Play with your ears

PONTING_1911_Dog_Listening_to_Gramophone_Antartica-620x481The 2018 summer organ concerts at St Modwen’s finished last Wednesday. We went out with a bang.

The player was Ben Bloor, a kind-of-local lad, who’d been chorister and organ scholar at Derby Cathedral, then went on to organ scholarships in Oxford where he read music, Westminster Cathedral, St George’s Windsor, and Rochester Cathedral. He is now successor to Ralph Downes and Patrick Russill at Brompton Oratory—at the tender age of 27. He wears his virtuosic gifts with quiet affability, earthed humanity, and wry humour. He is someone who would have provoked in me, when I was his age, naked envy.

The concerts began in 2017 when the new organist, Tony Westerman, arrived. He has many contacts in the local organ scene and I said to him that it would be wonderful to have “a bit of culture”. I pretended that this was for the sake of the church and the town, but in truth my motivation was entirely selfish. It was I who wanted a bit of culture. Thanks to Tony’s organisational skills, I sure got it.

The concerts have been a remarkable and unexpected success. Burton is within 11 miles of two cathedrals with great musical traditions: Derby with its wonderful acoustic to the north-east, and Lichfield to the south-west. Coventry and Birmingham are not that far away either. So if Burtonians want organ music, they haven’t far to go.

I wasn’t expecting great numbers, and told people that I’d be happy if we made double figures. At the first 2017 concert there were, IIRC, over 30, and the most we had in that season was over 60. I’m told we sometimes had more than Lichfield Cathedral.

St Modwen’s has a number of things in its favour. It’s in the Market Square, in the middle of town. The organ is in the west gallery and speaks directly into the church—going full pelt it’s almost painfully loud. The console is at ground level and the organist can be seen, and can hear everything in proportion. But perhaps most significant was our insistence that the pieces played should be foot-tappingly tuneful. No forearm smashes. No tuneless crap. And the players have obliged with good heart. And hearts have been good. We’ve been blessed with organists, including professionals, willing to give their talents free, therefore indirectly for local charities. I’m extraordinarily grateful.

Some players have been stunning, and most excellent. It doesn’t follow that professionals necessarily play better than amateurs. I would rather listen to a performance that’s passionate and in tune with the spirit of the music despite a few mistakes, than one that’s cold, clinical and flawless—and I’ve heard professionals give performances that have been exactly that, and certainly not worth the vast fees they charge.

Only two players were disappointing. It sounded as if they, quite simply, did not listen to the sound they produced. A good player always plays with his or her ears. S/he will listen to what s/he’s doing. In my half-century as a church musician and cleric I’ve heard organists who are transported in ecstasy to an Enid Blyton la-la land where the sun always shines and wrong notes are unknown. Rather than listen to what they’re actually doing, they “listen” to what they think they’re doing. I’ve “fond” memories of a Derbyshire village organist whose hands worked entirely independently of each other, and without any apparent neural connexion to the retinal impulses resulting from the black dots and squiggles of the printed music. I coped with this by singing very loudly so as to drown her out. It was truly w-o-e-f-u-l. She couldn’t be sacked since she was related to half the village and the pastoral consequences would have been seismic.

Back in the 1960s my piano teacher, Miss Julia Thompson, a very proper Penrith lady, constantly exhorted me “Stanley, you must always play with your ears”. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. I carried on with lessons until I went to Cambridge in 1969. A lumbering late teenage boy sat next to a bird-like epitome of propriety, alternately praising and chastising him, must have made a pretty picture. One of my most cherished memories was when Miss Thompson set me a Beethoven sonata (can’t remember which) and after listening to me for a few minutes, stopped me and, knowing that I was a good sight-reader, said “Stanley, have you done any practice this week?”

A lack of moderation


Frank Bridge 1879-1941

I wish I could remember the quote, or even the source, but I have a clear memory of reading in a biography of Enoch Powell that he found church music dangerously affecting, so had to stop listening to it. He had been a supporter of St Peter’s, Wolverhampton, and its great musical tradition.

He’s right. For me, music in general, and organ music in particular, is dangerous indeed.

Thursday is my usual day off. I spent the morning exploring organ music I’d had for decades but never looked at. I know and play the first, third and fifth of Six Organ Pieces by Frank Bridge, written variously between 1901 and 1912, but for whatever reason I’ve never looked at the second, fourth and sixth. Until today.

