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Donald Bienfait Sprinck: 1900-1985
Saturday 21st May saw over 80 people gathered in the Memorial Hall for a concert to celebrate the life and work of a former master, almost 40 years after his retirement from Merchiston in 1972.

A DVD of this event is now available to purchase through the Merchistonian Club, with all proceeds from the sale going to the Donald Sprinck Musical Bursay fund which exists to support a Merchiston pupils music making whilst at the School. If you would be interested in buying a copy of the 2 hour long concert DVD please send a cheque for £20 made payable to 'Merchiston Castle School' into the Merchistonian Club, 294 Colinton Road, Edinburgh, EH13 0PU. This price includes UK postage but overseas postage is an additional £2.50. Please include details of where the DVD is to be sent.

Concert Review - Saturday 21 May 2011

Donald had been the school organist, a teacher of organ and piano and yet, as this extraordinary gathering testifies, so very much more. This quiet, self-effacing man with a speech impediment so severe that he was almost dumb, left a deep and lasting impression on all who knew him, whether as pupil, fellow member of the Scripture Union, or simply as one to whom Donald would play the piano or organ, providing a haven of culture and tranquillity in the midst of a community at that time largely pre-occupied with rugby and other supposed measures of manliness.

Aged 72, Donald retired to Eastbourne, near to his brother and sister. In March 1996 All Saints' Church Eastbourne received a letter from Ian Lawson (1962-67) enquiring whether any of Donald's manuscripts might have survived, and in particular a chorale prelude that was played at Ian's wedding. Although temporarily away from the church, I had been organist there and was within a few years to return. When eventually I received the letter, I responded to Ian, sending him a copy of the prelude on the Scottish Psalm-Tune "Kilmarnock". Little did I realise that this was to be the beginning of a project that would come to fruition some 15 years later, culminating in the Bursary Fund that bears Donald's name, and a celebration of his music such as the school had never before heard.

From 1917 - 1922, Donald had been a composition pupil at the RCM of the great composer-teacher Charles Villiers Stanford, whose formative influence on many composers of the day was to create a renaissance in the artistic expression of British music. Donald had an extraordinary memory, a formidable keyboard technique, and the ability to think and move in each and every key. At the RCM, he won first prizes for both organ and piano, and was awarded the coveted Lafontaine prize when he received his FRCO in the examination of July 1921.

His self-deprecating manner conspired with his severe speech difficulties to ensure that there was much about Donald that would remain hidden from his colleagues and pupils. From early 1977 until his death almost nine years later it was to become my very great privilege to get to know this remarkable man, and to encourage him not only to bring to our regular Sunday worship compositions that had been written during and prior to his time at Merchiston, but also to commission new hymn-tunes, canticle settings, anthems, organ solos and, perhaps most significantly, his organ/piano duets which were to become such a wonderful contribution to our festival celebrations. It is with some embarrassment that I record Donald's official title as "Assistant Organist". This man was my father and grandfather in music, and one to whom I shall always remain deeply indebted for all that he taught me.

The champagne reception in the Old Library included a display of some of Donald's personal effects - his silver Christening mugs, Gospels, a hymnbook and Daily Light (Licht für den Tag) all in German, Stanford's book "Musical Composition" and examples of his manuscripts, ranging from a workbook containing sketches of piano Études from 1915 to the only (rough, but complete) MS of his Trumpet and Piano duet, about to be given its stunning first performance by Richard Lucas and David Turner. Also on display were examples of his works transcribed to publisher-quality sheet music and a biographical PowerPoint presentation complete with audio clips from each period of his life.

Following a substantial meal in the Dining Hall, the concert, ably introduced and compèred by Ian Lawson, kept the audience enthralled for almost two hours. It was wonderful to hear Donald's music embraced, learned, performed and enthused over by the present generation of pupils and staff in the place where it truly belongs. Thanks are due to the choir, and particularly to soloists Iain Baillie (clarinet), Ralph Cheng (violin) and Rene Baumgaertner (organ), to staff members Peter Hall, David Turner and Stephen Dennis for their work in learning and rehearsal at a very busy time of year.

A moving tribute by Bill Donaldson, former pupil and housemaster, was followed by a prayer of thanksgiving led by Revd. George Martin, who had been closely associated with Donald both as a pupil and also as school Chaplain. His poignant descriptions of Donald as we thanked God for each aspect of Donald's life and character reminded us afresh of the things we knew but had almost forgotten, and gave us a flavour of what a team this organist/chaplain duo must have been during those very special days when they worked together.

The audience was in robust voice for singing the two hymns led by the choir, and all the more so for the concluding rendition of the School Song, led as it was just 62 years ago by Bill Donaldson, then Head of School, to whom it had fallen in 1949 to sing the opening verse at its very first performance.

As the fund operates and boys benefit from the lessons to be provided, it is intended that an annual concert will include the performance of one or more of Donald's compositions. His over 150 works include scorings for various instruments, voice, choir, organ, etc. and range in difficulty from those that could be tackled with confidence by an elementary pupil to a few demanding a truly virtuoso technique - a resource that could have been tailor-made for MCS.

Earlier in the week, at a meeting at the National Library of Scotland, it was agreed that the complete archive of Sprinck manuscripts would be donated to the library in order that his music be made accessible to as wide a public as possible. The NLS left us in no doubt that this was a resource of national importance and are appealing for any supporting archive material (letters, recordings etc.) that may help to complete the biographical information. As the Head of Manuscripts put it: "In 150 years' time, when playing Sprinck is all the rage, people will want to know as much as possible about the man himself".

And so they should.

David Woodward.
Photograph: Rod Paton


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