The Compleat Organist
An article for the programme of a special concert in celebration of Dr Noel Rawsthorne's 70th. Birthday in January 2000.
For a quarter of a century master of the mightiest Mersey sound of all, Noel Rawsthorne notched up his three score years and ten in December.
Demeanour, wit, sense of humour and enjoyment of life give the lie to the tally of years totalling seventy. Noel is, emphatically, one of those folk who are busy enjoying their retirement. But how marvellous it is for us that Organists, Choristers, Congregations and Audiences everywhere have considerable cause to be thankful that the manuscript page has been as much the recipient of his most recent energies as his beloved garden and greenhouse.
Besides today's unique programme of vivid original compositions and deftly scored transcriptions, there are other opportunities at
Huddersfield Town Hall events during the Millennial Year to appreciate the art of Noel Rawsthorne – composer and arranger. His script, scoring and musical layout - all these aspects are firm, focused and
gloriously secure. There are no spare notes, no musical equivalent of verbal waffle; everything lies beautifully under hands and feet and encapsulates so much of the clarity and sense of direction which are such
significant elements of his character.
Among original compositions for the king of instruments, the substantial Dance Suite (written to celebrate the re-opening of the Huddersfield Town Hall organ after major work) and the hilarious Hornpipe Humoresque claim particular attention. But maybe the heart of his muse is enshrined in the lovely Aria – elegant, fluent, pulsing with emotion but not with the heart on the sleeve: above all, memorable.
For the organist, he has rehabilitated some of music's most attractive works by providing eminently practical arrangements which, while
challenging the professional, do not remain beyond the scope of those for whom recitals and recordings are not within their regular experience. Rawsthorne's repertoire enhancement includes a number of "musts"
– volumes which are in every self-respecting player's music cupboard: Music for the Bride, Music of Remembrance and, particularly, Encore! from which last named anthology much of this afternoon's programme has
On the choral scene, it has been proved that he is thoroughly at home when composing for "all sorts and conditions" of choirs. Interestingly,
the considerable number of pieces designed specifically for the Liverpool Cathedral Choir, while fitting that most individual of ambient acoustics like a glove, do not rely for their effect on a resonant acoustic
but are happily at home in less generously proportioned surroundings. Of the liturgical items, the fine Responses and the Liverpool Mass claim particular attention. The more modestly conceived Festive Eucharist composed for the opening of the Cathedral in 1978 is very widely sung as are some of his vividly-etched miniatures – God be in my head, Like as the hart and I will lift up mine eyes spring at once to mind.
For listeners the world over, Noel as an interpreter of the keyboard repertoire represents the very best in English organ playing. A vivid and
unerring sense of colour, warmly eloquent phrasing and sturdy rhythm pervades all his performances. Having for much of his life played one of the world's finest instruments, he is also particularly well-known for
getting the very best out of rather more modest (even quirky) musical resources. Add to such already substantial musical virtues the extraordinary fusion of artist and craftsman which is a source of constant
admiration to his colleagues and it is possible to glean something of the master's strength of character and depth of influence.
Pupil of Germani in Italy and Harold Dawber at the Royal Manchester College, Rawsthorne's own list of pupils reads like a Who's Who in musical
Merseyside. His successor as cathedral organist, Ian Tracey, is but one of many and this large band of musicians includes the brothers Duffy, Philip & Terence, who were his colleagues at the other end of Hope
Street in music-making at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. Yet his teaching has been far more a matter of service rather than status. Generations of students have had cause for considerable gratitude
on account of his creative teaching and individual coaching – especially in keyboard skills – for classroom rather than cathedral. The award of an honorary doctorate in music from the University of
Liverpool was not only richly-deserved but has given much pleasure to admirers and colleagues alike.
Rawsthorne's commitment to the music making of his home city – not least through his long service to St Katherine's College as a music
lecturer – has been total. The Cathedral, though for long his main centre of activity, forms only part of the story. On retirement as from the console of the grandest Willis of them all in 1980, his energies
were whole-heartedly directed to reviving the fortunes of music making at St George's Hall. There he served as City Organist until 1984 and revitalised that building's recital programme, raising once again its
profile as a centre for music in an environment that had loomed dangerously near to becoming a white elephant.
His work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra included supervision of the refurbishment of the Rushworth organ in the splendid
Philharmonic Hall and he has sustained substantial friendships, personal and professional, with successive maestro's of the 'Phil'. A particularly creative partnership with the late and much-loved Sir Charles Groves
is, happily, evidenced for us all in a number of very fine recordings. It is well known that his best-selling discography, especially his recordings on the Cathedral organ, is one of the most distinguished in the
post-war catalogues and many of his performances are widely acknowledged to be benchmark interpretations against which others are measured.
Noel's personal milestone, his three score years and ten, occurred in the last days of the century just ended. Much has been made not
many days ago of the turn of the year, the close of the century and those wretchedly hyped time-periods known to the marketing boys as "millennial moments".
Noel Rawsthorne, by his playing, his teaching and his composing is the creator of countless "millennial moments" for very many of us and
today's special concert provides a welcome opportunity for celebration and congratulation.
Happy Birthday, Noel, and every possible good wish and blessing from us all – many of whom here have been, and continue to be, enriched
by your generous friendship as much as by your creative genius and strength of character.
There are, in essence, two basic types of music – that which occurs indigenously, within as one might say, the native population and
that brought in from outside.