Obituary: Peter Hallock, renowned composer, organist
Composer Peter Hallock, founding director of the Compline Choir and organist-choirmaster at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral for 40 years, has died at age 89. A memorial service at St. Mark’s is planned for Sunday.
Seattle Times arts writer
The contemplative and the community-minded met in the life and work of Peter Hallock.
Mr. Hallock, the organist and choirmaster at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral from 1951 to 1991, died at his Fall City home on Sunday, April 27, at age 89. The cause was congestive heart failure.
Over the course of his long life, Mr. Hallock built an international reputation as a composer of sacred music. He also broadened the scope of instruments heard in churches and cathedrals to include brass, percussion and harp. He was the founding director of the Compline Choir at St. Mark’s, leading its well-known Sunday night Compline services from 1956 to 2009. His musical influence has been felt on numerous Seattle choirs and church parishes, as well as nationwide.
Mr. Hallock was born on Nov. 19, 1924, in Kent. He first heard an organ and congregation in concert when he was 9.
“I thought I’d gone to heaven,” he later said in interviews. “It’s really how music sounds that is the criteria for me. ... I’m a kind of sound freak.”
By the time he was 12, his piano teacher steered him toward organ studies. “Of course that’s the perfect instrument for a 12-year-old,” Mr. Hallock noted, “because you can play loud.”
After serving in the Pacific during World War II, he pursued organ studies at the University of Washington, followed by studies at Britain’s Royal School of Church Music, where he was the first American choral scholar at Canterbury Cathedral.
Jason Anderson, Mr. Hallock’s successor as director of the Compline Choir, believes the unusual character of Mr. Hallock’s compositions stems from how he sets text to music: “There’s a way that he intuits the text on the page that just makes it so much more memorable.”
While his choral style is clearly rooted in plainsong, it takes unusual harmonic and instrumental turns that identify it as contemporary.
“He just loved different kinds of sounds from instruments and voices, the things that you could do with them,” Anderson said.
Several Seattle choruses — the Byrd Ensemble, Tudor Choir and, of course, the Compline Choir — recorded Mr. Hallock’s work in recent years, a development that greatly pleased the composer. In all, he composed more than 200 works.
“For him the recording mattered more than the printed music on the page,” Anderson said, “because he had a soundscape idea in his head for all of these pieces. And if there wasn’t a viable recording, his point was: ‘How will people know how I like it to sound?’ ”
When Mr. Hallock started Compline services at St. Mark’s in the 1950s, his all-male choir often sang to an empty cathedral. Once in a while, he later reminisced, a wife of one of the choir members would attend. Afterward, they’d kid her that she’d ruined the acoustics just by being there.
A change came in the 1960s when young people started turning up, “probably for the mystic side of it,” Mr. Hallock speculated. “We went from practically zero attendance to over 500 almost literally overnight.”
Mr. Hallock received no payment for those Compline services, even after KING-FM started broadcasting them in 1962, and he accepted only a handful of commissions in his lifetime.
“Peter,” Anderson explains, “did not believe that composers who took money for commissions produced as good a quality product at the end versus composers that just composed because they liked to compose. ... He was very opinionated in that regard.”
He also felt that when you needed money, the resources would just magically present themselves. “For the most part,” Anderson said, “he was OK financially — not always.”
Still, he wasn’t as unworldly as that makes him sound.
In 1986, he joined forces with Carl Crosier to form Ionian Arts, a music publishing business — a move prompted in part by his unhappiness with the “measly” royalty he got from his own music publisher.
“He felt,” Crosier said, “that the creator ought to get more than 10%.”
In addition to music, Mr. Hallock channeled his creative energy in gardening, weaving and even cabinetmaking. “It varied from decade to decade,” Anderson says.
He lived alone and savored his solitude.
Contemplation was a big part of what contributed to his musical creativity, says Doug Fullington, director of the Tudor Choir. “But he definitely did have a communal spirit, and you really see that in the working with the choir.”
Anderson emphasizes: “Everyone just thinks of him as the composer-musician. But it was actually the friendships and relationships that mattered most to Peter.”
He is survived by his sisters, Barbara Hallock, of Kent, and Matilda Ann Milbank, of Los Altos, Calif.; and nieces, nephews and their children.
A memorial service will be held 5 p.m. Sunday at St. Mark’s Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave E., Seattle. The Compline Choir, with alumni, will hold their usual weekly 9:30 p.m. service, dedicated to Mr. Hallock, on Sunday, too.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com