I am almost overwhelmed by the fourth, Andante con moto. Why? Never having heard or played it before, it’s not because it reminds me of events or times or places or people.

It’s not difficult. It’s in D flat major, 5 flats, a key that I find very comfortable—the disposition of the black notes suits the anatomy of my hands beautifully. It’s a key with lovely warm feel to it, and lovely and warm sum up the piece too, for it’s not sad or sighing or astringent or unsettling. Wagner is there, unquestionably—I hear him in other Bridge pieces too—in the chord progressions and the discord resolutions, or lack of them.

So wherein lies the danger?

It melts my shell. It leaves me unprotected. It removes me from time and place – ec stasis, ecstasy. I want more and more. It’s a drug, an addiction. I would do almost anything for a fix of more of the same, to stay in that place of delight. It creates dependency. It paralyzes. It intoxicates. It enchants.

I am not good at moderation.

Dr Wadely

FWWSince 2003 we’ve moved house six times. Six downsizings, with sheet music a casualty. Once I got over the initial shock of ditching music that I thought in my pride I’d learn one day, I got into the swing of things and worked on the principle that if I hadn’t learnt it over the last twenty years when my eyesight and hearing were good, I wasn’t going to master it now. That rule has served me well in other contexts too. Don’t worry, musicians, I gave it all to good homes.

A particular casualty was Messiaen and ‘forearm smash’ stuff. The surprise is that I kept it so long, for years ago after learning Dieu parmi nous I worked out that mastering one Messiaen piece took about the same time as learning at least ten by anyone else, so it was a bit of a no-brainer really.

One benefit of the great chucking out has been the discovery of gems I forgot I had. Wadely gems, in particular: ‘Three Short and Easy Postludes’. Short they may be, but easy? Well, not particularly so. I learnt them, then I looked online for more, and found three more short and easy postludes – or maybe preludes (so that’s six now). These are easier, almost sightreadable—kind of FRCO test standard, maybe a bit more demanding.

Of course, the reason I take to them is the Carlisle connexion. Wadely was organist at Carlisle cathedral for fifty years, retiring in 1960. I never knew him, for I didn’t start lessons there until 1963 with his successor. By that time, the organ had been modified, but the basic sounds were as he knew them: Willis choruses underpinned by a 32 foot metal open, early (1907) Arthur Harrison soft stuff and a huge Tuba (organ anoraks will know what I’m talking about). When I’m playing the Wadely pieces I feel a certain affinity with them through having reasonably clear ideas of what sounds he expected. His pieces are similar to, but I think better than, Stanford’s preludes and postludes which, apart from the last one in D minor, are overrated.

2386291210_de213538b0_zThe music is beautifully written. Like Bairstow, eight years his senior, he preferred flat keys to sharp keys. Like Bairstow, there is that use of progressions, discords and suspensions that gives a gentle, plaintive, yearning feel, redolent of the Edwardian era. Like Bairstow, he calls upon the full resources of a large organ for choral accompaniment. Wadely’s tunes have gone right into my brain, with dratted earworms that I can’t get rid of.

They are pieces of real quality. His successor’s successor, Jeremy Suter, recorded a CD of his choral music sung by the cathedral choir. It’s good stuff. There are lovely miniatures and a couple of very fine extended anthems: There shall be signs in the sun and There shall come forth a rod. All this, and the Communion Service in F minor, are every bit as good as Stanford or Charles Wood. The Carlisle chant book, as you’d expect, has lots of Wadely, only a few of which have found their way into published collections. Given that he was a pupil of Stanford at the Royal College of Music, am I too fanciful to hear a bit of Brahms now and then?

I wonder what might have come of Wadely if he’d moved somewhere less remote than the Border city. He was active in the wider musical scene of the area and his output includes many works for schools and secular choirs, so maybe having carved out that niche for himself he was content. He lived on Brampton Road, one of the posher parts of the city, and became a musical doyen of a substantial part of northern England. In his heyday his nearest colleagues would have been Armes, Dykes Bower then Conrad Eden at Durham, Bairstow then Jackson at York, Cook at Leeds and I suppose Goss Custard at Liverpool. Different days altogether.

Apart from the Suter CD there are no recordings as far I know, so I’m inclined to make one on the St Modwen’s organ here in Burton, perhaps also with works by some of his contemporaries (Bridge, Dyson for example).


