French Organ and Much More: An Interview with Gillian Weir

Feature Article by James A. Altena, Fanfare

Gillian Weir needs no introduction to mavens of organ music. For 55 years, since her professional debut at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1965, she has been one of the great queens of the console, particularly famed for her advocacy of and expertise in the French repertoire. During that time she has been the recipient of literally dozens of awards, medals, organizational memberships and offices, and honorary doctorates, as well as being made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1996. Since her retirement from public performance at the end of 2012, she has devoted herself to masterclasses, organ competitions, and other forms of teaching. To celebrate her 80th birthday in January 2021 the Eloquence label, the enterprising Australian branch of Decca within the Universal consortium, is releasing a 22-CD commemorative set that includes 10 previously unreleased discs of broadcast and recital material. Fanfare is privileged to have the opportunity to discuss this, and much more, with Dame Gillian.

JA: As the old saw has it, let’s begin at the beginning. Your early background for an organist was unconventional. You were born and raised in New Zealand, which has produced a number of great musicians (obviously Kiri Te Kanawa also springs immediately to mind) but is decidedly off the beaten track when it comes to the organ. Moreover, as you noted in your 2012 interview with Ann Elsie Smoot, you didn’t “grow up in the church tradition”—a circumstance you termed “very lucky”—but came to music through love of dance, and first encountered the organ in person when as a teenaged pianist (age 16) you were asked to step in as a substitute at a weekday church service. Let’s take this apart and amplify it a bit. Did you come from a musical family? What sort of musical training did you have prior to coming to the organ? And, why do you consider it “very lucky” not to have grown up in the church tradition?

GW: My mother sang, played the violin, and loved the arts in general—poetry and the theater in particular—and her sister was a pianist of professional standard, so I was fortunate in being born into an atmosphere that subtly favored the arts and any artistic predilections I might show. I listened raptly to classical music on the radio and danced around the house to its magic sounds. My father had died when I was just five months old; left with a new baby and two teenage sons, life was very difficult for my mother, but she managed to get me a piano and I began lessons when I was six. We lived in a small town where the National Orchestra—New Zealand’s only professional orchestra then—visited just once a year, but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, local music-making was busy and enthusiastic. The town’s Music Society met often and the blossoming pupils of the town’s several music teachers were shown off, giving them invaluable experience as well as fun, while the local radio station was generous in providing a platform for any that were showing real promise. There was a thriving Competitions Society with a major annual series. I remember the thrilling smell of greasepaint in the Opera House where they were held, and where I spent hours each year at “The Comps” listening enthralled to the competitors, watching incipient ballerinas, and of course excitedly competing myself.

It’s hard to say where a passion for music, or indeed for any particular thing, comes from, and why some children should know that they simply must follow a particular path. I knew nothing of the professional concert world and dreamed only of being able to play the piano and make those hypnotically beautiful sounds myself. My first piano lesson was a disappointment, as I’d been told I was going to learn to play the piano, and I expected that by the end of the first lesson I’d have realized my ambition, which was to play a certain Beethoven sonata. Finding myself limited to meeting Mrs. Middle C for the first time and struggling to make my fingers move as directed was a considerable shock. I was very lucky in my piano teachers; kind and extremely competent, they not only gave me excellent tutoring (never think that any old tutoring or any old instrument “will do” for beginners—the reverse is true), but also took me to hear the great artists who occasionally visited, putting my ambitions in context but also encouraging me to strive.

Many children, mostly small boys until the past few years, come to the organ through singing in a church choir, seduced by the thrill of a huge organ as the beating heart of a great building. Although I love the voice more than almost any other instrument (Hugo Wolf or Mozart, opera or oratorio) I lost my own singing voice in an unfortunate operation as a child. I would love now to just open my mouth and sing, both to make those beautiful sounds but also because of the immediacy of expression it provides; for me, playing is acting, characterizing the personality, the drama and the emotion in the work. As it is, I must do my best to sing through my fingers. But although I have always loved great church music—what is greater, after all, than the B-Minor Mass or Mozart’s C Minor?—I did not want to make a career as a service accompanist (as much as I admired the very special skills of those who do), but rather to expand what I did on the piano, given this fascinating new instrument to play with.

