Tag Archives: organ

A hymn to the organist

By Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Ten reasons why I love them

Some people swoon over film stars. I swoon over organists. Good organists, that is, not bad organists. Bad organists I refer to as ‘dominant males’, because the only two chords they play are the tonic and the dominant. Good organists are upholders of some of the highest musical expertise in the land. When you hear the stops being pulled out for the voluntary on Easter Sunday (will it be Bach? Will it be Widor?), spot the organist, and see if you experience a frisson. Here are ten reasons for my partiality.

The muscle at the far edge of the palm of each hand. (The one giving strength to the little finger.) It’s amazingly strong. I’m much more interested in this muscle in a man than in his abdominals or, worse still, his biceps. This palm-muscle is a sign of decades of chord-playing. Not just semi-breves, but breves, and not just triads but massive multi-noted chords with double-sharps in them, dreamed up by some composer in a church in Paris in 1922, who was improvising at the time and possibly blind.

The letters after his name. (Or her name. I admit that my swoons tend to be brought on by the males of the breed, but female organists are just as swoon-worthy if you happen to be that way inclined. There are fewer females than males because the organ attracts obsessive, train-spotting, Munro-climbing types.) ARCO (Associate of the Royal College of Organists; half a swoon). FRCO (Fellow; total swoon). To be an FRCO you need to be an unbelievably good musician. You can be given any piece to play and transpose the whole thing up or down a semitone. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue BWV 532 is your best friend; you can play Frank Martin’s Passacaille in D Sharp Minor before breakfast with your eyes closed. You can sight-read absolutely anything. You can improvise for ten minutes on the theme from Z Cars, making it sound like a Victorian funeral march one minute and a Renaissance roundelay the next.

The incredible feat of playing with two hands and two feet at the same time. The fugue’s theme starts in the right hand. Five flats. That’s hard enough. Then it starts in the left hand. Getting complicated. Then, of all things, it starts on the pedals. Then it develops. Then you have to do a decrescendo with the swell pedal. The organist’s brain has to compartmentalise each limb.

The slight social unease. Though the instrument they play is deafeningly loud, organists tend to be quiet people, not at their best at parties. Many wear glasses, seeing no reason to bother with contact lenses. They tend to be pale and to burn easily in the sun. They have spent thousands of hours — decades, in fact, from the age of 11 onwards — shut away, mastering pedal parts, and they emerge blinking into the daylight, hair unwashed, flummoxed by small talk. But when they do talk, they’re worth listening to.

The organ shoes. Some people think these look fey, but I love them. They have quite high heels, black felt on the soles, and elegant tapered toes. If an organist has his own organ loft, the shoes live up there, waiting to be put on. The young, loftless student carries his shoes around with him.

The loft. An organist’s loft is his castle. You’ll find his stubby pencil, his old college scarf, a postcard he’s been sent depicting the organ of St Bavo’s Grote Kerk in Haarlem, a small mascot (perhaps a bear), his beloved old copy of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein which he was given for his 13th birthday, the notebook in which he scribbles down the stops which need looking at next time the tuner comes, the strict instructions for visiting organists: ‘Please leave the swell box OPEN.’

Their modesty. ‘Ours is a hidden life,’ a nun once said to me; and an organist might say the same. How different from the virtuoso pianist, who plays the third encore after a standing ovation in the Festival Hall and drinks in the adulation. The organist is destined to be heard but not seen, like a Radio 3 presenter. Sometimes he’s not even heard. Before weddings, he plays sublime music for half an hour, to which no one listens because they’re all chatting in the pews. He doesn’t mind. He gives the occasional recital, but it’s at lunchtime, free of charge, sparsely attended, and encore-less.

The fact that they have to conduct choirs. This duty comes as a shock to the student organist who has never told anyone to do anything in his life, and dislikes crowds. If he wins an organ scholarship to an Oxbridge college, or becomes an assistant organist at a cathedral, he’ll be expected to tell 20 flirtatious choral scholars or 20 giggling choristers to pipe down and not make that same mistake again on page 3 of Howells’s ‘Like as the Hart’. Some prove rather good at this; some never master the art.

The way they all know each other. If you mention a good organist to any other good organist, he or she has always heard of him or her. ‘Oh, yes, I knew him when he was at Southwell, and then he was at Westminster Abbey for a while.’ ‘Yes, he’s a good friend, actually. We first knew each other at Truro.’ ‘Oh, yes, I knew her when she was the organ scholar at Peterborough.’ It’s a fascinatingly small world. I don’t think pianists all know each other like this. French horn players do, perhaps.

