Winston Churchill coined the phrase “The Iron Curtain” in a speech in 1946 as Russia tightened its grip on Eastern Europe following the Second World War; it was a control not finally relinquished until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Nigel Durrant was born under this Soviet regime in Estonia in October 1957, although when still a young child he was smuggled, together with his mother, to the West. Such was the confusion of these clandestine early years, cloaked in mystery and intrigue, he is not sure of his precise birthday, but keeps 12th October as the nearest approximation. This was a time when all eyes were on Russia with the historic launch of Sputnik 1 on 4th October 1957, its bleeping signal captivating the scientific world.
Although his parents were British, Nigel has spent his life predominantly in The Netherlands, punctuated during childhood by visits to a number of other European countries, including Germany, Scandinavia the Baltic States and even a year in England when he attended Battersea Grammar School. The sequence of events is anything but clear, but he remembers he was suddenly and unexpectedly moved to France following his year in England. Nevertheless, this has undoubtedly extended his education as he speaks five languages fluently, with a working knowledge of a further three. Music is in his blood, bestowed by his maternal grandfather, a professional double-bass player, who also had an interest in organ building. Even though he died some years before Nigel was born, his musical interests appear to have transcended time, leaping a generation to kindle deep enthusiasms in his only grandson’s development, especially in organs and music, both sacred and secular.
Nigel started piano lessons aged five, progressing rapidly. However, his parents would never let him forget the occasion, after just a couple of year’s tuition, he had driven his piano teacher to distraction with his obstinacy. His teacher suggested during a lesson “If Mozart had wanted it played like that he would have written it like that.” To which Nigel, aged seven, replied “If Mozart had thought of it he would have written it like that.” Indeed, even today as a freelance professional musician, Nigel is still very aware of the composer, performer relationship.
Neither Man of Kent nor Kentish Man, Nigel joined our Kent County Organists’ Association in 1995. Although a holder of a British passport, he has no existent connection with England; it was simply that his parents had suddenly upped and moved to the Kent coast and Ramsgate some years previously and he visited them regularly. But England does hold attractions as Nigel particularly admires the work of some of our Victorian organ-builders, especially William Hill and Henry Jones. Visiting England regularly he has also become a member of the Campaign for Real Ale.
He had a youthful passion for chemistry, leading him to study chemistry and music. Nigel then perplexed his teachers by failing physics, and insisting on pursuing archaeology without intending to finish the whole course. He maintains that there was method in his madness as he intended to carry out scientific research into preservation techniques applicable to musical instruments, hence the archaeological interest. The scheme of things dictated differently, as Nigel’s first scientific appointment was in a microbiological laboratory before working as a chemist for a French pharmaceuticals manufacturer for several years.
Throughout his early working years he remained active as a musician and gradually this side of things became full-time. Well almost, as ideally he would like to spend 90% of his time with music and 10% trying to earn a living. He frequently says that earning a living remains something of a pipe dream.
Nigel’s musical interest is wide ranging although about a third of his music work is within a liturgical context. He does enjoy performing with other musicians, although he is also supremely happy in his position as regular organist at the Augustinian priory in Eindhoven, where Gregorian chant and classical polyphony are the mainstay of the two choirs’ repertoire. His main organs are both national monuments and it is also hoped that a 200-year-old cabinet organ belonging to the Augustinians will be fully restored and working in their church by late 2010.
His professional music commitments slot nicely into one another so duties rarely clash. Up to four mornings a week are spent playing funerals, and in addition he acts as occasional répétiteur for a handful of singers (oratorio rather than opera). He plays early chamber music, and, armed with an old-fashioned card-index system will, on request, put together and conduct ad hoc ensembles, often in little-known works for unusual formations. However, he confesses difficulty finding ophicleide players, so essential in Mendelssohn’s Elijah where it is scored, in places, to dominate the orchestra.
The lack of regularity in his life suits Nigel. Some years ago he made several trips to Sweden, where he contributed articles on performance practice to Sohlmans music encyclopædia. He also lectured on the history of music and teaching ensemble playing; then on to Poland, when there was a burgeoning of interest in angielskich piesniach artystycznych — the English art-song repertoire, so foolishly ignored by many singers. He can look back with real pleasure to a period on the panel of a discussion programme broadcast live on Dutch radio, which he translates as The Science Café. The contributors all had a scientific as well as an artistic bent and in each programme they would discuss recently published scientific papers in a tiny studio, closing each topic with some sort of artistic utterance relating to the discussion, be it instrumental music, a song or perhaps a specially written poem. Nigel was often called upon to accompany on a skeletal piano, endeavouring not to bang his head on the microphone, the studio being so small. An erstwhile musical director of the Eindhoven Student Music Society, Nigel particularly remembers conducting a gathering of one hundred and twenty students from the whole country, together with his own choirs, in a performance of Berlioz’ Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale for wind instruments and percussion — including a Jingling Johnny. He introduced a choral society he conducted to music by Stanford — the Irish ballad Phaudrig Crohoore and the Songs of the Fleet.
Asked about teaching, Nigel’s face takes on a wry expression. He confesses he is by no means a natural teacher and now does very little, although most of his past pupils had professional ambitions, usually by way of the state examinations, which no longer exist. There have also been a few adults who came to him to develop their skills if he considered their aspirations reasonable — but no children! Nowadays he limits himself to the occasional interpretation lesson: pupils buy a subscription for six lessons that is valid for 15 months. It seems to work. What he does not do is prepare people for examinations, preferring to spend time helping pupils develop their musicality.
Nigel has, since early childhood, entertained a penchant for surrounding himself with useless impedimenta and subsequently, having no kinsfolk, lives alone amidst a chaos of books and hoarded paraphernalia. At least once a week he tries to hear top-notch organ-playing, combining attending musical performances with a visit to a museum or exhibition when feasible. He is trying to find the time to work out if and how he is related to a Dutch poet or a 19th-century Welsh organ builder, each of whom shares part of his family name; his full name is Nigel Charles Bellamy-Durrant.
With constant travelling during his early years Nigel finds it difficult to fully associate himself with any one country, although The Netherlands is now his home. However, his parents were British by birth, his mother from Eastbourne and his father from Bury St Edmunds. He visited his parents regularly after their retirement move to Ramsgate, hence his meeting and joining our Kent Association. His father lived to the great age of 102, dying just a few years ago; so when Nigel comes to Kent, he now ensures his visits coincide with our annual coach outings.
We are most grateful for his regular contributions to our Journal, articles which are a revealing window on continental Europe’s cultural and musical world. We were pleased to see Nigel on our recent visit to Brentwood and Chelmsford, his interest and views conveyed with his usual unassuming modesty. It is surely fitting, indeed a privilege, that following the death of his parents, our Kent Association can in some way provide an in loco parentis role, trusting and ensuring he will continue to visit us for many years to come.
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