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A Conversation with Gillian Weir

by Laurence Jenkins

Gillian Weir is one of the finest concert artists in the world. Her performances all over the globe are hailed as “exciting,” “definitive,” “brilliant,” and generally top-notch. Organists can be proud to count her among their ranks, but as a matter of interest, Gillian Weir did not plan to become an organist. She was solidly on her way to becoming a pianist when she encountered a mechanical-action organ which changed her fate and lifted the standard of organ performance in one motion.

Born in New Zealand, to which she returns almost annually a “favorite daughter,” Gillian Weir now resides in Britain, a proud citizen of the country which she reports has been good to her. Indeed, it would seem that the good things began to happen here when she won the St. Alban's International Organ Competition in 1964 and began a skyrocketing career the next year, with appearances at the Royal Festival and Royal Albert Halls, the latter appearance as soloist at the opening night of the “Proms.”

But hers was no mere virtuoso talent, and so she has endured to become perhaps the most sought-after performer on the organ today. Her scholarship, dedication, and ability to project the music she plays, no matter what period or style, have caused departments of music in all countries to engage her as teacher, lecturer, and expert on composers from Marchand to Messiaen, and it was in the midst of doing some recordings for the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) that I was able to secure an interview with her in the heart of London's Mayfair.

Anyone who has ever had occasion to encounter Gillian Weir has, I am sure, remembered the event. An event is just what this remarkable woman makes of a meeting and on the night of this interview she was in good form. I had had the privilege of attending her “Happy Birthday” concert for Olivier Messiaen only the month before and so began by asking Miss Weir some questions about the concert and her associations over the years with Messiaen and his music:

LJ: I was at your Messiaen concert given at the Royal Festival Hall and was greatly impressed and wish to ask you how you got interested in doing so much of Messiaen's music. Did you actually go to him or study with him?

GW: I've never studied with Messiaen, no, but I do know him. I played Messiaen when I won the St. Alban's competition in 1964 and became associated with hi music because of that. I didn't really have a particular thing about doing this music, as a matter of fact I hate labels. There aren't too many things I get wound up about, but one of them is labels. However, I love Messiaen and I play all the music. I've done the complete series several times. In fact, I've just recorded the music in Washington, D.C.

What sort of approach do you take to learning the music? Do you talk to him about it?

I don't talk to him in detail about the piece. He gave valuable help and advice when I did the UK premiere of the Meditations. I wrote to him and said there were one or two things that were different on the score from what was on the recording he sent me. He wrote back and said to play it the way it was on the score, and that has been more often than not the case with any real composers I've worked with. They write what they mean and they may play it a little differently — so what ? — they prefer that I stick to what is on the page. And, in the case of Messiaen, anyway, I always use, as far as is possible, his registrations. I am amazed when I do a masterclass and people present all sorts of funny ideas of their own, when it is all printed for them to see. He knows what he is doing and the colors are all right for the music.

In any discussion of Messiaen's music, the matter of adherence to the note values is bound to come up. Do you, in fact, play the exact note values asked for, or do you believe they are only an indication of an effect Messiaen is asking for.

I do adhere to the note values. However, I think, as with any composer, that it is the rhythm of Messiaen we ought to he talking about for it is the rhythmic ideas and how one puts them over which create the effect. For instance, the section in Serene Alleluias in which there are triplets in one hand against quintuplets in the other. One should never, as I heard someone say, learn to play such a section slowly and then gradually get faster — that's death to the music — but one should learn to play the triplets far too fast if anything and the same with the other figure, and then put them together not thinking about either one. It is the rhythmic pulse that should be felt.

A sort of organic approach?

Well, it is one that it totally rhythmical, living, breathing, if you will. I have learned so much about rhythm in the last few years, especially concerning baroque articulation. Baroque articulation has nothing to do with structure, nothing to do with phrasing, it is entirely rhythmic. It is in the dance of the time, with its formal gestures and its measured step, and it is this which should come across in the music.

I am very glad to hear you say that about the dance, for I have always postulated that every musician should have as part of his training some form of movement or dance class, preferably in early dance.

