27 March 2019

Organists Just Like To Have Fun

It’s a thing we often say about composers and politicians; “They were the wrong person at the wrong time”.  We say it about Purcell, whose genius for opera was several decades too early for English tastes. We say it of Churchill, whose pre- and post-war political views were completely alien to the mass of the people.  I wonder if you could say that about me?

Egotistical as I am (I argue that to be a successful musician you have to be egotistical, so I make no apologies) as I grow older I look back not on missed opportunities but on opportunities which would have suited me perfectly had I just been born 50 years earlier.  I write not as an old crony who always bemoans the disappearance of the “good old days”, but of someone who made career and life choices which became redundant almost as soon as I made them. 

The two burning childhood ambitions I had were to be a bus driver and to be a cathedral organist.  Where the former came from, I don’t know, but from the age of 8, whenever a school holiday would come, my parents would send me off with a half crown in my pocket to buy a Red Rover, with which I could spend the day travelling the length and breadth of London on the red buses which dominated the streets (and still dominate, albeit with lots of garish decorations to celebrate their privatised status).  Along with my friend Peter Almond, we covered every London bus route and visited every nook and cranny of a city which was then busily rebuilding itself from the shattered ruins left in the wake of the Second World War.  I remember coming home one day and when my father asked where I had been, he seemed surprised that we had toured around the east end and the docks, around Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stratford; not because he felt I had been in any danger (which I most certainly was, but being unaware of it, it never crossed my mind to think of it), but because he hadn’t been there since the war and wondered whether anything was left.  I was able to tell him that the red RLH route (a great rarity) numbered 178 (I think), toured the deserted slums, the bomb-damaged warehouses and street after street of burnt out houses, and in its entire journey, never picked up another passenger – simply, nobody lived there, and nobody in their right mind went to that crime-ridden, sleaze-pot wasteland of abandoned industry.
My ambition to become a cathedral organist was more obviously rooted in my background.  Dad was an organist, we all went to church, I loved singing, I became a choirboy and gravitated, as if by an unstoppable force, to the organ.  I played an evensong in Guildford Cathedral when I was 16, and I was hooked.  Organ scholar at university (involving lots of playing and singing at Llandaff Cathedral until the ghastly Michael Smith came along and convinced us that not all cathedral organists were genial men with a passion for rugger and music), Sub-Organist at Bangor Cathedral (deputy to Andrew Goodwin who, despite being totally incongruous to the place, put down such strong roots he went on to become the UK’s longest-serving cathedral organist) and finally, at the age of 24, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Derry Cathedral in Ireland; the youngest cathedral organist in the British Isles at that point.

If I had achieved one of my burning ambitions at 24, I had achieved the other three years earlier when I got my licence enabling me to drive a manual transmission single decker of 12 meters length or more.  That I took my test on a single decked bus with a three speed crash gearbox did not exactly hinder me, but I needed the double decker licence as well, so a short spell with Cardiff City Transport got that sorted, and by my 22nd birthday I was a fully-fledged bus and coach driver.

Other ambitions came along and were all achieved remarkably early.  My desire to get into journalism and broadcasting was only made stronger after a disastrous interview with Robert Ponsonby, into which I was pushed by my university professor anxious to get sympathetic people into the BBC to help promote his music.  Again, the die was cast, and by a stroke of good fortune, my work as a music critic at the daily Western Mail opened up no end of doors with the Fleet Street press.  Being one of the few non-military English voices in Derry at the height of the “troubles” meant that the BBC snapped me up, first for daily arts programmes and then for more newsy stuff when an Irish accent would have immediately betrayed me as being on one side or the other (the English were universally hated, so we were seen as unreliable by both but, curiously, acceptable to both – they shared a mutual hatred of us which meant they would talk more freely in our presence).   

