Dame Gillian Weir - a look back at a unique career

Ann Elise Smoot

Dame Gillian Weir is one of the few organists to have broken out of the isolated world of the organ loft and cut an inimitable swathe through the music world at large. Over the course of a career spanning nearly 50 years, she has become arguably the most globally recognized ambassador for the organ and its repertoire. In a musical culture where the organ is still seen by many as a fringe interest, Dame Gillian has still entered the annals as one of the all-time great musicians. Named one of the 100 greatest players (NB of all instrumental players, not just organists) of the century, and as one of the “1000 Music Makers of the Millennium” by The Sunday Times, Dame Gillian was also the first (and only) organist to be made a DBE. The list of honors and awards she has received is far too long to include here. She has performed over 350 times with orchestras and given nearly 2,000 performances in all, including some 50 performances at the South Bank complex. She played a major role in introducing the works of Olivier Messiaen to the UK (and further afield), and has premièred numerous works commissioned specially for her by such institutions as the BBC and the Royal Philharmonic Society. And in a profession in which the reputation of an organist as a performer is often greatly aided by being linked with a major academic or religious institution, Dame Gillian has achieved all this by carving out a unique career path, far away from the cathedral quire and organ loft.

Now 71, Dame Gillian has decided to make 2012 her last year of public performances, and will revisit some of her favorite venues, culminating in a final recital on 5th December at Westminster Cathedral, where she first played as a student in 1964. Last December I was fortunate enough to hear her thoughts on her long and distinguished career, on her future plans, and on the future of the organ.

I asked her first about what she perceived as the highlights of her illustrious career. After thinking for a moment, she began my saying, “It was pretty fantastic that for my 60th birthday concert John Drummond came and interviewed me on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall and that the Hall sold out in two days. The South Bank Show wanting to make a documentary with me in 2000 was also very unusual, as they had not otherwise worked with an organist, and it was fun to be among a pantheon that included Marilyn Monroe(!) - as well as so many main stream cultural figures. And, of course, the six-part BBC TV series, which had an audience of two million each week (and is now available on DVD) was also very important”.

“I’ve also been fortunate enough to play in so many wonderful opening series, and on the world’s great venues, both on my own and with great orchestras. Vienna’s Musikverein, the Salzburg Mozarteum, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Suntory Hall, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Disney Hall, the Sydney Opera House - these are wonderful venues in which to have the privilege of playing.”

Other high points for Dame Gillian were “having played on both the First and Last Nights of the Proms and many times in between, and for the 100th anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall and for the 25th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall, for which a concerto was commissioned for me to première. I also played for the 50th anniversary of the RFH organ, and I gave there from his manuscript of the UK première of Messiaen’s monumental Mèditations, which he gave me after his première at Washington’s National Shrine; later I recorded all the organ works for the BBC on that organ, one of his favorites. And, of course, I was honoured to play three double-concerto concerts last year during the opening celebrations of the new organ at the Musikverein, which many regard as the greatest concert hall in the world (familiar to audiences through the New Year’s Day telecasts), and with the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra many claim to be the greatest.” (As for career low points, Dame Gillian laughed and said, “Whenever an organ has gone wrong!”)

Why is Dame Gillian so often the go-to performer for big occasions? Of course, that’s a question that she was far too modest to answer comfortably, but she did offer some thoughts:

“I’ve played a serious repertoire of real music, not just voluntaries... I think it was music that a general musical audience appreciated, and perhaps presented in a way that they appreciated: in other words, you have to look like a real concert performer. I don’t mean glamorous, which I’ve never set out to be, but at least as a singer or pianist would dress. And, of course, with very serious preparation, which even now is not always understood. A request for five hours’ rehearsal the day before the recital and three on the day seems excessive to some organizers, but the result of that is that one is able to know the organ thoroughly and make it one’s own. It helps produce the kind of playing that reaches out to an audience.”

In the course of our conversation Dame Gillian also reflected on some of her major musical influences. Ralph Downes, her organ teacher at the Royal College of Music, was obviously one. Anther she mentioned was

“Anton Heiller. I thought his Bach playing was the perfect mixture of technique, musicianship and scholarship - with all those elements in the right proportion with one another, none dominating the rest. In other words, just producing wonderful music. Too many people give us ’demonstrations’ now, rather than performances: ‘We will now demonstrate the reeds of this organ, we will demonstrate the mixtures, we will demonstrate early fingering’, and so forth, and you even read it constantly in record reviews: ‘The mixtures of this organ were demonstrated magnificently in such and such.’ You can’t imagine a review of a piano recording saying ‘the sustaining pedal of the Steinway was demonstrated in the Waldstein sonata.’ It’s tragic that the music has been subsumed in this way. An instrument is a medium - and ours is a wonderful medium - but it is not the message.” Dame Gillian is an ambassador for music first and her instrument second, which may in part explain why she is taken seriously by the larger musical world.