Yes, if one understands this kind of movement, one can create a certain kind of rhythmic flow which will get rid of this stick-in-the-mud kind of playing. I am doing a course at Fort Collins in June and I have asked that we have a whole unit devoted to baroque dance. . .

Bravo! If one can dance a gavotte, perhaps one can play one.

Yes, if one understands the gestures and their responses and the way all this is represented in the music, then one understands the rhythm. And this idea is very important in Messiaen, because his idea of rhythm is the antithesis of everybody else's. He finds Sousa marches to be a-rhythmical because they are much too strict to have anything to do with rhythm, and in this context the Greek idea that you have both a verb and a noun for the word, so that you can talk of rhythming I find fascinating. And of course that's what you do with Mozart, who is supremely rhythmical but not at all metrical; but that is a whole topic in itself.

This mention of composers and your working with them brings me to another question I was intending to ask you.... What present-day composers post-Messiaen do you prefer? Have you worked with any with whom you have a particular rapport?

I've played a tremendous number of first performances - recently I did eight in one month — and probably the most interesting work that I have done is by Charles Camilleri, called Missa Mundi.

Of which you gave the premiere, I believe.

He's just finished another for me. His music is interesting because it comes from the “root and branch” tradition with its use of normal notation, although it is used in a new way, where for instance, you have rhythms treated as African rhythms and so forth, but at the same time the music has shape and form.

James Stevens is another interesting new composer. He has written a lot of film music and a work called Amo ego sum in which the audience is called upon to chant. I played it in a rather different environment, in a Northern cathedral and they didn't chant.

Northern reticence, eh?

Yes, I'm afraid so.

Anything else?

No, I am not particularly keen on music for organ and tape, because the tapes seem to contain parts which could have been played or vice versa, and there doesn't seem to be any special reason for using the technique. But I have played the work of William Bolcom, many times, and I feel that his use of this device is very exciting.

Do you think, from what you hear as you travel around, that the standards of performance are improving?

They're going up, but I'm worried about the polarization of movements. Movements if not held in check can just become another arm of the avant-garde, because you either get extremism or a group of people who just like something their way. For instance, you hear people talk about a Romantic revival... this is just a form of nostalgia. There was not the necessity for reviving the music as there was, for example, baroque music, for we had not completely forgotten the period. It has been with us always so why a “movement”? Why can't people just play the music? It is the same with tuning. Every time someone takes up a cause they go just wild, as with tunings, not understanding the tunings but insisting on them just the same.

I think that this happens not only in the field of organ music but in all musical disciplines....

I'm sure it does, but I do think that we ought to be aware of it. With an instrument such as the organ, which has a slightly precarious existence anyway, we really can't afford it.

You are certainly right about that.

If one is to play the Romantic repertoire, then play the best of Reger, the best of Liszt and Frank and so on — properly. But people tend to say “Oh, we can't programme Bach because of the great Romantic Revival,” and that's sloppy thinking. All music from Orlando di Lasso to Camilleri has been written along the same principles. It all has things in common, things like rhythm. I think we tend to forget that altogether, simple as it may sound. We must just look at the entire repertoire from a musical point of view, but so often we don't. We get a little bit of information and take a standpoint.

Do you feel that these “cults” which espouse new causes more often than not spring up in North America?

I think that they flourish in America, because Americans are always open to new ideas... they will say “why not” (a wonderful phrase) and try something new, as opposed to here, where you will get “Oh, I don't think so...” and then you have to persuade them. I love American audiences and students for their open attitudes, but it is a dual-sided coin, in that it has good and bad effects. I do think that there can be found in America a slight inferiority complex which is totally undeserved. All this has got in the way of improving performance standards. In adjucating competitions, and indeed in teaching masterclasses, I am struck by the way in which extramusical considerations have inhibited participants so that there is a lack of projection of the music.

Can the youth of the participants have anything to do with this? You were a precocious performer quite young, but I don't think that this is the norm, yet competitions are for younger and younger performers. Aren't young artists perhaps being pressured by a world governed by competitions where on is expected to play loud and fast and learn all the notes without learning much about the music?

