A Tribute to Peggy Prior by Dr. Carla Dodek - 2009
Walking into her neat, cheery white living room in her West Point Grey home I was shown the refinement and meticulousness of Peggy Prior that made for a most pleasant morning visit. Peggy Prior has been a member of the BC Music Teacher’s Association for 44 years and has been active in BC musical life since the 1930’s. Those who have had the fortune know Peggy’s bubbly personality and know how musical her playing is, but not too many of us are aware of her background and beginnings. This article is a tribute to Peggy and an opportunity to appreciate her many contributions and achievements.
Margaret Anderson was born on February 19, 1922 in Chase, B.C. - a small town near Kamloops – and is the middle sibling of an older sister and a younger brother. Her parents came to Canada from Scotland – her mother’s family arrived in 1913 or 1914 and then her father followed after serving in World War I. Her parents had met in Scotland before the war and eventually married in Canada. It was not surprising that Peggy chose music as her career as both of her parents were very musical. Her mother often played by ear and was the organist for the Eastern Star, a funeral parlour and for church and her father sang bass in the Oratorio Society. Peggy showed her musical talents early. By the age of three she was already picking out tunes on the piano and, with perfect pitch, she was destined for a life of diverse musical experiences.
Peggy moved to Abbotsford in 1928 and began elementary school there. Her first piano teacher was Freda Nelson who taught her in the 1930’s during the depression years and often gave her lessons for free. Freda Nelson remarked about Peggy that “she was a wonderful student, keen at learning and very eager to develop her technique.” Peggy went on to high school attending Phillip Sheffield High School where she played for anything and everything the school presented – from Glee Club songs (she was president of the Glee Club), to choir accompaniments to playing background music for fashion shows. She could and still can play anything in any style and in any key! Peggy finally moved to Vancouver in 1941 to attend the Provincial Normal School where she trained to become a teacher. Her first job at the age of 21 was in Burnaby at Gilmore Avenue School where she taught from 1942-46.
During her last years in high school and during her year at Normal School Peggy had a busy performing schedule playing in dance bands. Bandleader, Neal Unruh, asked Peggy to join his orchestra when the war began as his regulars, including the piano player, had gone off to fight. The five-piece orchestra played at the Empress Hotel in Chilliwack (which was THE place to be in those years), at the Harrison Hot Springs Hotel where she played Saturday nights and Sunday lunches and in Cultus Lake.
During the war Peggy played for service men and women on a regular basis. Every Wednesday and Saturday night she played at the Blue Triangle Women’s Services Centre in the Elks’ Building at Dunsmuir and Hornby. It was at one of these evening entertainments that Peggy met her husband of 63 years. In 1942 Peggy was performing when off-stage a handsome young man joined her at another piano. It was then that their piano team and later their “Prior” team began. Peggy and Doug continued to play together at the United Services Centre and eventually married in 1946. They have two daughters; Jane Ciacci who lives in Chicago and is a staff manager in a library and Pat Rekert who is an event planner here in Vancouver.
In spite of Peggy’s busy schedule, she continued to study piano. She took lessons with Norma Abernethy who was a very fine pianist and CBC staff accompanist. It was her desire to become an accompanist that drew Peggy to Ms Abernethy. In fact, Peggy admits that she was drawn to accompanying most likely because she was a frustrated singer! No wonder her phrasing and musical lines are so naturally driven. Peggy completed her LRSM under Ms Abernethy and then began studying with Lydia Lieven, a Russian pianist, who had garnered an excellent reputation in Vancouver. Although Peggy was terrified of her, she to this day credits Ms Lieven for taking her back to basics and developing her technique. Peggy received the only first class honour mark in Vancouver for the ARCT exams in 1950.
It was under Ms Lieven that Peggy performed one of her most important recitals. On Wednesday March 19, 1952, Peggy performed at the Hotel Vancouver in the Mayfair Room (now Griffins), a venue often used for recitals at the time. Her programme included a Choral Prelude by Bach-Rummel, Prelude in E Flat minor from Book I of Bach’s WTC, two Scarlatti sonatas, Op. 31 No. 2 of Beethoven, 2 preludes and the Op. 25 No. 9 etude by Chopin, Papillons by Schumann, Voiles by Debussy, 2 etudes by Scriabin, Six Rumanian Folk Dances by Bartok, and 2 works by Albeniz (the Prelude from Espana and Seguidilla). A review in the newspaper followed: “Miss Prior has a very musical touch, with firm, well-rounded tones, and the capacity for intense expressiveness.”
Peggy played live broadcasts for CBC on a number of occasions. Live broadcasts were much more common in those years and were understandably much more challenging than recorded broadcasts. In 1953 Peggy performed a live programme at the Vancouver Art Gallery consisting of a Bach-Busoni Choral Prelude, Scarlatti sonatas, the Maiden and the Nightingale by Granados, Night Winds by Griffes, and Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 117 No. 1. Another live broadcast series that Peggy played on was the Trans Canada Matinee Programme for CBC radio on which Bill Reid, the Haida artist, was the announcer. For six weeks, every Monday (Classics/Art Songs), Wednesday (Folk Music) and Friday (Pops) Peggy played a fifteen-minute recital usually collaborating with singers. On one occasion a singer became ill and Peggy had to fill in at the last minute with a Schubert impromptu to fill the time.
Peggy has played for choirs such as the Kiwanis Glee Club, played 2-piano repertoire with Marjorie Hougham for 25 years, adjudicated festivals, given workshops for the music teacher’s association (on teaching adults) and continues to practice daily. Her recipe for happiness and success in this sometimes-grueling field of music is to keep studying. Peggy continues to meet one day a month with a group of ARCT alumni to play for each other and has also participated in regular master classes given by Boris Roubakine, Robin Wood and Bruce Vogt. Her advice to teachers - “Enjoy music enough to instill enthusiasm in your students.”
It is a real tribute to Peggy that many of her 345 former students continue to keep in touch with her to this day.