Alfred “Alf” Bertram Champniss (Former Staff) 1933-2022

The OS Club has received the sad news that former Director of Music, Alf Champniss, passed away recently on 7th January 2022, aged 89. He is remembered by his many colleagues, friends and pupils from his time teaching at Sedbergh, where he arrived from Rugby in 1965 and left for Mill Hill in 1974. Alf was a founding member of the British Institute of Organ Studies and in retirement played the organ frequently at Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair. He was also the retired Chairman of the former family property company, Panstar Ltd.

A recording of his Funeral Service at Grosvenor Chapel can be viewed here.

Please see below his valete which was recorded in the 1974 Sedberghian magazine.

Alfred Champniss left at the end of the Lent Term 1974 to take up an appointment as Director of Music at Mill Hill School, London. He was educated at Harrow School to which he was an entrance scholar. Later at Oriel College, Oxford he was organ scholar and read for the Honours School of Jurisprudence. At the Royal College of Music he studied the organ with Ralph Downes, composition with Herbert Howells, conducting with Richard Austin and piano with Robert Collet. The playing and study of the organ was to become a dominating musical interest. After a temporary teaching appointment at Harrow School he was appointed to the music staff of Rugby, where he remained from 1957 to 1965.

The outstanding headmastership at that time of Walter Hamilton was to provide a model shaped which his ideals of school government and leadership. His cordial relationship with the school chaplain, Leonard Morison, created a most enthusiastic partnership. We often heard from Mr. Champniss golden opinions of this distinguished school. In 1962 he became suborganist of Coventry Cathedral. He played for the opening Sunday service at the cathedral.

In his teaching at Sedbergh he encouraged preparation for 0 and A Level music. One of his pupils is now a college organist at Oxford, reading music. Some boys have been grateful to him for their initiation into new experiences through his musical appreciation classes. Under his direction the Musical Society choir and school orchestra have created some exciting occasions. A feature of some of these concerts has been the keyboard concerto performances of some talented boys, carefully trained and tutored by Mr. Champniss. The practices of the String Orchestra, which he has conducted on Monday evenings, have greatly helped both the reading ability and ensemble playing of the school string players.

Through concerts we have had a varied range of composers and instrumentalists to enjoy. Many distinguished performers have been introduced to the school through the continuing Subscription Concerts, requiring much careful planning and attention to the needs of the performers. He initiated the title ‘Informal Concerts’; these have given opportunities for boys to gain confidence in performing before an audience.

His personal enthusiasm for organ playing has influenced some others to take up the study of what for him is The King of Instruments. He gave frequent recitals in Powell Hall, many of which were memorable for their brilliance and wealth of musical effects. As a performer he found that the organ works of Messiaen had a compelling fascination. Many a time he has toured not only in this country but also in Europe to play on some of the most noted instruments. As a result of this travelling, combined with his reading, his knowledge of organs is encyclopaedic. Apart from his musical interests he has been a devotee of the Public School way of life, its personalities and traditions. It has often been a delight for him to read some biography of a distinguished school personality and then air his findings.

Another interest in his reading was architecture. He could speak knowledgeably of not only the history of Rugby School but of the architectural work there of William Butterfield. The Music School at Guldrey Lodge has been a place of retreat where innumerable conversations have provided a humanising release. Many are the times when laughter has eruptively punctuated some entertaining exchanges. It is not only for his organisational competence, musical talent and love of school life, but also for his friendly and humanising influence that we are grateful to him.