A personal appreciation by John Amis

1965 - the First Night of the Proms, waiting for the soloist to come on to play Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani. Thinking of previous musicians who have occupied the hot seat of that organ loft in the Royal Albert Hall, behind which lurks the local Fafner, one of the most famous and biggest of organs. Renowned organists have sat there, and some famous composers too - Bruckner, Liszt and Saint-Saëns. And in the time of the founder of the Proms there's been Marcel Dupré, Thallben-Ball, GD Cunningham and, accompanying and pedal-pointing in the direction of the codas of the Enigma Variations, Mahler 8, Glazunov's Carnival and all, dear old Berkeley Mason: mostly gentlemen of advanced years, stately as galleons and as sexy as rowing-boats.

As Gillian Weir takes her bow we can see it's all different now; she's young, she's pretty, she's slim and those are not organist's legs whose twinkle toes are going to crash the first chord, an arresting call to arms straight out of Bach. And he will not be the last composer to the ‘laid under contribution’ (favorite old-time programme-note phrase). Poulenc hints at Buxtehude, cribs a bit of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, pops into a café chanson before remembering to finish solemnly with a bow towards Stravinsky.

In her young life, Gillian Weir had already achieved. Her first keyboard was the piano; at 19 she won The Auckland Star piano competition, playing Mozart. Soon, she came ‘overseas' studying piano at the Royal college of Music with Cyril Smith and then organ with Ralph Downes, both whom she acknowledges with gratitude: ‘they taught me how to work, how to practise, how to get behind the notes.’ She was reluctant to compete in the prestigious St Albans lnternational Organ Competition, didn't think she had a chance and had to be pushed and shoved into taking part. There she played a canny card by playing Messiaen, then practically unknown. She wowed the judges (1964) and won the prize. Clever BBC took note and booked her for this First Night of the Proms. She wowed the audience, those in the Albert and those listening at home, many millions of them, since the concert was broadcast worldwide. The critics raved and a notable career was truly underway.

Reviewing one of her concerts l wrote: ‘Dame Gillian is one of the greatest of living artists; her playing shows a perfect mixture of hand and heart, a true musician with the technique to tackle anything.’

The rest is not silence, but notes on some high spots of a long and distinguished career that shows no signs of diminishing; her playing continues to give pleasure, to show boundless energy, perception, through preparation, curiosity and a forward drive that is like an arrow on its way to the target. She tours the world and has done so many times in recitals and concertos.

Chris Bragg wrote in 2006: ‘The contribution made to the world of the organ by Gillian Weir is almost incalculable. Our instrument has hardly had such a skilled ambassador in modern times.’

The life of a concert organist such as our Weir heroine is not an easy one. By now, she knows most of the organs she plays on but getting to know them has been a major task. Getting to grips with a new one takes time; first you get the specifications, then you meet the beast itself to learn its characteristics, its strengths, it foibles; this takes hours, often the small hours when these are the only ones when the hall or church is not being used for other purposes. Every instrument is different; they can be friendly, they can be recalcitrant. Electronics have made a difference so that registrations can be set up in advance (just as fireworks can!). Sometimes the organ can seize up. A cipher rarely happens these days but I have known it to happen when Gillian plays- it seems that machines and Gillian can be at odds (particularly with her washing machines, which can flood, and her motor-cars - which can mysteriously go ‘phut!’ - I sometimes wonder if she is a poltergeist in reverse).

But these are tiny details in a life of triumphs. And formal triumphs have deservedly come her way: she is a Dame Commander of the British Empire (1996) and has been ‘doctored’ - seven times at the last count.

Her devotion to the instrument that Christopher Wren once described as ‘a (damned) chest of whistles!’ did not even stop at marriage, for she was married for 26 years to that great organ-builder of talent, Lawrence Phelps- although for much of their union he lived in his native America, Gillian near Reading in the UK.

The Dame's repertoire is vast, containing almost the entire literature of the instrument, from Buxtehude, Bach and Handel onwards, from Vierne, Widor and Jongen to Messiaen, whose complete works she has recorded. Her instrumental devotion extends beyond the mighty organ back to the smaller ones of yore; she delights in the chamber organ, playing Couperin and other early composers. She also occasionally plays (and obviously loves) the harpsichord.

Also must be mentioned Gillian Weir the Administrator and the Teacher. She excels at master-classes which she is often asked to give. She was the first woman President of the Royal College of Organists and she also served as President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. She is also a good speechmaker and shows, when dealing with a question that she can think on her feet. She has a good brain and makes fine use of it. Not the least of her attributes is her speaking voice, which is well modulated and has a bubbly quality.

As a person Gillian is tremendous fun and good company. She can talk on many subjects, appreciates food and wine, can see a joke and make one, is broad-minded. She hates unnecessary noise and abhors smoking. She dresses well and always looks attractive. But don't ask her to work your washing machine!

Spring 2010, The Organ, No 351