues, especially in England and the United States. After having worked out his ideas during several decades of lecturing and performance, Hurford assembled them in written form in his book Making Music on the Organ, published in 1988. The simple, direct title conceals a wealth of carefully considered issues and effective solutions to them. Hurford also achieved some renown as a composer of organ works and choral pieces. Mostly dating from his St. Albans years, some of them are flowingly lyrical while others are joyously animated. All reflect Hurford's skill and inclinations as an improviser. Hurford's largest recording project was putting on disc the complete organ works of Bach, a project that began in the 1970s. The full set is still available (now in remastered sound) along side a smaller, two-disc set of highlights. Another double-disc set of organ masses by Couperin is also a seminal issue. Hurford's often-brisk tempi and variety of registration decidedly changed organ performance; both sets demonstrate why.