JA: How old were you when you came to London on scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music? Who were your principal teachers there—you mention Cyril Smith (piano) and Ralph Downes (organ) in particular—and how did they develop you as a musician and organist? And how old were you when, accompanying Downes, you had your fateful encounter with the astonishing 1646 Schnitger organ at the St. Laurenskerk in Alkmaar in the Netherlands?

GW: By the time I was 16 I had tackled not only that Beethoven sonata but much else. There came a day when the organist of the local church was taken ill at short notice and my mother was called on to provide my services, as someone who could at least play the piano and therefore might try to help fill in. Protesting, I went to look at the organ—a complete mystery to me, as one had to pull out “stops” to make it work, and the feet were also called into play. I’ll draw a veil over that occasion, but it did intrigue me enough to seek out organ lessons. I was already in love with Bach, but his magnificent organ works were new to me and I lapped them up. Another dimension of this supreme composer (who, through saving my sanity in the recent lockdowns, now seems to me not only superior to every other composer but surely from another planet) emerged, and I was hooked. I won a national piano concerto competition (the Auckland Star Concerto Competition), and then a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London to study both piano and organ. In 1962 off I went to London, a huge adventure at that time, to work with the brilliant concert pianist Cyril Smith and the pioneering organist Ralph Downes. I learned so much from them.

Cyril taught me how to practice and above all how to listen. These were the most priceless gifts, for which I remain grateful every day. I have come to realize, especially as I have worked with students, that we are most of the time more or less deaf to what is really in music. It is not surprising, since we are surrounded by piped-in music, its stultifying omnipresence working to suppress our powers of concentration and ability to hear. It is absurd to think we can deal with the distraction of musical sounds while continuing to function and do our work, and then, when we need to listen actively to music, be able to switch to full powers of concentration. (If I were a dictator, I would immediately on taking office forbid “musac”—as we spell “muzak”—and metronomes.)

Ralph initiated me into the mysteries of the organ’s long history: how it had developed from its ancient beginnings in Rome through to the sophistication of a modern concert-hall organ; the way in which it grew along separate paths in each country and each century; how its construction reflects its musical message (Bach’s counterpoint and a Werkprinzip organ); the links between language, tonal characteristics, and voicing (for instance, the precise German language and the German Baroque organ versus the colorful nasal French language with its color-rich organs); the Rossini crescendo and the burgeoning Romantic or symphonic organ which imitated it; and so much else. As the designer of the radically different organ in the Royal Festival Hall, Ralph was able to explain the link between the make-up of an organ and the music written for it through the centuries. He urged me to study the historic organs in the Netherlands and Germany, and thus gave me the life-changing experience of playing the Schnitger organ in Alkmaar. In a few hours that day I truly became an organist, as the intrinsic nature of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in D emerged from under my fingers on this superb polyphonic instrument as though I was hearing it for the first time.

JA: The background story to your recital career (also narrated in your interview with Smoot) is rather colorful and amusing. At the urging of Downes you entered the St. Albans competition, but almost didn’t bother to show up. You played as the last contestant, left for lunch without checking the preliminary results, had to be hunted down to play again as a finalist, and suddenly found yourself with first prize, a broadcast performance, and multiple invitations to play at various venues. You don’t mention your thoughts and feelings throughout all of this. Were you nervous? Stunned? Numb? Excited? Blasé?

GW: Ralph also gave many first performances of new works, and introduced me to Messiaen, considered extremely avant-garde at this time (1962). He urged me to overcome my timidity and enter the St. Albans International Organ Competition. I drove up to St. Albans at the last minute and Peter Hurford, the Director of Music, sat me firmly down on a tombstone to ensure I didn’t run away. Thinking I had not done my best, I left after the first round, and had to be chased around the environs of St. Albans by a cross official, eventually to be found and brought back to be briefed for the Finals. When I was lucky enough to win (I was still a student at the RCM), I was faced with a BBC recital broadcast the next day, put together impromptu-style while I was still bewildered at what was happening. Multiple invitations to perform followed, and I was launched onto a career as a concert organist, unattached to a church or teaching institution, extremely rare especially for a woman. (“Kindly tell your cousin she is the wrong sex for an organist!” my cousin was told by an affronted organist!) I was of course delighted, while thinking that this surely could not last and I would need to find a job when the invitations stopped. Happily, they didn’t, and within a short time I made my professional début as concerto soloist on the famous First Night of the Proms, when an audience of 6,000 fills the Royal Albert Hall (some of whom spend a night in the streets beforehand to be first in line for tickets for standing room only) and the concert is broadcast and televised throughout Europe. This was then followed by a solo recital in the prestigious Royal Festival Hall series.

