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The Civic Organist

The Borough, Burgh or City Organist is a comparatively rare breed, possibly even an endangered species. Prior to the ready availability of live orchestral and choral music, the Civic Organist was often to be found busily engaged as a kind of live ancestor of the synthesiser. Transcription and arrangement was the player's daily bread and butter and comparatively little repertoire actually composed for the king of instruments was heard in concert programmes. The very greatest players - of whom the most celebrated was undoubtedly Liverpool's W T Best - did, however, perform all the Mendelssohn canon and a considerable corpus of the works of Bach together with Liszt and Reubke. However, even players of Best's fastidious taste clearly provided a judicious mixture for their listeners - incorporating as much of what the public wanted to hear as what their artistic inclinations might lead them to programme in purely aesthetic terms.

Despite Best's pre-eminence and the similarly indefatigable energies of the redoubtable William Spark of Leeds, it is the two Walters (Huddersfield-born Parratt and Alcock, the man of Kent) who are generally accorded the credit for founding the modern tradition of English organ playing. Their pedagogic influence, both directly and by means of the countless number of students who passed through their hands at the Royal College of Music, remains formidable . Parratt's musical tastes were wide and by no means confined to music of the British Isles. Alcock was a recitalist par excellence, yet also one who devised a methodical organ primer which for almost three quarters of a century had no equal in the English speaking world. Busied with ecclesiastical as well as professorial duties, neither man seemed to have had time or inclination to compose extensively - though Alcock's brilliant Introduction and Passacaglia (written for the composer to play at the 1933 Three Choirs' Festival) remains a highpoint of organ composition between the Wars.

Virtuoso players of the calibre of G D Cunningham and Arnold Richardson (Borough Organist of Wolverhampton) were essentially distinguished practical musicians rather than organist/composers. Cunningham's successor at Birmingham Town Hall, the late and much loved Sir George Thalben-Ball, published a small, but significant tally of organ works of which the Poema and an ingenious Toccata Beorma bespeak his strong links with the capital of the midlands (both men were organist to University as well as City). GTB's effervescent Variations on a Theme of Paganini are a real tour-de-force - definitely not for the faint-hearted - but the two Elegies (especially that in B flat) rest much more easily beneath fingers and feet.

Nor should one ignore the influence on the concert repertoire of arguably the most gifted Civic Organist this country never had - Edwin Henry Lemare - whose weekly recitals at St Margaret's Westminster in the years leading up to the First World War packed that fashionable church to the doors. Lemare held a clutch of civic positions in the United States; but his main posthumous influence is probably most significant in terms of publishing. Here his output was enormous and comprised much music of his own as well as works by others of the period - notably Alfred Hollins - music which was especially and peculiarly suited for recital rather than liturgical work.

And Lemare was not the only significant figure as a series editor. The young and prodigiously gifted Henry Ley busied himself with a series for Stainer and Bell (a publishing concern then in its infancy) which issued more than a few works which have become concert classics (Norman Cocker's Tuba Tune among them). This repertoire includes pieces that ought to be concert classics - Sir William Harris's monumental Fantasy on Campion's "Babylon's Streams" springs readily to mind in that category.

Another important catalyst was Bernard Johnson, lured from Bridlington Priory by Jesse Boot to be the first organist of the Albert Hall, Nottingham. His recital and publishing activities were both highly significant, as was Reginald Goss-Custard's work as Organist of the Alexandra Palace. Like Johnson's Nottingham position, Goss-Custard's was one of very few secular appointments not sponsored by a municipality; his work bore fruit in the publications he edited for Schott, not least being the famous Albums titled by the colour of the cover. Within their pages are to be found lighter riches of the calibre of RG-C's own Chelsea Fayre. It is thus well seen that Goss -Custard and Lemare were, clearly, both entertainers as well as enlighteners. Rustles of Spring, Romances and Scherzos sit side-by-side with Wagner excerpts and other more main-stream gems from the more traditional orchestral arena.

