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Peter Prelleur: Spitalfields organist and composer

SOME of the greatest music ever heard was composed in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. As masters such as Handel, Bach and Mozart toured Europe, enjoying the patronage of kings, princes and bishops, these court composers laid the foundations of the modern classical repertoire.

Increasingly in recent years, conductors and their musicians have been trying to dig back in time to find out just how those concertos and arias sounded played by 17th century musicians on their early instruments – and many orchestras now produce “early” recordings of popular works.

But if it wasn’t for an East End musician much of the vital information would have been lost. Peter Prelleur, organist, composer, tutor and author, is largely forgotten now, but he was one of the most important musical figures of the early 1700s.

For although it might not be mentioned in the same breath as Salzburg, Paris or Hamburg, the East End had a thriving classical tradition in the early years of the 18th century, much of it centred on the celebrated churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

John James became organist of St George in the East in Cannon Street Road in 1738. The church had only been finished nine years previously but had landed a star performer, who composed voluntaries which quickly became part of the repertoire of many other London church organists. So great was the quality of James’s work that one of his pieces was for many years attributed to Handel, who had settled in London as court composer to King George I.

Not everyone was a fan of James. Though a brilliant composer he liked the wilder side of life too. When he wasn’t at St George’s he enjoyed watching bull-baiting and dog fights.

Sir John Hawkins of Spitalfields Madrigal Society wrote that “even while attending to his duty at church … [James] indulged an inclination to spirituous liquors of the coarsest kind”, though even Hawkins had to admit that “James was distinguished by the singularity of his style, which was learned and sublime”.

But that was nothing compared to the curious musical double life of Peter Prelleur. Prelleur was an East End Huguenot who had anglicised his original Christian name of Pierre. He lived in Rose Lane, which has long since made way for Commercial Street. In his day job he played the organ in Christ Church, Spitalfields and composed religious music. This was one of the grandest positions in London; the organ, built for the church in 1735 by Richard Bridge, was the largest in Georgian England, with more than a thousand pipes. Even Handel had played on the Christ Church organ.

But in the evenings, Prelleur played to a quite different audience – in the Angel and Crown tavern in Whitechapel. An advertisement in the London Daily Post of August 21 1739 gives a flavour of those evening shows:

“Rope dancing, posture masters, singing and dancing, serious and comic. The whole to conclude with a new entertainment called Harlequin Hermit or The Arabian Courtezan … with a complete band of music, consisting of kettle drums, trumpets, French horns, hautboys and violins. The music by an eminent master.”

The master was Peter Prelleur of course. And the fact that he was as happy to play in a pub as he was in a church was down to his enthusiasm for bringing music to as many people as possible. Prelleur had already composed his seminal work, a guide for musicians entitled The Modern Musick-Master or The Universal Musician. This 1731 work contained “an introduction to singing, after so easy a method, that persons of the meanest capacities may (in a short time) learn to sing (in tune) any song that is set to musick.”

It had “directions for playing on the flute: with a scale for transposing any piece of musick to the properest keys for that instrument … the newest method for learners on the german flute, as improv’d by the greatest masters of the age … instructions upon the hautboy … the art of playing on the violin … the harpsichord illustrated and improv’d … with a brief history of musick … to which is added a musical dictionary … Curiously adorn’d with cuts representing the manner of performing on every instrument.”

Prelleur, in fact, had written a complete guide to playing all the popular instruments of the day. A little translation is necessary for modern readers. The hautboy is the modern oboe. What Prelleur knew as the German flute is nowadays simply a flute, while confusingly what he called a flute is now the recorder. Peter Prelleur’s mission, in church, in pubs and in his musical tutor, was to open up music to as many 18th century East Enders as possible. Little did he know that his Modern Musick-Master would still be instructing musicians 300 years later.

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