JA: At the St. Albans competition, you played a work by Olivier Messiaen, whose music was still relatively unknown at that time, even in France. How did you first come to encounter Messiaen’s music, and what attracted you to it?

GW: At the St. Albans Competition I had played Combat de la mort et de la vie, from Messiaen’s Les corps glorieux. New to general audiences, it caused a sensation with both the jury and the audience. Extremely dramatic, extremely emotional, and exploiting the full range of an organ, it epitomizes what had drawn me to Messiaen ever since I heard his suite La nativité shortly before. This music, although written by the devout composer to illustrate and serve the Catholic liturgy, expresses its sentiments with the extravagant passion shown by the metaphysical poets I admire such as John Donne (“Batter my heart, three-personed God!”) and is far from providing a politely religioso background. The technical challenges of his music, which increased as he explored more and more abstruse rhythms and theories, are endlessly stimulating. In recent years there has been a creeping mechanization of performance, especially of early music but affecting all music widely, which is deadening our understanding of life-giving rhythm, as it moves us further away from an instinctive appreciation of its nature. Messiaen knew well the gulf that lies between rhythm and meter, and giving untrammeled expression to the bounding vitality in his rhythms while still respecting their precision is one of the most rewarding challenges in playing his music. But so it is in all music; unfortunately the further away we get from expressing ourselves in dance and song (and teaching children to do so), the more dangerous become our intellectual theories, particularly when they imprison us in a strictly metrical cage.

JA: The preceding question can be broadened from Messiaen to French repertoire as a whole. Most organists place Bach front and center in their repertoires, with Buxtehude and perhaps Reger not too far behind. In the French repertoire, Franck and Widor probably get the most regular and frequent attention. Yet, while of course you adore and play and have recorded Bach, you have focused your career upon 20th-century French repertoire—Bovet, Dupré, Françaix, Langlais, Messiaen, Vierne, and so on. Again, how did that come about?

GW: The organ’s musical tradition has so many streams and tributaries that its repertoire is huge and varied, but the two principal schools are the German Baroque and the corresponding French Classical (actually Baroque), and then the Romantic/symphonic and onwards. The contrapuntal textures of such German organ builders as Schnitger were the perfect medium for the great contrapuntal composers, while the colorful French Classical organs and then the impressive organs by Cavaillé-Coll and his school excited a host of Romantic composers. The organs in those traditions enjoyed a stature which has ensured their longevity and produced a huge body of music, which although in the case of France being written largely by organists themselves nevertheless were secular in style and thus reached a large and appreciative public. If I seem to have focused to a great extent on 19th- and 20th-century French works, it is largely because of my links with Messiaen and then with his contemporaries. Right from the start I became associated with Messiaen, and when he offered me the UK première of his Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (which I gave in January 1973 in the Royal Festival Hall), and when I recorded the complete works first for the BBC and then commercially, as well as lecturing and writing about them extensively (including in Faber’s The Messiaen Companion), my name became synonymous with his in the music world. But I have always enjoyed pretty much the whole repertoire (perhaps tempered a little with the Howells school). And of course the 19th- and 20th-century French works are very much concert-hall repertoire, perfectly suiting my career as purely a concert organist. However, my love for Bach and earlier composers and for historic organs is at least equal to the others: it’s just that opportunities to record that repertoire on those organs have not been so great, so I am not thought of so much in that way.