In our own day, Dr Noel Rawsthorne (City Organist of Liverpool from 1980 to 1984) has provided the player of tomorrow with highly idiomatic and imaginative anthologies of favourite music. These include both original compositions from his own hand and craftsmanly arrangement as well written as they are practical for all kinds of instruments. Not since the Edwardian period have so many good transcriptions been so readily available for the player as are in print today.

Changing patterns of concert going and pressures of modern life have led to a decline in the presentation of full evening recitals other than in Cathedrals, College Chapels and the greater Churches. In these venues, the ambience of the setting is a major contributory factor; many of our greatest ecclesiastical buildings are seen at their most entrancing at night and the combination of setting with sound can combine in a wonderful way. The mystery of music pervading the air from a distant eyrie-like area from where the organist labours unceasingly at a magnificent and often complex console which sometimes  controls musical egress from several geographical locations at once provides a heady cocktail for the listener's senses.

The reduction of large-scale evening presentations outside ecclesiastical buildings has, however, been followed by a substantial increase in the provision of lunchtime organ music on a substantial scale. In this particular field, Thalben-Ball held special sway for three decades at Birmingham. There his programmes were often spiced with American music (presumably collected during the course of his extensive concert tours) and the wonderful colour of his registrations, the easeful elegance of his phrasing and, above all, his stupendous - and seemingly effortless - technique linger long in the memory. A particular characteristic of his performances was the affectionate care he lavished on comparatively modest works by 18th century London precursors - most notably William Boyce and John Stanley. Like GTB himself, Stanley served with great distinction for over sixty years as Organist of London's Temple Church. Sir George's successor at Birmingham, Thomas Trotter, represents for many of us in the profession the very present-day embodiment of the greatest traditions of the English virtuoso combined not only with great personal integrity but with a clear vision of the artistic importance of these regular presentations.  His playing entertains by the virility of purpose which he communicates so powerfully to his listeners - it does not leave the starting-gate as the playing of an entertainer.
A further factor in the expansion of lunchtime music making throughout Britain has been the great following that organists of Churches within the City of London's "square mile" (and also in the central parts of some other metropolitan cities) attracted and enjoyed - a happy tradition which continues to flourish today. Theirs was, and is, a particular ministry in music to the busy office worker and the visiting worshipper or tourist. Now that the weekly early evening recitals at the South Bank are a thing of the past, the kaleidoscopic variety of this continuing City tradition in the presentation of lunchtime recitals remains a jewel in the capital's artistic crown to be jealously guarded.

Those of us privileged to serve in civic positions today are the happy heirs of much of this rich inheritance. The doyen of us all is Walsall's Harold Britton, borough organist for over forty years. If you've not heard Harold's Variations on Gershwin's I got rhythm then you've missed a treat! His concerts attract very substantial audiences and are wonderfully varied.

The Birmingham midday recitals are currently exiled from the pre-Victorian Town Hall (now needing major refurbishment) and have decamped to the gorgeous Palladian Cathedral of St Philip which is regularly full. Recitals at Huddersfield and Leeds are both very well supported by a loyal core of concert goers. The Leeds events remain free of charge (just!), though a small admission is levied nowadays at Huddersfield. Both venues now contain facilities for the purchase of light refreshments or lunch. It is unfortunate, but sound common sense, that each of these famous three series is scheduled for a Monday; until very recently, Huddersfield on Monday, Leeds on Tuesday and Birmingham on Wednesday made for a good mini-tour opportunity for the most ardent enthusiast for the art of the organ. Birmingham's new slot turned out to be the best at the Cathedral, and the Leeds management was having to forgo far too many conference lettings. The canny burghers of Huddersfield had come to such a conclusion long ago and have greeted the Leeds change (for we share a number of audience members between us) with generous good nature.