She didn’t plan her career. “When I had entered the St Albans competition, at Ralph Downes’s urging,” she reflected, “I nearly didn’t go there on the day, thinking there’d be no point. Then a friend telephoned and said ‘Where are you? Come at once!’ So off I rushed to St Albans, playing last of the competitors and then going to lunch without checking the results. I had to be found and dragged back for briefing as I was selected for the finals. After winning first prize, with a broadcast attached, I found myself suddenly with many many invitations to play, including one to open the next Proms season and another for a solo recital at the RFH. A career solely as a concert organist was unheard of, but suddenly that’s what I was. As I had played a major work of Messiaen’s in the final round, the occasion also began my long association with his music; indeed for many years people would question my programme if it did not include a Messiaen work. Even in France he was then barely known, as I discovered when I taught my first Messiaen seminar in Toulouse.”

I asked Dame Gillian how she had come to the organ. “In some ways I think I was very lucky not to grow up in the church tradition”, she said. “I wasn’t a choirgirl who was fascinated by the sound of the tubas, I was just in love with music. I started through the medium of dance - dancing around my home to music from the radio. I think that this linking of music with the movement of the body can impart a natural sense of phrasing and flow, which are so important.”

“I had always loved playing the piano; I didn’t know about organs. As a teenager I was asked to step in at my local church to play a small weekday service, and had to figure out how to make it work; I started some lessons and eventually won a scholarship to study both piano and organ at the Royal College of Music. But I reckon I became an organist from the moment I played the Schnitger organ in Alkmaar. I had accompanied Ralph Downes, my teacher, to turn pages for him and was allowed to try the organ. Three hours later they had to pull me off, saying tourists were complaining - I remember saying “This is fantastic! I can hear all the contrapuntal voices as though they are marching up the nave; this is the voice of Bach!” It was Bach I fell in love with as an organist, and on this miraculous organ his music came alive as never before. It was a moment of revelation. I spent many years after that studying the history of the organ and learning why organs differed so greatly, and how fascinating its hugely varied repertoire can be.”

Another major influence in Gillian Weir’s life was her husband, organ builder Lawrence Phelps, to whom she was married for 26 years; organ devotees will know his organ in Hexham Abbey. “He was first and foremost a musician, who began by studying conducting at the New England Conservatory. To fund his studies he ushered every evening at Symphony Hall in Boston and he used to talk to me continually about Munch and Koussevitsky and other legendary conductors he had heard there. But he was also an engineer; brilliantly innovative, and eager to use his technical knowledge to serve the music. In particular he developed organ actions to an unparalleled level of sophistication; his large mechanical-action organs have the sensitivity of a harpsichord. He was always curious about new ideas. I was fascinated recently to find letters he had written long ago, in his youth, about ‘a new device that held great possibilities and was called a computer’.”

“Of course, we would talk about design - he was responsible for some 750 organs of every kind - and I learned much about what is possible technically and what is not, as well as what can be achieved with tonal design. For my part I was able to suggest refinements from a player’s point of view that would enhance performance or facilitate faithful performances of the repertoire. He took the essential elements of historical organs and distilled them to produce an instrument that was not a copy but which at its best combined in a very original way the attributes necessary for the organ’s core repertoire.”

Although her career is about to undergo a sea change, Dame Gillian shows no signs of slowing down. “I do intend to stop playing public concerts at the end of 2012. I’ve been doing a ‘phased withdrawal’, as they say and this year sees the last concerts in Europe and the U.K. I’ll be playing in some of my favorite venues, leading up to the final concert, which will be on December 5th in Westminster Cathedral. I played one of my first recitals there as a student, in November 1964, incredibly! After that I’ll continue with master-classes and adjudicating, both of which I enjoy, and some recording just for the pleasure of it: some more Bach and some Romantic music too. I’ve already done The Eighteen from Bach’s own church, which was a great pleasure; it was the first recording on the new organ (another high point!), after the resident organist (the brilliant Ullrich Böhme) had opened the new ‘Bach Millennium organ’ and I had been invited to follow with a performance of the Clavierübung III. An extraordinary experience, with the eyes of the master himself boring into my back from his stained glass window opposite the organ gallery.”

Dame Gillian has always been a committed and inspiring teacher, and she intends to continue her work in this area. “I’m always interested in what students are doing and particularly interested in the psychology of teaching. It has been rewarding to be involved with so many of our fine players, often from Cambridge University where I lived for a while - for example John Scott, Thomas Trotter, David Hill, Ivor Bolton (now a well-known conductor), James Lancelot and Francis Grier, and many others from elsewhere. Adjudicating, too, keeps me in touch with standards and the trends in many different countries. I also plan to do quite other things - such as some sightseeing in the places I have been to but never had time to explore!”

