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.