Gaynor M. Leigh

b.1893 d.1957

Gaynor Moira Leigh (b.1893, Seaton Snook; d.1957, Knayton, N. Yorkshire) was a much loved piano teacher in Seaton Snook, who regularly composed works for various local events such as the opening of buildings, visits by notable dignitaries, and local festivals. 

She was the only child born to Archibald and Alma Leigh, and was raised in one of the original "Pity Me" cottages, as Archibald was a worker at the Zinc Plant.  Alma was a self-taught pianist and often played in the zinc workers' social club.  It was she who gave Gaynor her first piano lessons.  As a girl at Seaton Snook school she proved to be very bright, and at age 11 she received a scholarship to study at Henry Smith Grammar School in Hartlepool.  At Henry Smith, she was given more formal lessons in music, being particularly inspired by a lecture given by Scottish composer Euphemia Allen, composer of The Celebrated Chop Waltz (better known as Chopsticks) in 1877 under the pseudonym Arthur de Lulli.   After completing her studies she started training as a schoolmistress at St Hild's college, Durham (now College of St Hild and St Bede↗).  Sadly, her father Archibald passed away suddenly in 1911, and her mother Alma found herself overwhelmed with grief.  Gaynor suspended her studies at St Hild's to return to Seaton Snook, and worked at the newly established Seaton Snook school as an "uncertificated assistant" until its closure in 1938.  She was popular with the children, but was never fully accepted by adults on her return from Durham.

Although Gaynor often composed small pieces and studies for her students, she only officially published six works for piano, three of which we have managed to track down, and are discussed below.  

Her death in 1957 during the 'Asian Flu' pandemic ensured some of her more mysterious compositions would never be fully explained. 

The Crofter's Dream - a fancy for harpsichord - 1910

This piece was discovered amongst papers at Kirkleatham Manor in North Yorkshire.  Accompanying it was a letter from a schoolfriend of Leigh's, Jane Hopper, who died in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the late 1960s.  The letter reads:

Gaynor and I visited Kirkleatham Manor on a school trip from Henry Smith's School.  We were both very taken by the box harpsichord there.
I remember it had the most intriguing underside of the lid - an ancient city, whose inhabitants had long since disappeared.  The caretaker let 
us both play on it a little.  At the time, we found it funny that it sounded so out of tune.  Later our music teacher taught us how these old
instruments were tuned in different ways, so that some keys sounded beautiful, and others sounded more mysterious, or even evil.

While Gaynor stayed in Seaton Snook, I moved to Manchester to study the piano.  While there, my fascination with the Kirkleatham
harpsichord continued and, when I wrote to tell Gaynor I had been playing on a harpsichord at college, she responded with a piece she wrote
for me called 
The Crofter's Dream.


Gaynor's note said, "A cowherd living on the Wide Open told me of a dream he had.  He was sat peacefully amongst his cows, looking over the 
sea.  A restlessness in the waves brought with it the factories that now stand at Seaton.  With the factories came the staining of the land, the
asphyxiation of the children, the endless screaming fires.  As the herd stared into the poisoned turquoise pools, Jacob Cox's Horse cried, and
the final destruction of Seaton Snook came crashing down.  He awoke at peace, certain that the Earth would finally reclaim what was hers."

The harpsichord at Kirkleatham Manor was apparently tuned to quarter comma meantone, which Leigh exploited to create some of the unusual sonic textures in The Crofter's Dream.  The score can be accessed here.  An annotated can be found here.  It is worth noting that the piece contains material later found in the "Pity Me" Chorale, the NSP Tempos, and Watch Where You're Shooting, Jimmy Walls.

The Crofter's Dream - A Fancy For HarpsiGaynor Leigh
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Sampled harpsichord tuned to Quarter Comma Meantone, base note C

Waltz of the Graces - 1925
Waltz of the Graces - Gaynor Leigh
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Performed by the Archivist, EastWest QL Piano

This charming piano piece was written especially for the Seaton Snook Carnival of 1925↗. A reproduction of the sheet music has been uploaded to the International Music Score Library Project, and is available at this link↗.  It was performed by Leigh herself at the Mayor's Gala Dinner, an annual event for community leaders and various invited guests of supposed importance. 

Although Leigh had composed pieces for the carnival in other years, this piece proved particularly popular, and several years later was even converted to be played on the Grande Carousel at Seaton Snook fairground.  I was lucky to unearth a recording of the carousel (albeit in a severely dilapidated state) on the 1990s ITV Meridian magazine show, Look At Brookwood, during a segment on the Woking Fairground Museum↗

Grande Carousel - Look At Brookwood
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Audio recovered from VHS tape

The Gaynor Leigh Piano Primer - 1931

In 1930, Leigh wrote to a friend in Yarm saying, 'I have been asked time and time again by my pupils to write my own book of piano exercises, and I believe I am finally working up the courage to do so. What fun it would be for the children to have studies and exercises to play, that relate to the people and places they see every day here in The Snooks!'

Leigh completed the primer in 1931 and it was published that year by West Hartlepool printer B. T. Ord.  Several unbound pages from the primer, in no discernible order, were discovered in a music shop in Redcar, and have been reproduced here↗.   

As Leigh wrote in her letter, the primer contains numerous references to people and events in the history of Seaton Snook.  In addition, several of the exercises force the player to manipulate their whole bodies in unusual ways.  It does appear that Leigh was interested in developing a "whole body" technique of musicmaking when it came to the piano.  Perhaps she was influenced by Euphemia Allen, whose Celebrated Chop Waltz was to be played with the sides of the hands?

Click on the titles for individual pages dedicated to each piece.  The recordings have been made by some of my own piano pupils, between the ages of 6 and 10, of a similar level to that at which the primer appears to be aimed.  Each recording was taken during the course of a normal lesson, played on a Yamaha U30Bl upright piano, and recorded on a Zoom H2N recorder.

Gaynor was not known to be gregarious, and several figures in the Seaton Snook establishment took against her unreasonably for having left the town to study.  Despite this, she was of a positive demeanour, especially when working with the schoolchildren and her own piano pupils. She did, however, have her melancholic side, which seemed to have played out in her compositions on occasion.  Several events in her life appear to have affected her in this way, too.  Her father's early death, and the curtailing of her possible life and career outside Seaton Snook, for example.  There is evidence that one of her pupils died in a tragic bonfire accident in 1921, although I have not managed to confirm this.  Early readings of some of her personal letters hint at a romantic involvement with a German worker at the Zinc plant, who was transported to a concentration camp at the outbreak of the First World War