I asked Dame Gilian about the future of the organ, and in particular about any issues that concerned her. I reminded her of the graduation address she gave upon receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Central England in Birmingham in which she stated, “Today we tend to specialize so much in our subjects that if we are not careful we develop tunnel vision. It is the nature of tunnels to be black and gloomy, but life should be lived in vivid colour. An understanding of the classical arts supplies that colour: gradually we see more beauty in everything, and we feel more deeply, understand other people at a more instinctive level, and, in short, live more intensely and more fully. The writer Kingsley Amis famously said ‘We don’t have education any more; we just have work training’.” I wondered if this still encapsulated how she felt. It did.

“The biggest pitfall for the organ has always been isolationism from the rest of the word of music. There’s only one way to learn an organ piece properly and that is to learn virtually all the music by that particular composer, not just the one piece. You have no idea how that piece relates to the rest of the composer’s output, for example. he could be looking forward or backward... and, of course, you don’t really know anything about the composer until you know all the other composers! The isolationism of the organist and how often it’s just a matter of learning up a voluntary for next Sunday has been a tragedy.”

“Another problem is that the organ world has been bedeviled by a sort of teaching by exclusion - negative commands, rather than positive instructions and wide-ranging information. This is especially so with early music: ‘You must never join two notes; you must never use your heels (despite Bach’s expressly recommending their use), you must reverse those fingerings’ and a range of other must-nots. Often the students seem to have no idea of the reasons behind these commands, or of the context of the music they are studying (except at the most basic level), or of the enormous number of possibilities that exist for historically appropriate performance. The context is the most important factor, as it enables the player to learn to discriminate and to formulate his own convictions, backed by a genuinely wide-ranging knowledge of the period. Context teaches how a certain tradition relates to its time and place, and how it arose and why, so that intelligent decisions can be made about its relevance now. Then we can open a window for the student to fly out to freedom, rather than imprison him in chains.” Students of Dame Gillian (myself included) can attest to this philosophy driving her work in this area; her teaching combines a wonderful mixture of historical knowledge, passionate musicianship, colourful metaphor (including many helpful references to the relevant literature and art), as well as practical technical help based on experience; I can remember bringing the Poulenc organ concerto to one lesson, for example, and having Dame Gillian write in the score all the places where I must insist on eye contact with the conductor, or court disaster. All of this combines to help a student freely express his or her natural musical personality, without being suffocated by dogma. I asked also about the trends in the larger cultural world that concerned her. She remarked:

“I think the biggest problem classical music has to face is the very ubiquity of music, certainly of noise. The only way to stay sane is to shut it out, so in trying to do so people forget how to listen. The soundbite culture is part of this. We are losing the ability to maintain concentration long enough to focus on a musical argument. Great music describes a journey, and the listener has to be able and willing to make that journey with you. Beecham famously said that the British don’t like music, they just like the sound it makes. An exaggeration perhaps, but with a kernel of truth. Musicians are optimistic to imagine that after resisting the incessant stream of so-called music poured out in shops, the street, offices, even - heaven help us - in bookshops, someone can go into a concert hall and instantly switch on powers of concentration sufficient to follow the argument of a lengthy symphony. Actually the same problem now exists with reading; not many young people read voraciously - yet books are the passport to magic worlds!” I wonder how Dame Gillian felt about her career, and what it was like to reflect on so many achievements.

“I’m so grateful for having done so many interesting, things: it’s been a fascinating career. I’ve played in so many different places and done so many wonderful things and also dipped into trying to help in other ways, as with the three organisations of which I’ve been President. I’ve tried to change things a little; I was able to bring women onto the the RCO Council, for example, and start a modernising trend there, and I was also at the ISM at a time of change. Of course one always feels inadequate and wishes one could have done more and better, but I’m certainly grateful for having done so much.”

Dame Gillian offered some advice for the next generation of organists.

“Polonius said it all: ‘To thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ Hold to the principle of musicianship and don’t just accommodate. It’s very difficult - I understand that - and for those working in the church it’s often especially so if you have clergy who are opposed to serious music, or indeed are simply not familiar with it. The attractions of ‘Rave in the Nave’ must be hard to fight in these circumstances. But if you believe in the power of music then it is worth making an effort to persuade others of its glories. It is important to make it ‘approachable’ to your listeners not by dumbing down but by explaining the music as fully as possible and presenting it well. Good program notes - not about the modulation to the sub-mediant minor in the 6th measure but about your own feelings for the piece, for instance, and the composer’s intentions if you know them; that sort of thing can be a big help.”

“Of course it is also fun just to revel in the excitement of a fine organ for its own sake, and in pieces that express that enjoyment. But great music changes people, and if you believe that, with passion and conviction, you will create the channels through which a magical power of transformation and joy can flow.”

Organists' Review, June 2012
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