A few years ago I gave a Summer School course in which I taught five major schools of organ repertoire, one each day. From 10:00 am to 4:00 pm we played and discussed a particular tradition—German Baroque, French Classical, French or German symphonic, Messiaen, Contemporary. From 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm we summed up. What was especially interesting was the summing-up: From the particular we went gradually to the general, and in doing so we found out the universal—not only what separates one tradition from another, but also what unites all music, and must always be present in all our performances. It was a salutary experience, and a vitally important one.

JA: How did your complete Messiaen organ works recording project on the Priory label come about? Your upcoming tribute set on Eloquence includes both your early 1966 recordings of selected works by Messiaen, and your performances from 1979 (on the organ of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC) of all Messiaen’s organ pieces up to that date. How would you say that these performances compare with one another, and how did your interpretations of Messiaen’s music evolve over the years?

Having recorded the existing Messiaen oeuvre for the BBC in 1979, with introductory talks, I was then invited by Collins Classics, which was expanding its operations, to record them commercially in 1994. I had chosen the organ of the National Shrine in Washington, DC for the BBC project because Messiaen pronounced it so perfect for the premiere he gave there of his Méditations. Fans of Cavaillé-Coll organs naturally tend to doubt that the German/American organ in the Shrine (now changed) could do his music justice, but in various interviews he enthused about this instrument and clearly loved it. It did indeed have all the colors needed for bird-song or creatures from the deep, as well as the ability to overwhelm which (as he said to me) Messiaen considered essential.

GW: Messiaen then asked me to rerecord everything, including the works written since, on CD (“They are all the rage, you know!”), and asked me to use the new organ in Jean Guillou’s Paris church, St-Eustache. Jean was generous enough to offer it, and off I went with the Collins team. Alas, we met one problem after another, first with a malfunction in the organ’s systems (it later proved to have been hit by lightning), and then with a breakdown in the church’s electrical system. Faced with repair work in our hotel, which left it minus a floor, and numerous other gremlins, it became obvious we should give up; and so, pausing only to find my credit card refused as I tried to pay the bill, we retreated. I then proposed Aarhus Cathedral in Denmark. This was ideal: an organ with all the necessary colors and devices for the entire organ works, and we were able to add eventually (in 2003) the three small pieces published after Messiaen’s death, making the collection the first complete set to be issued. The entire set was remastered superbly by Priory, and my own very full notes (which included some corrections to generally published data) were issued in a comprehensive booklet with essays on various topics associated with the music.

It is interesting now to have the two collections, recorded 15 years apart. I haven’t sat down and listened to them all, but there are a few differences in tempo and no doubt other details, as I would expect. I do not subscribe to the view that one practices and practices until a piece is set in stone and can never change. Playing the piano now for my own amusement and sometimes a friend or two, I find that my interpretation (Brahms or Szymanowski, but also Bach) can be completely different each day—changed by my mood, by hearing something new in a phrase, by the atmosphere engendered by a listener’s reaction—by in fact a thousand things. In general, like most people I suspect, I think I have become more free in my playing over the years, as the music becomes more completely part of one and hence more instinctive.

JA: In the 2000 South Bank Show documentary episode devoted to you (available on YouTube), you state that Messiaen uses typical French sounds, but combines them in completely new ways. I’d like to ask you to explicate that further: What are those typical sounds, and what are the new ways in which Messiaen combines them?

GW: The French Classical organs developed a specification which was quite set, and the colors on them were used in familiar combinations—the Jeu de tierce, for instance, with 8’, 4’, and 2’ bourdons or flutes plus a wide-scaled nazard and tierce, or the Grands Jeux, with reeds and Grand Cornet. Despite the “mutation” stops, with their non-unison pitch, these groups were used not to transpose but to make a new composite solo stop. Messiaen used these mutation stops imaginatively, mixed in such a way as to emulate birdsong or to produce a hollow sound, often without a fundamental unison pitch at all. Or, he would use a growling reed stop with rich harmonics that again confuses our ear as to pitch and gives a ghostly timbre to suggest, for instance, his “Beast of the Apocalypse.” Other favorite techniques of his were to combine certain unison stops to suggest horns, or to make the pedal line sound higher than the manuals.