Not the console FWW knew, but many of the sounds the same

I saw the great man once at a performance of Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur by Philip Dore in St Cuthbert’s, Carlisle. I was in my early teens and he was in his eighties, a small stooped figure who by invitation gave a vote of thanks. He added that Messiaen’s music was not to his taste. Can’t say I’m surprised—it’s less and less to mine.

Even in my youth, after his retirement, Wadely’s name was spoken in hushed tones in Carlisle. To this day the Carlisle Music Festival’s F W Wadely Trophy proudly adorns victors’ shelves. Those were the days when cathedral organists were aristocracy, even in Carlisle. So to finish with, here’s a jewel overheard during a conversation between two Carlisle musicians (imagine the flat vowels, properly enunciated consonants, and tinges of Scots and Geordie that make up the Carlisle accent):

First musician, in reflective mood: “You know, Stravinsky was born the same year as Dr Wadely” (he was always Dr Wadely).

Longish pause.

Second musician, similarly reflective: “Aye, is that a fact?”

       Another pause.

“Whatever happened to Stravinsky?”

Frederick William Wadely, born Kidderminster 1882, died Carlisle 1970.

Postscript: I’ve just seen that Ian Hare recorded two Wadely postludes (which set?) on this CD.

I love all beauteous things


Eyes that see shall never grow old

At last, Herbert Howells speaks to the sanctuary of my soul. Or, more truthfully, at last his music has penetrated the fat inclosing it.

Over the years, I’ve thought and said some dismissive things about Howells. That when you’d heard one of his Evensong settings, you’d heard them all (like Haydn String Quartets, and Palestrina Masses). That his organ compositions were little more than quiet-loud-quiet or loud-quiet-loud. That—ye Gods, how I am ashamed of this—he never let go of the death of his son. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

It’s tempting to say that his loss released energy in his work that speaks to my loss. But the Requiem that I now find so poignant was written in 1932, three years before his bereavement. Howells certainly channelled his grief into creativity, but early compositions speak to me just as powerfully, so there is something more than the outworking of his grief that penetrates to my Holy of Holies.

I wonder what it is. Is it perhaps no more and no less than the pursuit of beauty?

I found beauty in the early 1960s in Carlisle.

The biology teacher shouts “don’t you know which side your bread’s buttered?” when I bare my soul about music or medicine. The organ teacher borrows money from my parents, so can hardly encourage me to go against their wishes. I finally let hold of my grip in 1972 when I went to medical school. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from that loss. I’ve been chasing and mourning it ever since. Is my addiction to the church merely a vain attempt to cling to that first love?

Today I’ve discovered Howells’ I Love all Beauteous Things written in 1977. Like the anatomist’s knife it slices open my insides in one stroke. It exposes my soul to the world. An unprotected soul is mortally vulnerable, but better wounded than icy, for the wounds do the work. Gerda and Kay in The Snow Queen, different parts of me, tears of love melting heart of ice.

We see events in the world that demonstrate, yet again, the three groups of demons (addictions in modern parlance) that Evagrios in the fourth century AD identified as responsible for the ills of the world: “those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those that suggest avaricious thoughts, and those that incite us to seek the esteem of others. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups.”

“We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.” These words of Dalai Lama shout at me.

Take responsibility for your actions: your overeating, your overuse of antibiotics, your exploitation of other people, your consumption of natural resources … Face your grief for your sins, and for the hurts done by others. Then your tears will flow. Tears that come from the heart: herzwasser. The woman’s herzwasser that washes Jesus’ feet. Herzwasser that flows when we are forgiven, and when we forgive. Herzwasser that flows in the presence of beauty in all its manifestations: sounds, sights, smells, handiwork, openheartedness, and above all else sacrificial love: “O my son, my son, my son! would God I had died instead of thee, O my son, my son!”

The Kingdom of God is not about life after death. It is not about an ideal political system. My kingdom is not of this world: it is an inner kingdom, here and now.

It is certainly not a kingdom of control. It is a kingdom of liberating beauty in its protean manifestations. Beauty does not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

I love all beauteous things,

      I seek and adore them;

God hath no better praise,

And man in his hasty days

      Is honoured for them.

I too will something make

      And joy in the making;

Altho’ to-morrow it seem

Like the empty words of a dream

      Remembered on waking.

Robert Bridges, 1844–1930