The English organist (and composer), Peter Hurford, studied initially with Harold Darke, the famous and much-respected English organist and composer. He then 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.
Peter Hurford's 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 (organist and choirmaster) 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. He conceived the idea of an organ competition in 1963, partly to celebrate the new Harrison & Harrison organ designed by Ralph Downes and himself. This venture was successful mainly because of the young Hurford's rapidly growing stature in Britain and overseas as a result of his refreshing notions of authentic performing style. 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. This has grown into the St Albans International Organ Festival, a world-renowned festival of organ music with competitions whose past winners include many of the great names in modern organ music including Dame Gillian Weir, David Sanger, Thomas Trotter and Kevin Bowyer. Many a competitor counted himself fortunate to have received an autographed copy of Hurford's recordings of Bach's complete organ works.
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/London label 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. He is best known for his interpretations of Bach. His expertise is not limited to Bach, however - he is expanded to François Couperin on one side and the Romantic period on the other. His playing show excellence in attention to stylistic detail. His playing style is noted for clean articulation, and a sense of proper tempi. His often-brisk tempi and variety of registration decidedly changed organ performance.
After decades at St. Albans, Peter Hurford resigned to fulfil 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 USA. After having worked out his ideas during several decades of lecturing and performance, he assembled them in written form in his book Making Music on the Organ, published in 1988 (Oxford University Press). The simple, direct title conceals a wealth of carefully considered issues and effective solutions to them.
Peter 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.
Peter Hurford's largest recording project was putting on disc the complete organ works of
J.S. Bach, a project that began in the 1970's and lasted 12 years. The full set is still available along side a smaller, two-disc set of highlights. Another double-disc set of organ masses by F. Couperin is also a seminal issue. He has also made recordings of the Romantic literature for organ.