JA: Your new Eloquence set also adds to your discography for the first time the complete works of Franck. I for one can hardly wait to hear those performances (although for me you’ll have stiff competition from the classic 1959 set by Jeanne Demessieux)! I can’t help but note that Widor and Guilmant also are almost entirely absent from your recorded repertoire. Did you not have opportunities to record their music, or did that repertoire simply not attract you for some reason?

GW: I love playing the Guilmant D-Minor Concerto, and I have played the best of Widor’s symphonies many times, Nos. 5 and 6 especially. Even his warmest admirers would admit, however, that they are not all uniformly fine; again, I would love to have recorded more of them, but there are not nearly enough hours in the day or days in the life! I console myself by enjoying listening to other people’s recordings instead.

JA: Your interest in French repertoire also extends back to the French Baroque, music that only recently has begun to receive serious renewed attention. What do you find to be the distinctive, special qualities of this music that should attract listeners to it as much as they are drawn to Bach and Buxtehude?

The French Classical period is a passion of mine, and I have recorded quite a lot of it—Couperin, Clérambault, Marchand, etc., and also Roberday, who remains largely unknown but is fascinating. I’ve also recorded some of Couperin’s harpsichord music; I have a lovely Taskin copy by David Rubio for this. But I also greatly enjoy playing modern harpsichord concertos, such as those by Frank Martin and Poulenc of course, plus William Mathias, Falla, Joseph Horowitz, Roberto Gerhard, and especially the marvelous Martinů. I like to read voraciously about the extraordinary French Classical period and its customs and style. Do you know Lucy Norton’s translation of the memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon? It’s priceless to read about the Duke following Louis XIV around his gardens and later commenting, with delicious malice, “That man has no taste!” This, of the man whose taste set the standard for history’s Age d’or!

JA: During your active recital career, did you ever have certain specific criteria or minimum specifications (e.g., number of manuals, types of stops, etc.) for agreeing to perform on an organ, or a particular acoustical ambience that you looked for?

GW: Organs are unpredictable beasts, and often provide a shock to the system even when one has requested all possible details before agreeing to the engagement. Over the years I have become very familiar with the style of the best-known builders and know with whom I shall be safe, but even then I’ve always gathered all the details on the stop-list (list of colors, or registers) and also the keyboard range, as some have only 56 notes and the later repertoire would run off the end of the keyboard. This happened with a commissioned concerto once and a recording session at another time, both eventualities requiring some adjustments smartly. (The time when a pipe fell out of the organ, missing me by inches, could not have been anticipated.) One also needs to know about the acoustics of any unfamiliar building; both trio sonatas in a cavernous acoustic, or a symphony in a carpeted room, can be disastrous. (When the former space has been turned into the latter since one’s last visit, murderous thoughts ensue.) What kind of audience is expected? Schoenberg is fine for, say, a university where there are regular performances by well-known artists for informed audiences of music-lovers, but definitely not good for a small parish in a small town which has only one “celebrity” recital per year. Does the organ have a modern combination action, making large-scale works easy to manage, or is it a historic organ where the stops need manhandling to pull out and are at 90 degrees, making an experienced registrant, or maybe even two (with rehearsals) necessary? Is applause customary? A continuous program without applause can be wonderfully moving and intense, but one will arrange the music differently; clashing keys and mood from one piece to the next can ruin it.

I try to fit my choice of programming to all these criteria and more. I feel at home with most repertoire and like to make use of it all, and to find interesting ways of fitting it together. For example, I’ve sometimes put together a Couperin Mass, the Messiaen Messe de la Pentecôte, and movements from Bach’s Clavierübung (a “German Mass”). Naturally I ask the organizer for information on what has been played recently. Pieces seem to have fashions: At one time everyone seemed to want to play the Bach Passacaglia, and one wants to avoid repetitions. While the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor will always be new to someone, it can also be over-familiar to many. (The advice of one organizer, however, was unexpected though helpful: He said I should have new spectacles made, as the console was new, with five manuals and a very high organ desk, and any existing prescription was unlikely to be enough!)

JA: Likewise, when you have made your many and various recordings, how did you go about selecting the instrument upon which to record that repertoire? Was the choice always entirely yours, or did you ever have it guided to some degree by any external factors, such as existing contractual agreements with the LP/CD label?

