George Jennings Burnett - A Tribute

by David Berry

Among the more interesting items in the organ music collection of the Main Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library are two thick volumes of organ music published by the Canadian Musical Heritage Society, containing a good sampling of Canadian compositions, almost all of them now out of print, spanning the past two centuries.

One of the more unusual works in this collection, and of special interest to Victoria organists, is the "British African Gavotte" by George Jennings Burnett. According to the editor's notes, this piece "was given its first performance by the composer on the occasion of an organ and vocal concert at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church of Victoria, B.C. on May 3, 1898." The published version, which appeared in 1900, was dedicated "To the Fifth Regiment British Columbia Volunteers for the Transvaal" - hence the title.

At first glance, and despite the historical interest, this composition doesn't look like much, or even much like organ music - almost a simple ragtime or parlour piano piece, set out on two staves with a note-chord-note-chord stride bass. However, when I tried it on an actual organ (St. Paul's Esquimalt - coincidentally, the same instrument at which Burnett presided for nearly a decade in the early 1900s as the organist of St. John the Divine - it was easy to appreciate that it was the work of a superior musician. The structure, texture, and careful dynamic markings (no registration suggestions) all made perfect sense, and its intrinsic charm was revealed. Earlier this year, I included it in a recital of Victorian music which I gave at St. Paul's. From the feedback I've received, it was the highlight of the program.

Thanks to David Vuckson, a fount of knowledge about organs in Victoria and the city's musical history in general, I have learned much more since about this composer - a major figure in the musical life of our community. The remainder of this article is adapted from notes kindly provided to me by David.

George Jennings Burnett was born in Stogumber, Somerset, England, on December 21, 1867, and died in Victoria, B.C. on January 1, 1941, about three weeks after his 73rd birthday. He was an organist, pianist, composer and teacher in British Columbia for fifty years.

In 1974 his daughter Phyllis and then-music-student Barry Waterlow did a survey of Burnett's compositions and found 151 pieces. Some of these were published, some were not. Many are undated. He composed songs, both secular and sacred, hymn tunes, anthems, and organ pieces, all listed in Dale McIntosh's History of Music in British Columbia.

Burnett was appointed organist and choirmaster of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Victoria, in December 1891, and it was on the Warren organ there that he composed the British African Gavotte (originally titled "Gavotte Victoria") in 1898. It was played by the composer at a number of concerts in St. Andrew's that year. During his time at St. Andrew's he gave a series of organ recitals which were regarded by the music critic of the Victoria Daily Times as being "among the chief musical events of the city."

In the spring of 1904, Burnett left St. Andrew's for St. John's Iron Church, where he remained for about 37 years until shortly before his death, when he was succeeded by his student [and current Centre member] Ian Galliford.

In 1907 Burnett fulfilled a boyhood dream of owning his own pipe organ in his home for his personal use and for teaching. It was a two-manual Spurden Rutt from London, England, with 486 pipes. It was in use until 1913, when the new Burnett-designed four-manual organ at St. John's became available for teaching. The Spurden-Rutt was sold, travelled to the mainland and back, and in 1966 ended up at Oak Bay United Church. It has since been removed and some of the pipework as been recycled by Grant Smalley; these pipes can now be heard at the Lutheran Church of the Cross, at the intersection of Cedar Hill Road and Cedar Hill Crossroad.

Burnett is described by Dale McIntosh as a modest and unassuming man who was always reticent to discuss his talents and accomplishments, but quietly went about the tasks of teaching, playing and composing.

This article appeared in the Sept. 2005 issue of Pro Organo.

More on George Jennings Burnett

a footnote by Ian Galliford

Among those who knew him, "Christian gentleman" was an often-heard characterization. His distinguished musicianship was widely recognized.

In 1913, when St. John's congregation moved into its new edifice on Quadra Street, installation of the (approximately) 45-rank 4-manual organ was in progress. The builder was the Canadian Pipe Organ Company of Quebec. Inaugural recitals were played on successive evenings, August 11 and 12, by Clarence Eddy, the prominent American concert organist.

G.J.B. had not been entirely satisfied with some aspects of the instrument, and he requested that acceptance be delayed. However, Eddy's judgment overrode his objection and the organ was approved, although final payment was not made until 1923.

During his long tenure, Mr. Burnett played many well-attended weekday recitals in addition to his regular 20-minute preludes to Sunday evening services. He had many interests and was author of an extended series of newspaper articles on Natural History, as well as essays on astronomy, theology, and the Bible.

This footnote appeared in the November 2005 issue of Pro Organo.