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Two years of unstinting volunteer work cataloguing the documents of a blind organist has uncovered treasures by British composer Sir Edward Bairstow in Lancashire.

And those works will be heard for the first time in living memory at Blackburn Cathedral on Wednesday 27 March, performed by Blackburn Music Society and Blackburn Chamber Choir.

The concert ‘Uncovered Treasures – Bairstow in Blackburn’ showcases some of Bairstow’s most famous and most loved sacred works, led by the musical director of both choirs and of Blackburn Cathedral, John Robinson, with organist John Hosking.  The programme includes Bairstow’s arrangements of two popular hymns, never heard in living memory. 

The manuscripts were discovered by Pete Asher, a member of the Music Society and volunteer archivist in the Local History section of Blackburn Library.  Pete’s latest project was to catalogue the William Wolstenholme Collection. 

William was born in Blackburn in 1865 and went on to become a celebrated organist and composer despite being born blind. His musical talents were recognised very early and he was sent to a school for the blind in Worcester. His violin teacher at the school was a youthful Edward Elgar who later became William’s amanuensis when he took his BMus at Oxford. They stayed good friends until William’s death in 1931.

At that time William was living in London with his sister Maude and her family. She had become effectively his secretary/business manager. After his death Maude must have packed up William’s study and donated the resulting collection of documents to Blackburn Library. The contents were never fully indexed although the extensive musical scores in Braille were indexed by Douglas Carrington in 2002. In addition to the Braille scores the Wolstenholme collection contained some 130 works in manuscript form of which the majority were by William himself. However, a few were by other composers including Edward Bairstow.

William maintained contact with many organists and composers of the day including Bairstow. Correspondence between the two men spans a period of almost 30 years culminating in Bairstow writing to William’s sister Maude of his sadness on hearing of William’s death. 

During his tenure at Leeds Parish Church, Bairstow had commuted to Blackburn and Preston on his days off to be the MD of the respective St Cecelia’s choirs. William’s frequent visits back to his home town would have ensured the continuing friendship between both men. 

“The music of Sir Edward Bairstow has long been a jewel in the crown of English Choral Music. His grumpy rejection of the top job at Westminster Abbey in favour of remaining in his native Yorkshire was typical of the man,” said John Robinson.

“What’s less well known is that from 1907 to 1913 he spent his Tuesday nights in Blackburn, conducting the Blackburn St Cecilia and Vocal Union, and became friends with legendary blind organist William Wolstenholme. 

“We are incredibly excited to be giving the first modern performance of Bairstow’s arrangements of ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights,’ and his ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ here in Blackburn.”

Tickets priced £12 are available at: