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In Search of Beauty

Jet-setting organist Gillian Weir CBE, is a worldwide ambassador for organ music who has strong views on every aspect of the genre, as Malcolm Harrison discovered

It seems that every superlative that can he used about a musician has been used to describe Gillian Weir: “World beating... brilliant... breathtakingly virtuosic... eloquent warmth, effortless ease... sa virtuosite transcendante y est parfaite.” Her stature in the organ world is unparalleled. She travels the globe extensively, giving recitals and masterclasses; last year she presented a series of television programmes and in June she received the CBE, making her the first woman organist ever to be so honoured. Her most recent recorded work includes the Poulenc Concerto (on the Virgin Classics label) and a program of Saint-Saens music (on Chandos). When I met her recently I found her a remarkable woman: vivacious, attractive, enthusiastic, even controversial over subjects she holds dear like the design of organs – both electronic and pipe – and the place of the arts in a historical context.

She has something of a diffident relationship with electronic classical organs. While she has certainly not put her head in the sand - she's no stranger to digital technology or MIDI – she feels that there are aspects of these instruments that can still be improved. As a pianist and enthusiastic supporter of tracker organs she feels the lack of touch-sensitive keyboards on today's instruments a wasted opportunity.

Then, of course, very few electronic instruments can compete with the visual beauty of a pipe organ. That may sound frivolous but it is actually quite important because an organ is very much a work of art. Actually it is an extraordinary thing because it's half a work of art and half an engineering project. That's what makes it so very difficult to make and talk about even. But just addressing ourselves to its artistic aspect, it does matter that it should have been made so beautifully, at least in the past when these things weren't cost prohibitive and you could have wonderfully decorative cases and so on. Having a row of speakers can he a turn off. It doesn't align itself with the sound, but maybe this is an area that manufacturers can address themselves to next.

“I'm very keen on the marriage of all the arts. I think it's terribly important that you play the type of music that suits the room if at all possible. For instance, one of the things that thrills me most is playing Couperin on a fabulously beautiful harpsichord in a marble salon in Italy which I do sometimes. And it's not just because I like being there – it's because the decoration in the room, the shape of the architecture actually mirrors what is in the music. So you turn a phrase in a particular way – a graceful way, you hope – and that corresponds to the curve of the pillars. You decorate the music with ornamentation and it corresponds to the ornaments. It actually enhances the music and the music enhances the atmosphere, and I think this is what the whole of life is meant to be about: life itself should be an art.

“So if an organ is producing beautiful sounds but it has a row of speakers I think that is a shame. As we know, there is a problem with the actual sound that speakers produce. They are getting better and better all the time but we know that they colour the sound.”

Having kept abreast of the latest technology, Gillian is well aware of the advantages of sampling (digitally recording) actual pipes. But again she has her doubts about how this technology is being applied. For instance, she believes that the lack of experienced pipe organ builders directing the design of digital instruments has lead to some fundamental mistakes.

“They have copied sounds; they have taken certain pipes but pipes in themselves are meaningless. Whole stops are also meaningless. It is what has lead to what is known as the eclectic organ which is useless for music except for improvising. You can improvise on one stop at a time or maybe a couple but you can never achieve the synthesis with the form of the music which is what registration should really be about. The electronic people have chosen pipes they like, sounds they like, stops they like and then they've put them together willy nilly so you have not ended up with an organ which corresponds to the finest pipe organs – not because of a particular colour that is missing, not because of inadequate reproduction of sound but because they don't make a coherent musical instrument that has a personality. I'm not an expert on all the various electronic organs but I know about the technology because I've been following what's there with great interest.”

Despite her criticisms of today's digital instruments, she very much admires the tremendous advances which have been made in the last two to three years. “The best of the custom-made instruments available do present the music with wonderful fidelity,” she says.

Gillian Weir was born in New Zealand where from the age of six she played the piano. Later she won a scholarship to study in England and came to the Royal College of Music in London. Although she was studying both piano and organ, it was the piano that was her main instrument – until she won the coveted St Albans International Organ Competition in 1964. “St Albans changed everything,” she says. “Suddenly I was an organist!

“Actually I became an organist two days after the competition rather than at the competition because I had already made arrangements to go to Holland to study at the summer course, which is where I'm teaching this year. Haarlem is Mecca for me,” she explains, enthusing over the instruments there. “I went and played these wonderful organs and just went wild because they were so sensitive and I could hear things on them that I couldn't hear on other organs. Being a pianist and having spent so many years practising one bar over and over again until I got the colour I wanted, at first I found the organ rather unrewarding. But in Haarlem I struck mechanical action instruments which really were sensitive. The scaling of the organ was all to do with music and I played the D major fugue I remember, which is all syncopated – and for once I could syncopate it. I could hear the voices as if they were marching up the aisle. So after three hours they said ‘you're driving the tourists away’ and dragged me off! I said ‘why didn't someone tell me these things exist?’ There I was an organist suddenly. It was really like that. It was extraordinary,” she says with genuine disbelief even after all this time.

After her initial success Gillian spent a long time studying the history of the organ. Her study of differing instruments and how they are approached in different countries has contributed greatly to the way she plays works by composers from various countries. “You can't just play music all the same way; it has to be played in a completely different style. I would love to have my own academy now with the proper organs of course - you need several of different styles – and teach the history of the time, the dance of the time; immediately you know about the dance of the time you understand so much more about the music that you never understand when it is just an academic subject.”

Gillian is adamant that history – particularly when talking about the arts – is taught wrongly. We look at events from the perspective of the 20th century instead of seeing where the initial ideas came from.  Her feeling for time and place is a theme that runs through all her thinking, particularly when she made a series of six television programmes in 1989. Called The king of instruments, these programmes brought her to a totally new audience.

“If the series had one overriding theme I wanted it to be that you really can't say you know organ music until you've heard it in the setting for which it was designed,” explains Gillian. “That doesn't necessarily mean using the organ that the composer played; Bach, for example, played terrible organs all his life. I doubt he ever played one that was perfect for his music. But if you have the right organ then you will hear the music as it should be. Therefore you are going to get to know the music rather than just worshipping at the feet of the organ. There are a lot of people who love organs but they don't necessarily love the music. Of course, some of them do. Naturally I don't mean that to be as insulting as it sounds but this is where the organ has run into trouble because we have not been able to see the message for the medium, as the phrase goes.”

Gillian mentions French classical music as a case in point. “It depends so much on a huge space around it and very beautiful surroundings. Then, the way you bowed, the way you held things... everything was of vital importance. It is so out of keeping with today's style that it is more difficult than any other period to convey to people. So just playing the music in isolation won't do. To play it in the surroundings of Ottobeuren Abbey immediately adds that dimension to the music.

“I thought this would help people who think the organ is the machine which rumbles on in the corner in their local village church. We have wonderful cathedral music here, of course, but for most people the experience of an organ is going to be something played probably by someone helping out on an instrument that can't possibly play the repertoire so they'll never hear the virtuoso music that is so phenomenally difficult and terribly exciting.”

The differing styles of music and various locations seen in the TV series obviously struck a chord with viewers because it was a great success. I was terrified it might bomb and everyone would think how boring. But, in fact, it reached a whole lot of people who would not have thought of turning it on if it had been at the arts hour, late at night. I had an absolutely huge correspondence. It was marvellous – a lot of it about my ankles! I don't care what they look at as long as they listen to the music.

“Certainly for something to go on to television it has got to be visually interesting and this was. I thought the camera work was simply fantastic and everyone has remarked on how exceptionally wonderful it was. The director was a very young man, under 30 when he made it, and he used his material with all the expertise of someone who had been doing it for ever, I thought. There were many places where I found the things I felt in the music were realised visually in a way that made me have tears in my eyes. Only too often music is just the accompaniment to something else and that is death to music. I am bitterly opposed to muzak; this is going to be the campaign for the rest of my life – when I retire I'm going to fight muzak because it kills music.”

The problem for many people is hearing the combination of good organ and organist since many instruments are just not well maintained.

“Maintenance is the great problem of today. Maintenance is more and more expensive simply because anything labour intensive is more expensive as wages rise. It is also more expensive because as the fuel problem got worse you had people switching off their heating – or in other countries, their air conditioning – during the week and this is death to the organ. The reason why some of those older ones survived so long in conditions which we might find horrific as far as cold goes (but nevertheless were stable conditions) is just that fact; they didn't go up and down in either humidity or heat because both are bad.

“Now we have pollution as well. Last time I played in Los Angeles the organ builder showed me a little drop of oil from the atmosphere on the end of every reed. I couldn't believe it had come from the atmosphere. He was in the process of releathering the organ right through and this is the reason why. So this is a thing that is peculiar to today. All these things mean that maintaining an organ is a fantastically expensive business and the initial outlay is not the primary worry. That's another reason why people have turned to electronic organs which, of course, don't have any of those problems.”