GW: Suggestions were always welcome, but I would never make a final choice unless I was entirely happy with the organ for that project. One can never assume that another player’s opinion as to what will suit a particular piece or program will match one’s own. I was always grateful when the company agreed with my choice of destination—Decca/Argo, for example, for the group of recordings I made on some marvelous organs in France and Switzerland.

JA: When preparing for your recitals and recordings, did you have any particular disciplines or routines you observed above and beyond your normal ones for practice?

GW: Allowing enough time was the chief factor. Ideally I asked for eight hours of preparation time—a minimum of five hours the day before the performance, and three hours on the day, and never at the last minute if possible, although often there were flight problems that threw a spanner in the works. I arrived just a few hours before one opening recital in one remote country, after being delayed for a day, to find the organ in pieces on the floor and the builders still gluing bits together. I was led off to be distracted by a cup of tea, which wasn’t nearly strong enough drink for the disaster clearly looming. The console was cobbled together and with two hours to go I did a rapid reconnaissance of what seemed to be available and what sounds to use. After quickly changing clothes, I arrived at the stage again, to find a one-armed page-turner waiting. He seemed anxious to do it, although my preference was never to use a page-turner, so I didn’t demur, but when he failed to manage the first page-turn my deteriorating mood took a further plunge and I hissed, “Turn! Turn!” “Now?” he whispered, as page 3 loomed up. “Yes! Yes! Now!”—and then the organ ciphered. [One or more pipes or keys will not stop sounding or gets stuck—Ed.] It was almost a relief to admit defeat and depart the stage, leaving the organ technicians to deal with it.

JA: What criteria determined the choices of the BBC radio broadcast recitals that are included in your new Eloquence set?

GW: The BBC used to be a magnificent sponsor of the arts, and the organ enjoyed a halcyon period when one or two knowledgeable producers supported its cause, as indeed did such famous Heads of Music as the great John Drummond and before him fine musicologists such as Basil Lam. I made many programs for them, with recitals of every kind of music from early music to the latest experimental opus, and on organs from 16th-century French instruments to the latest concert-hall organs. For the Eloquence set we looked for interesting organs, such as at the Royal Albert Hall, or lesser-known music such as the Heiller suite, or the collection of music based on dance, but also took the opportunity of releasing the complete Franck series I made for the BBC on the matchless Cavaillé-Coll organ in the basilica of Saint-Sernin.

JA: Is there any type of organ repertoire or composer that you regret not having devoted more time to in recitals and on recordings? Is there any type or school of organ repertoire that you don’t care for?

GW: I am not so fond of the English cathedral organ or the 19th- and 20th-century English repertoire, although I did have the privilege of studying with Herbert Howells during my first year’s study in London. The English cathedral organ style is magnificent for its traditional role in the Anglican cathedral service: There is nothing quite like it for painting dramatic pictures in the psalms, for instance, conveying the essential theatricality of this tradition. But it is primarily an accompanimental instrument, and I like very much the mechanical-action classical style of organ, even when it is brought up to date in a modern concert hall for different repertoire (e.g., concertos) and circumstances. Talking about organ design is fraught with misunderstanding, but perhaps it’s easiest to use, as a shorthand term, the phrase “repertoire-based”—i.e., with its physical design, voicing, action and stop-list arranged for the most effective performance of the organ’s solo (or concerto) repertoire. Best to leave it at that!

JA: You were married for 26 years to Lawrence Phelps, an organ designer. How did you and he come to meet and to marry in due course? Did he provide you with advice regarding your recital and concert career in any way?

GW: I was asked to play in the ICO (International Congress of Organists), then held every 10 years. It was 1965 or 1966, and I was to perform in Toronto (the event was shared between Montreal and Toronto). I played one of the Phelps-designed Casavants and loved it, and was taken to meet the man responsible. We found that our ideas on music, “authenticity,” design, and many other things matched … and the rest is history, as they say! He was indeed hugely helpful in teaching me about the technical aspect of organs, as well as discussing design principles. No, he didn’t give career advice, and I was already with the Lillian Murtagh Agency, but he loved teaching and sharing his knowledge, which I found endlessly interesting and enormously useful. In turn, I think I helped by pointing out what was helpful in an organ to the player, from the need for a really sensitive and controllable (but reliable) action through to what was needed from a combination action, or relating the placement of the registers across the divisions to specific repertoire; or console design. He used to have me test the action on a new organ by asking me to play it in every way possible, controlling the key’s attack in myriad ways from a crisp staccato to a Franckian legato in the appropriate pieces.

