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Dame Gillian Weir Graduation Address

Vice-Chancellor; Principal; Dame Gillian Weir; Pro-Chancellor
Paul Spicer; Allison Pottinger; Antony Miller

The following is the graduation address by Dame Gillian Weir upon receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Central England in Birmingham.

Pro-Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen: I am delighted to be here today, and greatly honoured to be receiving such a distinction from this University. You have been extremely generous in the words of the citation of conferment, and I thank you most sincerely. No doubt this will be the first time many of you have actually seen an organist in person, since we are often hidden away in an organ loft hanging like a gargoyle from the rafters. Recently an attempt was made to rectify that situation in a cathedral in Europe, and a closed circuit television camera and screen were set up so that the audience could see the organist play. Unfortunately they did not think to tell the performer. It was a warm night, and after the first piece he removed his jacket. After the second piece – it was very warm – he took off his tie. He then had a uniquely attentive audience when, after the third piece, he took out his teeth and placed them on the console.

But I am very glad to be able to appear before you all, as it gives me the opportunity to say how grateful I am not only to the University but to music itself. I am grateful not only for the pleasure it gives me to make music but also for the way it has enriched everything I do. Today we tend to specialise 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”. That is not so true of you, who have been lucky enough to be educated genuinely in such a place of learning as this Conservatoire. But if you consider that real education begins with a diploma rather than ends, and is the process that ultimately forms your true personality and being, then Amis's words are worth remembering.

I've been pondering some of the qualities of music. It has for example SUBTLETY – subtle changes of tempo, dynamic and phrasing. Acquiring a sensitivity to nuance gives the utmost pleasure – as wine lovers will readily agree, or gourmets! And perceiving subtleties in music, or in the choice of words, or in the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa, leads to sensitivity in other situations, and to communication at a deeper level.

And music has FORM: the progression of a large-scale work is a journey, involving the discussion of ideas and the resolution of conflicts; this is what gives the listener his feelings of satisfaction and fulfilment. To follow the argument is to experience a thrilling roller coaster ride of emotions and ideas, and enriches our ability to think organically – a train of thought opening out like a flower from the seed of the idea. We learn to discriminate, to reason in abstract terms, to discern shades of meaning – qualities not cultivated by taking a stab at one of three multiple-choice answers in an examination.

Then music has COLOUR – vivid flashes of colour coming from contrasts in the timbres of the instruments or the harmonies used. Colour is life-enhancing: it lifts the spirits or soothes the soul or energises the faculties. Allied to this is DECORATION, such as the swirl of ornamentation in early music. The dispiriting grey concrete of the '60s and '70s tower blocks is now seen to be not merely unlovely but actively destructive, encouraging crime and fostering in those obliged to live in or among such buildings the harshness and hopelessness implicit in their hard, bare and ugly lines. And music has MELODY – the graceful inflection of line that parallels the gentle rise and fall of a beautifully-modulated voice, or suggests the curve of a garland of flowers in a Fragonard painting.

It's interesting to think: if I were a piece of music, what would I sound like? What song would my being sing, what harmonies- or harmony – would I express? I have found in my experience with students that when I hear them play I hear not just what they are doing but what they ARE. That is what we who are performers express in our playing or singing, who and what we really are. It is not too fanciful to think of our whole being as music, and the Sufi musician and writer Hazrat Inayat Khan comments: “What ultimately pleases us in any of the arts, whether drawing, painting, carving, sculpture, architecture or poetry, is the harmony behind it: the music. The world needs harmony today more than ever before. When a person learns music, he need not necessarily learn to be a musician; but by playing, loving and listening to music he will develop music in his personality. The true use of music is to become musical in one's thoughts, words and actions.”

I will never cease to be grateful for the joy music has brought me, both in itself and by its awakening in me an awareness of a world teeming with delights I would not otherwise have known. Music is not a career: it is a way of life. I wish you great success, and as much happiness in that life as I have been fortunate enough to enjoy.