Organs in a poor condition have lead to some organists stopping mid-way through concerts to have the instrument seen to. It is not something that Gillian Weir likes to do. “I regard myself as having a responsibility to the man who has paid for his ticket. You have a responsibility to give someone an evening out who has paid for his ticket. But, of course, it works both ways. If the piece is going to be ruined...

“You would be amazed at some of the things I've done to cover up. You suddenly find a note is dead so mentally, while you go on playing, you think how many times does that note occur in this piece; can I play it an octave up all the way through? I've done that. However, that's part of being an organist. You're flying this machine and you've got to keep it in the air. I don't do crash landings unless it is essential,” she says with a laugh.

Having played all over the world, I wondered if she thought audiences were different. I hadn't bargained for her wicked sense of humour.

“Yes, the number of tuberculosis sufferers differs. There are some cities in the States where you are convinced they are going to die and you just wish they would do it awfully quickly so you could get on with things. In fact, the other day I found I was actually waiting for someone I knew was going to produce their biggest cough yet. I thought ‘this is terrible, I'm going round the bend’,” she says with a smile. Indeed, she had treasured a cartoon with a pianist pointing a gun into the audience; two little old ladies are sitting there and one says to the other: “He does hate coughers!”.

“I sent it to my American agent and said do you think we could have this printed in the programmes as a tactful way of pointing this out?’ She unfortunately thought I was insane!” (In fact, Gillian is persevering with the idea and is looking for a similar cartoon she can use in her programmes.)

However, on a more serious note Gillian says: “A cough of the wrong kind can completely ruin a performance. There have been some recitals where it would have been better if we'd all stopped and gone to the pub.”

But her recitals are not continually spoiled by asthmatic audiences. “The people in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and so on listen in total silence and with the most incredible concentration. I played in Cracow recently and it was a wonderful experience because the audience were young people. They come in their droves and the place was crowded. In East Germany last year I had a long tour there and in all sorts of places they were completely sold out; in Dresden they were lined up outside in the cold at 7pm for returns having been there since lunchtime. When they come in they are totally silent and then at the end they go mad. I played seven encores in one place even though I hate playing encores; I avoid playing encores because I always feel it is better to have people wanting a little more music than you gave them.

“In America it differs according to the climate. You play different programmes in Phoenix, Arizona, than you play in Boston, for example. The same thing happens in Scandinavia. If you play in Denmark and Norway they like very contemporary music, very old music, very serious music. Even though they themselves have a fabulous sense of humour, they are very serious about their art and extremely keen on promoting new music. If you go down to Italy you don't dare have a pause that lasts too long because everyone immediately claps and cheers because that's their attitude to life.

“One of the biggest and most interesting new markets is Japan because the organs there are fantastic. They have bought the greatest organs from all over the world. The concert halls are beautiful with wonderful acoustics. The people are wonderful audiences because they are extremely polite to start with so they are used to concentrating. There is a particular type of intensity that is felt and fantastically rewarding musically. They are getting very keen on organ music. The first time I toured there it was the first time an organist had done a big tour of this kind. In August I am playing the complete works of Franck in Tokyo in one day so pray for me! There are two concerts, at 3pm and 7pm. It'll be fun I think – if I survive!”

With so much travelling, Gillian obviously survives life on the road. “There have been some years when I've had 40 nights at home in the whole year. Last year and the year before were particularly intensive. It is very hectic simply because you've got to keep the rest of your life going as well. I get phone calls in the middle of the night in New Zealand or somewhere from my secretary saying ‘they're taking you to court for not paying the rates’. That did happen to me once; I was so furious because I thought I'd sorted it all out but now I know they don't accept pre-dated cheques!

“Then you try to look after your clothes. It's so much easier for men; they just put a clean shirt on but I have to keep a file of what dresses I've worn,” explains Gillian. She's been travelling the globe so long that she has made friends in many countries. “Now I arrive and there are some flowers and someone inviting me to dinner. So you feel you are a human being and not just a parcel that's being posted. If you go somewhere and you don't know even how to work the phones you can be overcome with the most appalling home sickness simply from that small fact. You feel alien; you feel lost.

“I played in Los Angeles six times before I saw Disneyland. The fifth time I nearly saw it. We drove there after my aftenoon recital and found they were just closing the gates because that day they were changing to the winter schedule! The maddest thing I ever did was to play in six different countries in one week and that was very very stupid. I don't do anything quite so silly now. I love to be at home for two weeks, after that I start thinking ‘no, doing the dishes doesn't have the charm’!”

But then with Gillian Weir's schedule as an international ambassador for organ music there are not many times when the washing up gets a chance to accumulate.

Home Keyboard Review, May 1990