That is partly true, but they are not even learning all the right notes too well. We've hopefully gone through the stage where we said “heart” was more important that wrong notes. It has reached the point that people are loath to criticize sloppy performances. Of course, there will always be slips in performance, but the right notes are important and should be learned first. How does one arrive at the right tempo without having first done this?

What about standards of instruction as you see them?

Well, it is really the awful propensity of people who haven't quite made it as pianists who say to themselves “I'll take up the organ...” who are taking teachers' time and pulling the standard down. I make a point of saying wherever I go that departments of music and private teachers should accept as students only people who have one or two or three piano concertos under their belts. If we are going to have any self respect, there's the standard.

I've heard it said that there are just too many organ recitals and too few people playing. Do you find this to be incredible?

There definitely are. And it causes audiences to stay away.

Personally, I think that here in England, the problem of lack of interest lies in the fact that people hear the organ in church and are turned off. I have a number of friends who wouldn't dream of going to an organ recital because they associate the instrument with being bored to tears in church services where the organist droned out improvisations to accompany the movements of the choir and clergy — a kind of ecclesiastical musak. I don't think the same kind of atmosphere exists in American churches.

No, it's always lively, with the hymns taken at a brisk pace, and the organ is not used so much to cover up other activity. I don't play for church services. I found myself to be temperamentally unsuited to it — I just can't begin when a red light comes on, for instance. I was once in a church position for three weeks but I just couldn't get it right and I won't treat music that way.  It is like taking the “To be or not to be...” speech from Hamlet and just as you are getting to the punch line having to stop and go on to something else. Of course it's deplorable that the church, which used to be the custodian of all the arts now puts music in the background.

Perhaps the doctrine that music is to be used in the service of the Lord is a depressant where music in the church is concerned.

More likely, the people who embrace this doctrine don't understand what “the service of the Lord” is. The goal of spiritual man is to achieve perfection and most people do themselves and religion a great disservice by saying it is unattainable, therefore why try? To use anything second-rate in a church service ought to be considered unforgivable. What's more, if the Christian church above all practiced the teaching of the One upon whom their faith was founded, they would have confidence that the means would be forthcoming and would set and attain the highest standards. The people who attend church services need the spiritual food of first-class music on first-class organs.

Well said. Now let's talk about design and construction. You are obviously an advocate of mechanical action organs which are well-balanced and not just copies of old instruments but well-thought-out and designed for the room they are to play into and the music which is to be played on them. Your views on the subject have been published time and time again.

I became an organist only after playing my first tracker-action organ. I found that I could do things, achieve effects which I had spent hours working on at the piano, and that I could not do on electric action organs. But a tracker action that is heavy, sluggish, and impedes playing is useless. I'm not one who advocates any tracker action just for the sake of the action. There again we have this awful polarization in the organ world. The music must again be the major consideration. As to design, it is imperative to know the type of music one wants to play and be content with that, but it is absurd to say for instance that an organ must not have a top G or must not have strings. That's more muddled thinking. Things like the proper balance between divisions should be achieved. If an organ is three-manual one should be able to play three-manual music on it, and so on.

What about French organs. Don't they seem to be the ideal medium for just about all the repertoire?

Well they certainly sound exciting, but in the German repertoire for instance there is not the character of the divisions to be able play properly, say, the F-Sharp Minor Prelude and Fugue of Buxtehude. Each division of the German classic organ had its own character, and the opening of this piece should begin on the extrovert positiv, the next section on the noble, haughty hauptwerk, and so on. Then the character of the music is brought out and its relation to the instrument is apparent.


And on that note after the usual amenities, we ended our talk, as Gillian Weir had then to drive back to her home in Reading in Berkshire some forty miles from London. And this after a day of recording for the BBC and granting me this interview. She was soon to leave for Melbourne to be Artist-in-Residence at the University there for two months, then to Fort Collins, Colorado, in June, which she mentioned, then back to Australia in August, to the US in October — and on it goes. With her base here in England, Gillian Weir seems nonetheless to be a citizen of the world, a place in which her expertise is much in demand.

THE DIAPASON, March 1980