Prof. Peter Williams HonFRCO (1937–2016)
It is with great sadness that we have to report that Prof. Peter Williams HonFRCO, a Vice President of the College, has passed away after a short illness.
Prof. Williams was of course a leading, international authority on the life and music of J. S. Bach. His third life of Bach, Bach: A Musical Biography, an expansion of his 2007 publication for Cambridge University Press, will be published shortly by the same publishing house.
Writing in The Musical Times recently, he remarked that there will be no end to attempts to fathom out the life and achievements of Bach; Williams’s new work will be keenly awaited for its questioning of the evidence, for alert insights, and for its avoidance of groundless speculation about this most probed composer.
Peter Williams was acclaimed as a scholar of the organ works of Bach and his commentaries (two volumes in 1980 and a second, combined edition in 2003) are undoubtedly on the shelves of every organist. A volume on the background to the organ music also appeared in 1984.
There were many other areas which Prof. Williams studied, not least the history of the organ.
He was responsible for major studies of the organ’s evolution: The European Organ (1966) and A New History of the Organ (1980), this latter work closely linked to the material which appears in the entry on the organ in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980 and 2001 editions).
Williams’s indefatigable researches on the origins of the instrument were brought into focus in a ground-breaking interdisciplinary study The Organ in Western Culture 750–1250 (1993). The topic continued to occupy him so this was but a report of work-in-progress. Writing on the topic in the RCO Journal in 2011 he concluded that ‘the organ is one of the most universal, persistent and formative things originating in western Christendom … [its] keyboard and all the music that originates in its twelve-note scale still affect the lives of more people worldwide than any other single thing from the first Christian millennium I can think of’.
Prof. Williams held appointments at the University of Edinburgh, where he was also the Director of the Russell Collection, and at Duke University, North Carolina. He was chairman of the British Institute of Organ Studies for a number of years and later its Honorary President.
Prof. Williams had been a supporter of the RCO for many years and was awarded honorary Fellowship in July 1982, most appropriately presented to him by the then President, Dr Peter Hurford, a leading exponent in the field of Bach performance. Peter Williams was made a Vice President of the College in 2005.
A gifted scholar and a person of great wit and intelligence, Peter will be missed by many throughout the world, not least those in the RCO community. The College sends its condolences to his family at this sad time.