A desire to be an ABRSM examiner was realized two years earlier than the then permitted minimum age for examiners, due to the fact that Herbert Howells, on the appointments committee, was so fascinated by my coach driving (his father had been a coachbody builder) that our entire interview was given over to coaches, not a word about music, and at the end of it, he told the rest of the panel that they had to appoint me because he and I had so much still to talk about (which, sadly, we never did).  I loved my 18 years with ABRSM (and 16 more with Trinity), but I became disillusioned with both, as pressures to meet commercial objectives overran, as I saw it, both educational and musical ones.  The musical education of tens of thousands of young children were sacrificed on the altar of new ideas on business management, and I couldn’t live with that.  But I made dozens of wonderful friends, and visited dozens of marvellous countries, and to this day I still wake up in the night wishing I was about to head off for a day’s examining.  The lovely thing about it was that you never knew what you were going to hear, and in 100 performances of Petzold’s Minuet in G you would have at least half as many extraordinary re-interpretations and convoluted readings of the score; there really never was a dull moment examining.

But I was born in an age when the ABRSM was seen as the ultimate arbiter of musical ability; where the examiner’s word was final and where honest opinion was valued over mealy mouthed platitudes.  We may live in a kinder age, but we don’t live in a more honest one.  That conflict between the pressures of office-staff with a remit to ensure the machinery of exams run smoothly in accordance with high-flying business gurus brought in at great expense to streamline a perfectly serviceable operation, and the examiner determined to maintain clear and definite musical standards is something which came in the wake of Thatcherism, Reaganism and the computers; I wished I had not been around to witness it.

The excitement of seeing my name in print, of hearing my voice on the radio and of being listened to and read by thousands around the world made me determined to maintain an honest and clear-headed set of attitudes in my print and radio journalism.  If I felt the Irish hunger-strikers in the 1980s were committing acts against the teachings of the church, which was actively encouraging them, I said it loud and clear.  If I sincerely thought that Arvo Pārt and John Rutter were frauds, I wrote it, always sure to support it with carefully chosen opposing views; regretting the first ever since and facing a threat of legal action from the second.  My editors checked my copy, sometimes questioned it, sometimes demanded its change, but once through, always backing me to the hilt.  But it began to change 20 years or so ago when the editor was removed from the equation, and with it the need to be honest and fair.  Now, editor-less rantings and ravings in blogs and online chatrooms have taken over from reasoned and coherently argued discussion.  I wish I had disappeared from the scene before we lost the editors and allowed the opinionated bigots free rein on our media platforms.

Just as I was looking forward to another ten years’ happy bus driving in Scotland, the autonomous bus has arrived and my skill as a driver, honed over hours, days, months, years of careful training, is rapidly being replaced by a pre-programmed computer.  It makes things safer, I know, and is better all round for us: I just wish it hadn’t happened on my watch.

And then we come to the organ.  Last night I managed to avoid a concert given on a thing called an “electone”.  Apparently it is a digitalised machine with a couple of half keyboards and a row of stick like things which masquerade as pedals, from which, through the marvels of audio sampling, sounds can be coaxed which mimic and imitate those of other instruments.  A parasite, if ever there was one, feeding off the life blood of sincere, hard-working musicians and instrument makers in the headlong dash to achieve technological credibility at minimum effort.  Held in Asia’s premier music conservatory (a bit like holding a black mass in St Peter’s Rome) it apparently attracted a full house.  The programme even had the effrontery to include two pieces of organ music, one by Rheinberger described as “beautiful” (Rheinberger = dreary aimlessness), the other by Jehan Alain described as “beautiful” (Alain = pained and emotionally intense).  On top of that were orchestral transcriptions and just one original piece for “electone”. Students flock to learn his travesty of musical-type noise, and swoon and twitter over the remarkable way it sounds like a “real orchestra”.  And so they should.  Why bother with learning fingering, bowing, breath control, articulation, paradiddles, flams, and the like when you can just sit smiling at a computer and let it do most of the work for you?

To me it’s the last straw.  Once upon a time the organ was king.  Bach thought so, Mozart thought so, Beethoven thought so, Brahms thought so, Schumann thought so, Messiaen thought so… It’s not my place to disagree with them, but I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time: convenience and ease matter more than artistry and conscience, and the end is surely nigh for the organ.  We don’t have any students wanting to learn it in the conservatory, and public recitals, once the musical mainstay of society, are fading out of consciousness.