JA: In your interview with Smoot, you mention that your late husband “developed organ actions to an unparalleled level of sophistication; his large mechanical-action organs have the sensitivity of a harpsichord.” Can you tell us something more specific about that? Are there other aspects of his design work that you would care to highlight?

GW: My husband was intending to be a conductor; his knowledge of the orchestral repertoire was encyclopedic, and as a resident of Boston he haunted Symphony Hall. He studied engineering at Northwestern University and conducting at the New England Conservatory. To finance his studies he helped the organ technician there look after the organs, and his resultant fascination with them finally took over. His engineering prowess, combined with his love of music, worked to create an outlook which gelled with mine: that the organ should be first and foremost an instrument for its repertoire (past, present, and future); keeping it suitable for its accompanying roles to be sure, but in its overall design philosophy directed by that aim. He voiced on classical principles, with each stop balanced with others (rather than in the menu style, with a crescendo from very soft to very loud colors), and used classically low pressures (rather than the British style of using high pressure reeds, which can smother the flues). But talking about this is to enter dangerous territory, both because it needs explanation to avoid misunderstanding and because it can descend into what the British call “nerdism”!

JA: Out of an estimated 2,000 performances in your career, it may be impossible to make a fair choice, but were there any that continue to stand out in your memory as being truly exceptional and treasurable?

GW: That first Proms concert was something I’ll never forget. I was so inexperienced, and here I was playing to an audience of millions from the Royal Albert Hall and in the opening concert of one of the world’s biggest festivals, under the legendary Sir Malcolm Sargent’s baton and with 6,000 people in the Hall in party mood, as they always are for the First and Last Night of the Proms. Another thrill was the first time I played in the Bavokerk in Haarlem, on its magnificent organ once played by Mozart. Then there was my helping to celebrate Messiaen’s 80th birthday in Sydney, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation mounted the largest Messiaen festival ever, in which virtually all of his music was played and broadcast. The ABC brought out Messiaen and his wife Yvonne Loriod, plus Jeanne Loriod to play the ondes Martenot, the conductor Marc Soustrot, and others, and I was brought in to play all the organ music, including a short performance during a ceremony mounted at Sydney University in which Messiaen was awarded an Honorary Doctorate. It’s been an eventful career; I’ll have enough memories to keep me busy during my retirement, I think!

JA: In your interview with Smoot, when asked about low points in your recital career, you replied, “Whenever an organ has gone wrong!” Are there any particularly memorable occasions you would care to share with us?

GW: I try to forget them! But, when a commissioned work doesn’t arrive in time, that is always a problem. There was a concerto that became later and later, until just before the scheduled high-profile premiere a few pages arrived on floppy, photocopied A3 paper … then a couple more … and so on. The planned conductor withdrew in protest; a hasty replacement resigned a day later; a third conductor learned it overnight. The orchestra threatened to mutiny; the rehearsal was chaotic. Somehow, we managed in the end; I more or less sight-read the part and coped with microphone problems from my eyrie high up in a cathedral. But from then on I insisted that any commissioned work must arrive before I signed the contract to play it.

JA: You have also been a devoted teacher. (In the South Bank Show documentary episode, I was totally fascinated by the several minutes toward the end of that in which you were tutoring a student in Bach.) How would you describe your pedagogical philosophy? What sorts of values, as well as techniques and repertoire, do you endeavor to pass on to your students? (In your interview with Smoot, you point in particular to the dangers of “tunnel vision,” “isolationism,” and “teaching by exclusion” as limiting and distorting factors.)