Thank you again.

Gillian Weir DBE, DUniv

Birmingham Conservatoire Awards Congregation – 29 June 2001

Honorary Awards

Dame Gillian Weir Honorary Doctorate

Gillian Weir is a rarity among musicians, a virtuoso and freelance concert performer on an instrument which, for most of the 2,300 years since its invention, has been the exclusive preserve of men. She is undoubtedly one of today's foremost artists. Through her unique career as an internationally-acclaimed concert organist, performing world wide at the major festivals, and with leading orchestras and conductors, she has become established as a distinguished musician known for her virtuosity, integrity and outstanding musicianship, which, combined with a notable personal charisma, have placed her in the forefront of her profession and won her the admiration of audiences and critics alike.

Her fame as a performer, which has stimulated numerous young players to follow her, is backed by her scholarly reputation: she is in constant demand as an adjudicator for all the leading international competitions, and a lecturer, broadcaster, teacher and writer, while her television appearances in particular the 1989 series ‘The King of Instruments’ – have reached vast new audiences. Her repertoire is exceptional in its breadth and variety, stretching from the Renaissance to contemporary works. She has performed the complete works of Bach and others, as well as the works of Olivier Messiaen. Indeed, her pre-eminent position as a Messiaen interpreter has been further underlined with her CD release of his complete organ works to unprecedented acclaim, as well as by her contribution to Faber's ‘The Messiaen Companion’ and other publications.

She has, not surprisingly, received numerous awards including a CBE in 1989 and, in the 1996 New Year's Honours List, she was made a Dame Commander the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her distinguished services to music.

The public acclaim accorded Gillian Weir during her unparalleled career has been echoed in her appointments as President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, the Royal College of Organists and the Incorporated Association of Organists. In these roles, Dame Gillian has not only raised the profile of the organ as a concert instrument but has also supported and encouraged young performers while opening new doors for other women. Recent notable highlights in her career have included the release of two CD's – a new Organ master series for Priory records and an organ concerto disc for Linn Records, recitals on London's South Bank and in her native New Zealand to celebrate her 60th birthday.

But for me, the most fascinating of all was the television broadcast, as part of Melvyn Bragg's acclaimed South Bank Show series, – a truly inspiring and riveting documentary chronicling her performing and teaching activities in Europe and the USA. No one who saw that programme can doubt that in Dame Gillian we have a truly multi-talented person. A brilliant organist, an inspirational teacher who makes wonderful use of imagery in her teaching and who is warm and generous of her time with her students, and a most eloquent and articulate commentator on music.

Dame Gillian has done more than anyone, I would suggest, to promote the organ as an instrument. Her playing has been described as ‘remarkable with almost visionary powers of interpretation’. She has enormous powers of concentration as well as the physical stamina required to play this most difficult of instruments. She has revived mainly forgotten works and has introduced her audiences to lesser known works in the repertoire. Only yesterday, I heard her give a wonderful performance on Radio 3 of the Enrico Bossi Organ Concerto, a work previously unknown to me, but great fun! She has also given premieres of organ concertos by Robin Holloway, Peter Racine Fricker, William Mathias, Michael Berkeley and others. In her playing Gillian always manages somehow to combine her superb musicianship with a power to entertain.

She also has a wonderful sense of humour and there are many delightful stories concerning Dame Gillian. Time alone prevents me from recounting them all although I was enchanted by the story of the extraordinary RCO fundraising concerts that Peter Hurford devised at the Royal Festival Hall some thirty years ago. Peter was carried around the hall in a resplendent chair as the Queen of Sheba, Allan Wicks was in a boxer's kit for some musique concrete, and Gillian appeared to play John McCabe's Miniconcerto in a mini-skirt! This must have been one of the few occasions when a soloist has been greeted in a concert hall by wolfwhistles!

From the Birmingham Conservatoire Fanfare II, Issue No. 19, Summer 2002