The economics of such regular presentations make for interesting reading. A hall hire charge has to be defrayed first - this ranges between £150 and £450 for the average lunchtime concert with a rehearsal the same morning. The maintenance of performing standards is really only possible because sympathetic hall managements generally allow an amount of additional rehearsal related to these events to take place on preceding day(s) or evenings without hire charge when the building is free of other bookings. On top of the hall, there is a fee for a visiting player (often very little more than the present-day recommended minimum of the Incorporated Society of Musicians), programme printing and publicity leaflets. At Leeds, the recitals number between 25 and 30 each season from Autumn to Easter (one every week with a very few exceptions) and the expenditure budget is about £5 ,000 p.a. If one sectorises an apportionment of the local government officer's (s') salary(ies) for the organisational work (and in my case a considerable percentage of the playing), adds organ tuning and maintenance together with other important incidentals such as PRS payments, it could be judged that the City spends upwards of £24,000 on this provision. Income ranges from a collection between £130 and £500, together with any moneys raised from individual or corporate sponsorship.

The tasks of cooking and programme-planning present a set of very similar challenges. The menu/repertoire needs to be varied, yet enticing. It is good to be able to contemplate occasions when some presentations are frankly challenging to listener and performer. Terrific highlights for us in Leeds have been John Scott Whiteley's Messiaen Trinity cycle, as well as substantial works of Dupré - Alan Spedding's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin and Tom Corfield's complete Le Chemin de la Croix spring to mind. Among my own personal favourites has been a presentation of repertoire inspired by the psalms interspersed with scripture readings by Canon Stephen Oliver, who was persuaded to incant the appropriate verses over the opening of the first and second sections of Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm. Canon Oliver later declaimed with great presence the verses which inspired the final fugue. These last-mentioned were very powerful in effect, being placed in a vacuum following the tense fermata at the end of the central section. Another highlight was James Griffett's passionately haunting singing of plainchant in a programme consisting entirely of music based on that matchless corpus of early Western music. Not all this may have been to everyone's taste, but the evidence suggests that regular audience members find an occasional change from a more normal six or seven item programme as good as the proverbial rest.

The link between cuisine and sound can be further articulated in terms of flavour. Just occasionally, it's glorious to wallow in almost unrelieved indulgence - music of the genre deliciously referred to by Sir Thomas Beecham as a "lollipop". It is indisputable that counterpoint ranks particularly highly among the very best music for the king of instruments; fugues and variation form are always particularly impressive and often consummately satisfying - for the player particularly. Their inclusion in the "heavier" type of programme in profusion may well be a mistake; sometimes a frank (?fearless) member of the audience will levy a complaint about too great a complexity and express a fervent longing for melody. "Give us a tune" is an injunction we ignore at our peril as performers.

Crucial, too, should be the provision of some contemporary music, otherwise the art of organ composition will die. The presence in Leeds of composers of the calibre of Philip Wilby and James Brown is a significant and continuing inspiration and has resulted in a number of premieres. Each (both are organists) has rendered signal service to the musical life of the West Riding in general and of the University in particular.

It is perhaps strange that only in relatively recent years have players begun to explore to the full a vast amount of music for organ and other media.  The American Organ Plus catalogue is a veritable vade-mecum for the enterprising programme planner, but a surprisingly extensive tally of conventional music for solo instrument and keyboard is wonderfully evocative for organ performance. The late Geoffrey Tristram's evergreen recording of "Music for the Quiet Hours" in Christchurch Priory with violinist Raymond Moseley bears eloquent witness to the effectiveness of that combination as well as to Tristram's tremendous flair as accompanist. It can be persuasively argued that the sonatas of Handel and, especially, Corelli sound infinitely superior with organ continuo rather than the more frequently encountered harpsichord or piano. Solo 'cello, trumpet and flute are especially effective too as is the oboe (though it's very important for the organ to be exactly at modern concert pitch for this last-named combination).

Still greater riches exist for organ and ensemble consisting of more than one additional musician. The chorale-based works of Karg-Elert in which violin and voice are deployed as additional tonal resources for the organist rather than independent entities in their own right remain a small, but very significant pinnacle of the romantic repertoire. There is a great treasure store of music for organ and brass – to say nothing of baroque keyboard concertos – which can be very effectively achieved with as few as four or five string players in addition to the organist.