GW: I studied for a short but amazing time with Nadia Boulanger, the extraordinary (and terrifying) French teacher, composer, conductor, and all-round inspiration. Once, during my lesson, the little children of her housekeeper came in and she ran through their solfège exercises with them. I asked whether they were aspiring to be professional musicians, and she said magisterially, “No. But they are equipped!” It is so important not to try to mold a student in one’s own image, but to equip them, in every way possible, to be able to express what they want to express, to say what they want to say. We have endured a number of theories which have imprisoned young players in a web of strictures and often misunderstood rules of performance. Rules are devised after the event, so to speak, and though they can be a useful aid (e.g., don’t double the third in your harmony exercise), they can equally be stultifying. I try to make sure that the principle underlying any advice is understood, and the context, so that there is a guiding hand but not an imprisoning one. I call it loosely “training the instincts.” Letting an untrained instinct on the loose won’t do (something like French Classical style, for example, needs an understanding of a whole nation, era, and character), but when the background and context is understood then the instincts can go in the right direction but still express the individuality of the player. It’s important not to learn just a favorite piece here and another there; when tackling a major work, listen to as much other music by its composer as possible—never just organ music. Nielsen’s masterpiece for the organ, Commotio, can be tough at first hearing, but soak yourself in the symphonies and it becomes a familiar and much-loved friend. The isolation of the organ world can lead to many quirkish distortions in performance, but they will vanish when the organ works are regularly compared with the composer’s works for other media. Most of all: Sing! Almost every line of music should be sung mentally, to shape its line and to make it breathe. I try to get students to read, too; books are magic time machines, taking you back into the period you are studying and the minds not only of the composers, but those who surrounded them at the time and reacted to their music and playing.

JA: Do you find that personal and professional relations between organists tend to be collegial, or highly competitive and sometimes even adversarial? Do some organists become proprietary and territorial about their church organs?

GW: I think we get along pretty well! But yes, organists in regular positions can become very attached to their organs, and sometimes not as objective about their merits as perhaps they should be. But, why not? Organs have very distinctive personalities, and it’s good that we bond with them!

JA: You have also served as a judge for organ competitions. What particular responsibilities does that involve? And, while it’s always a joy to present the first-place award to the winner, how do you find yourself dealing with the other candidates whose hopes were dashed?

GW: I very much enjoy serving on competition juries. It’s invigorating to work with one’s colleagues, and fascinating to hear the differences between performers playing the same piece but making it sound different in each case—hopefully, anyway, as it is dispiriting (on the other hand) when some fashionable theory has taken over and dropped a number of competitors in the same mold. One has a responsibility to give full attention to every player, even if the initial measures we hear might indicate that the player is unlikely to carry off first prize; I like to hear whether a player has a message for us or has merely learned the notes. These days the jury members are usually asked to have a few words with each contestant afterwards; I usually ask first whether they feel they did well, as one can tell a great deal from that and it’s a guide as to how deeply to discuss their interpretation and from what angle. Contestants often study the list of jury names and try to second-guess how they will react, perhaps trying to modify their style accordingly, and afterwards they will sometimes dispute what they think they have been criticized for. But in fact almost all jurists in my experience want life, projection, and a sense of communication with their listeners, rather than a formulaic adherence to the so-called rules. Needless to say, technical mastery is necessary before a player achieves the freedom necessary for that sense of communication—Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of Hamlet would not be successful if he had lost his voice—but the technique should be the means to the end, and the end should always be to meet my frequent plea to a student: “Talk to me!” Dancers talk through their bodies, architects through their buildings, painters through their paintings— we talk through music.

JA: How has the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted your usual activities?

GW: COVID has been disastrous. I have spent the past week trying to help a gifted young organ student who arrived in Durham to study, and found that there was absolutely nowhere at all where he could practice (even on a piano), as everything is simply shut down. I have been in lockdown since February. I would have gone mad without my piano, and without Bach. Heaven help us all if we don’t sort out this situation soon. It is terrible for everyone, but we may lose the arts for ever, or at least for a generation. Musicians have to communicate—and the world needs to cultivate the life of the mind to survive as human beings, not just machines.

JA: Finally, what are your plans for yourself going forward?

GW: I am just so grateful for a life in which I’ve been able to bond with audiences in the inimitable language of music.

Copyright © 2021 by Fanfare Inc.

Contact Search About Links