The way they bring on their young. As the mother of a budding organist, I’m enchanted by the kindness and encouragement. There’s a summer school called Oundle for Organists, directed by Robert Quinney (Westminster Abbey; has just recorded Bach’s Trio Sonatas; swoon), and there, when you deposit your son or daughter for a week in July, you come across a collective noun of young organists who will relish every moment of the week’s tuition with the course’s tutors. At the end of the week, many students will be awarded their own recitals: the best abstract going-home present ever, bringing on hundreds more hours in the organ loft over the coming months. And so the great organ-playing tradition goes on, carried down to the next generation.

Source: Spectator.co.uk

Gerre Hancock (1934 – 2012)

It is with great sadness that I write this post to inform you of the passing of Gerre Hancock, a talented organist and unquestionably one of the world’s greatest improvisors.

When I was just thirteen years old, I attended a concert given by Dr. Hancock to dedicate the rebuilding and enlarging of a pipe organ in Dallas. At that point, I had only played the organ a few times and didn’t know much about the instrument or how to play it. I had the privilege of getting to sit upstairs in the organ loft near the console to watch “Uncle Gerre” at work. Dr. Hancock was most famous for his improvisation skills; the final part of his program was an improvised symphony based on submitted themes, including a concluding improvised fugue. (After taking a counterpoint class, I can testify from experience just how difficult it is to write a fugue, much less improvise one based on a submitted theme). It was simply incredible, and a night that I will never forget. At the reception, I was advised to attend a Pipe Organ Encounter – a summer organ camp sponsored by the American Guild of Organists. From there, the rest is history. Needless to say, Dr. Hancock’s recital was an incredibly important element in my beginnings as an organist, and I wonder where I would be now had I not gone.

Dr. Hancock was also known for his work as organist-choirmaster at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in New York between 1971 and 2004. Following that, he and his wife Judith, who is also a noted organist in her own right, began teaching organ at the University of Texas in Austin. I most recently heard Dr. Hancock just a few months ago at a Choral Evensong at a church in Waco. His playing and improvising was as sharp and brilliant as ever.

The following is from organist Frederick Hohman:

Gerre Hancock, who is regarded and revered as one of the most talented and inspired leaders in American organ music and church music, with a long and brilliant career as a director of superb choirs, as a composer, as an organ recitalist, as a teacher, and as one of America’s foremost organ improvisers, has passed away into Eternal Life this afternoon (21 January 2012) while hospitalized in Texas, with his wife, Judith, and daughters at his side.

In speaking with Dr. Hancock’s concert manager, John McElliott, just this evening (21 Jan), I had confirmed these sad details, and even though I sense that many who read this, like me, will be shaken, and deeply and profoundly saddened by this news, I felt that the many of the people who receive the Pro Organo newsletter would want to be so informed.

I came to know Gerre Hancock only in the past several years, as I was so honored and pleased to produce his video album “Praise the Eternal Light” in 2008 in Hartford, Connecticut, as well as his segment of the “From Ashes to Glory” video / audio CD set from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 2009, where his inimitable style of organ improvisation was displayed in its full glory. Gerre and I had another CD release together pending later this year. In the 25 years prior to my meeting and working with Gerre, I could not escape his remarkable influence, as evidenced in the outstanding work of his many organ and choral protégés, who, no doubt, carried Gerre’s musical seeds with them in their careers.

We on earth have lost a mighty talent, as well as a musical advocate for art that supports our Faith. The Good Lord in Heaven has gained one wonderful and powerful soul. I feel confident that Gerre’s spirit will live on with the same enthusiastic and creative praise as we have witnessed here in his music, and that his shall be a litany of endless praise in a glorious New Life with the Almighty in Eternity.

“I think it’s hard to find expressions – religious feelings – without music. People can talk and talk and talk, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as experiencing beauty. Somehow music gives a dimension of depth to those beliefs that speech doesn’t give.” – Gerre Hancock

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

Organ Recital

I just wanted to say a big word of thanks and appreciation to those who came to my recital on Monday, January 9th. In case you missed it, I plan on recording the recital some time in the near future and releasing it on CD. (I will also likely upload one or two of the pieces on here, so check back soon for more information!)

A huge thanks to my dear friend Beth Richards for taking this picture!

Here is the program:

  • J. S. Bach: Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542
  • John Stanley: Voluntary No. 5 in D Major
  • Felix Mendelssohn: Sonata II in C Minor
  • Sigfrid Karg-Elert: II. Clair de Lune (Trois Impressions, Op. 72)
  • Joseph Jongen: Sonata Eroïca, Op. 94

For information about upcoming organ events, please regularly check the organ page!