But the rot set in a long time ago.  My first main teacher had been a pupil of Thurston Dart, one of the pioneers of the so-called “Authentic Instrument” movement.  The organs of my youth were all being modelled on the “Baroque Tricks” expounded by Ralph Downes.  We learnt to avoid legato tone like the plague and to pedal just with our toes.  Orchestral and operatic transcriptions, once the mainstay of any organ recital, were out in that climate of musical purity and authenticity.  I rebelled against that, as did others, and from a few well-chosen teachers began to unbend the Holy Of Holies approach to “Baroque Tricks” and see the organ as a means for communication rather more than the ascetic mechanics of 18th century obsequies to music. 

And then, lo and behold, we learn that Dart and Downes got it wrong, and that they took an extreme view which was not supported by adequate evidence.  I loved playing Bach in Novello editions with swell pedals, big crescendi and huge rallentandi.  It was not “authentic” to the 18th century, but it was authentic to the 20th, with our love of big sounds and richly expressive music.   I loved being an organist then.  I learnt skills in programme planning and registration which ensured I could entertain an audience with good quality original music, well played (I hope) and ideally tailored to suit the needs of instrument and audience.  Serious and fun went hand in hand, although I have to say the serious was great fun for me as well!

All through my idyllic youth, however, there was an invidious sub-culture around; the Hammond Organ.  Identical in every respect to the “electone” except that it made a hideous sound which was unique rather than derivative.  Because it was called an Organ, it was assumed that it was the latest technological improvement on the pipe organ – easy sounds at a fraction of the cost, and who cares that those sounds are so vile?  Nobody promoted the Hammond Organ better than Monty Python, who moved from unconnected scene to unconnected scene by a back view of a naked man playing the Hammond Organ and turning to the camera saying “and now for something completely different”.  It became almost a catchphrase with organ recitalists (the phrase, not the nudity) and the seriousness at the core of the instrument was compromised.

It then went weird.  Jonathan Bielby, then organist of Wakefield Cathedral, released an LP of the organ music of Lefébure-Wély and it became a huge hit.  Suddenly all organists around the world were trotting out Lefébure-Wély to adoring audiences for whom the fairground cacophony, stupid at-console antics and dire melodic byways required no effort in listening and reminded us all of Monty Python.  Bach got shoved out of the way in this mad scramble for lowest-common denominator music from an age when musical standards were abysmally low and organists more showmen than artists.  Electronic organs of the Hammond and other varieties found their way into the traditional haunt of the church, and spotty youths were encouraged to have organ lessons because they had a Hammond at home.  Trying to convince them that the connection between a Hammond organ and pipe organ was as tenuous as that between an elephant and a postage stamp (remember those?), I met with blank stares.  To this day, outwardly intelligent musicians ask me if an “electronic” will do when an organ part is called for in a symphony or oratorio.  Students are taught on “electones” and think that they know how to play the organ, and audiences flock (apparently) to “electone” recitals because they think they are witnessing cutting-edge musical technology at work.

Meanwhile, players of pipe organs have gone back to the “Baroque Tricks” of Downes, but this time gone even further.  Now we don’t just want the organ to sound like an 18th century one, but look like one too.  Stops (those vital tools for manipulating the various sounds) are placed so out of the way that whole armies of people are called on to push them out and pull them in, tuning systems are brought out of museums so that the organ not only cannot be played with an orchestra but cannot be used with a choir.  No wonder we flock to the “electone” – at least it sounds nice, which is one up on most pipe organs today.  Today’s organists are serious, stiff and boring; you can’t imagine them having fun.

So here I am.  Irrelevant to the organ world until fashions change and for a fleeting moment my style of playing comes back into vogue, irrelevant to the bus driving world until such time as an autonomous bus does a Boeing 737max and forces everyone on board to die when the technology drives it over a cliff edge, irrelevant to a world where considered and honest views are drowned out by the noise of ill-considered bigotry, and wondering whether music is a commodity to be weighed in dollars and cents or emotions and intellect. 

Of course, there is one bright spot.  No editor in the world would permit me to write this self-indulgent, unbalanced rubbish without heavy editing and excisions.  I can, at least, embrace the brave New World by being yet another bigoted egotist assuming there is an audience for my pointless and rambling prose.