Peter Downey (1956–2020)

Dr Peter Downey was a dedicated music educator, scholar, researcher and composer. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 14 February 1956, the son of Gerard and Elizabeth (O’Neill) Downey. He began his musical career in the Belfast City Youth orchestra playing the trumpet moving to become a brass instrument teacher in the Belfast School of music from 1976–1981. He gained his Diploma in Trumpet Performance in 1976, a BSc Hons in Physics in 1977 from Queens University Belfast – a slight detour in his musical career – followed by his Diploma in Music Education from the University of Ulster in 1978 and finally his PhD in Music Research from Queens University Belfast in 1983 during which he was a recipient of a research scholarship from the Danish Government in 1978. He spent 6 enjoyable months in Copenhagen, researching the musical repertoire of the Danish royal trumpet establishment in the second half of the 16th century; returning to visit there following his retirement for a fantastic visit to share his love of the city with his children.

Peter was a successful educator from the start of his career in St Genevieve’s High School where he produced many school productions and imbued his pupils with a love of music. He married Una in August 1985 and raised two children, Alison and Adrian. He moved to St Mary’s University College as Senior Lecturer of Music in 1985 where he subsequently became Head of Department and from where he retired in 2015. He was famed, amongst his serious attributes, for his “strong” left-handed conducting, something which he was secretly very proud of!

Throughout this period, Peter undertook many other roles including Musical Director of Clonard Monastery Belfast, committee member of the Early Music Festival at Queen’s University Belfast and committee member of the Northern Ireland Council Curriculum Examinations and Assessments amongst many others. He was Consultant to the Tavener Consort (London), the Gabrielli Consort (Leeds), Baroque Brass (London) and the New London Consort.

Throughout a long and distinguished career as an educator, Peter also penned 19 publications ranging from explorations of sources from information about the slide-brass instrument of the Alta Capella and proposed associated musical repertory; sounding the trumpet and beating the drum in the 17th century England to the instruments. He took an interest in researching the social and cultural environment in which the keyed bugle was invented in Ireland and examination of the publication history of Edward Buntings first collection of Irish music. A great lover of archeology and history he also developed a solution to the engraving on the early medieval ‘Nendrum rune stone’ c.700CE, creating a reconstruction which is displayed in Down County Museum, Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. Peter was perhaps best known to HBS members for his involvement in an ongoing debate he had with fellow musicologists on the topic of the Renaissance slide trumpet.

Peter Downey conducting at St Mary's University College
Peter Downey conducting at St Mary's University College

He was also an accomplished musician and composer; writing and arranging works for Clonard Monastery Choir (still in use decades later), for his students and for his family – notably for his own wedding and to widen the available viola repertoire for his daughter! In July 2007 Peter received a musical commission from the John Hewitt Society to commemorate the centenary of the birth of the Belfast born poet John Hewitt composing a song cycle to texts taken from a selection of Hewitt’s poems. It received its Premiere at the John Hewitt International Summer School in July 2007.

Peter’s death on 23 December 2020 was a tragic loss to the world of music. His sudden passing, following a short illness which he bore with dignity and good humour, was regretted by his many family and friends. His most important role however was that of father to his daughter Alison and son Adrian to whom he was the most wonderful father and of whom they are immensely proud.

Alison Downey