Civic organ posts become vacant only very occasionally. This may be a combination of commitment, contentment, complacency or a bit of all three! The job is, of course, far more than just playing. The establishment of a relationship with an audience is a major part of it. Expectations seem to range ever higher and the quality of playing and engineering on organ recordings is now of a consistently formidable standard. This provides its own pressure - a pressure that one needs to acknowledge without being obsessed with it. Life simply does not involve for most of us the continual achievement of standard as will hopefully be found on recordings, undertaken often at considerable leisure under almost ideal conditions.

A significant development has been the growth of spoken introductions to the music to be played. Some performers are more suited to this skill than in the provision of programme notes. At other times, words seem to come as an intrusion between player and listener. Some folk never speak to an audience from one year's end to the next and yet hold their public spellbound on each occasion, others of us probably talk rather too much perhaps. Most manage a happy medium.

The spoken and written word leads neatly on to a further contemporary trend, that of the civic organist as educator. There is a danger perhaps in slipping over a dividing line between missionary and preacher, but the remarkable contributions of a number of the most distinguished present-day players of the calibre of Huddersfield's Gordon Stewart continue a vital and life-enhancing role as educators par excellence. Mr Stewart's complete commitment to the development of the art of the organ is well-known and universally appreciated. And he is by no means alone in that field - Ian Tracey in Liverpool and Manchester Grammar School's Andrew Dean spring readily to mind too. Here in the North country, Professor Tracey's is certainly the most substantial commitment of any individual organist to his home city. He is City Organist at St George's Hall, Cathedral Organist and Master of the Choristers, Chorus Master of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, and those are but three strings to his very substantial bow.

Being visible while playing is a substantial bonus enjoyed in many civic venues and an experience apparently greatly appreciated by concert goers. For the player, this presents challenges as well as chances. Ease of control, challenge of meeting the unforeseen head-on, body language - all are instantly presented for popular assessment. Hand registration, though quite tricky on a very large instrument, is a wonderfully relaxing pastime and especially valuable for a student to observe. Drawing stops by hand in these days of instantly adjustable control for pistons, sequencers and other technology might seem Luddite in outlook but such natural movement, hallowed by centuries of players, is a delight to the eye and further enhances desirable rapport between keyboard and auditorium. The visual contact offered in many of our great Town and City Halls must be a major element in the atmosphere of public recitals in those settings - a kind of reversal of the romantic distance enkindled within the church ambience mentioned earlier.

What of the future? The infrastructure in terms of organ plant is in very good shape. Most of the remaining civic instruments are in very sound condition and still others look likely to benefit from assistance from the National Heritage Lottery Fund. Some superb early twentieth century organs have received wonderfully sympathetic restoration, making one thankful that they never fell victim to period fad or fashion.  Specially magnificent have been the recent Harrison work at the Caird Hall, Dundee and the Albert Hall, Nottingham. These instruments, like the fine Binns at Rochdale Town Hall restored by Walker, are controlled by pneumatic action of wondrously sensitive response. An added bonus to aficionados of Town Halls and their music at Dundee is the availability of the original piston settings specified by the instrument's designer, Alfred Hollins. Important work has been done very recently too at Leicester's De Montfort Hall as the result of local enthusiasm for, and pride in, the instrument there. The fine Willis III organ at Sheffield City Hall is sustained largely by a devoted band of advocates - most of whom are members of the flourishing Sheffield and District Organists & Choirmasters' Association. Plans are well underway to secure the future of the fine Hill/Rushworth instrument at Halifax's Victoria Theatre.

There are significant pastoral considerations for those involved in regular lunchtime concerts. It is continually humbling to play to some folk for whom their regular visit to the Hall is the main outing of the week. We remind our civic fathers (and mothers) that organ music is a mature taste when they comment on the large percentage of senior citizens relative to the tally of youngsters in regular attendance. For many, the king of instruments is indelibly associated with head-line events within the family circle - the "four wheeler" aspect of church attendance - and it is therefore important to provide an occasional reminder of these major emotional and spiritual occasions.

Maybe, like the popular lager, the organ fuels parts of our inner being generally beyond regular reach. If one believes that it does, the privilege of being involved in the art of the instrument in many of its manifestations is at once an awesome and a supremely fulfilling activity.

based on an address  presented to
York and District Organists' Association, February 1998

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