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Presidential address 2002

The Royal College of Organists

Presidential Address at the Conferral of Diplomas, Saturday 2nd March 2002

at Leeds Parish Church

 

 

It is sixteen years since a gathering of the College took place in the mother church of England's Northern capital when was held a members' forum at one of the very earliest RCO gatherings outside the capital city.

Now, as then, it is a great privilege and a real pleasure to extend to you all a very warm welcome.

Just over a month ago, was held another gathering of members as part of a programme of consultation concerning the future. As those charged with the affairs of the College become involved with the complexities of amendments to the Royal Charter, the move to premises in Birmingham and many associated issues, it is crucial to achieve exchanges of views in order that the College may face the future with confidence. All of this will, inevitably, have been unsettling for the Staff to say the least – and it is a measure of the professionalism and goodwill of all involved that so much has been achieved in so short a space of time and today's gathering provides a further chance to assure the Staff of how much is owed to their efforts on behalf of us all – efforts as much individual as corporate.

The possibilities provided by occupancy of the historic Curzon Street premises for which a lease is currently being negotiated are considerable. Possibly the very last of Britain's pre-Victorian buildings, and certainly the most historic railway-associated premises in England, the Birmingham building is a remarkable find – brimful of potential. In geographical terms, it has to be an advantage for the College to be located in the same city as English Organ Archive on the one hand and the registered office and administrative headquarters of the Incorporated Association of Organists on the other.

By the most fortunate of coincidences, the College is to be blessed with imminent leadership from one of the Midlands' most famous musical sons, Dr Roy Massey. His input into the management of change will be as invaluable as his personal interest in and concern for the welfare of the College and the individuals who comprise its membership. I just hope we all realise how lucky we are!

The chance of working more closely both with the IAO and the British Institute of Organ Studies as much as with the Birmingham based universities and, especially, the Conservatoire, presents almost limitless opportunities for the enhancement of our educational outreach.

The College's events programme has flourished during the past decade in spite of, and to some extent perhaps because of, limitations imposed by not having premises of our own. We should lose no chance to express appreciation to all involved in planning and sustaining the College's enviable programme of annual events – events which have included within the past two years major opportunities for members and non-members alike to meet together and participate in music making on a substantial scale. Messiah and The Crucifixion have held large gatherings in thrall at recent College events – our gratitude to Mr Stephen Cleobury and Dr Barry Rose for their leadership is substantial.

Importantly for the image of the College, both events have involved us in support of major charitable enterprises as well as providing the experience of artistically enthralling, event thrilling, occasions.

Just a year ago, there was a special chance to commemorate one of England's greatest Victorians, Sir John Stainer. It is perhaps to a degree inevitable that one should return to a Victorian theme in a city which is perhaps the embodiment of the Victorian phenomenon – the exemplar of the so-called Victorian Values. Present-day re-assessment of Stainer's place in English musical history may also happily have re-focussed attention on the music of the Victorians and Edwardians – attention that some leading figures, not least among them the College's own Librarian, would attest has been ongoing for several years past.

This very month here at the Parish Church, Professor Graham Barber presents four lunchtime concerts at which major works by figures of the calibre of Henry Smart, William Spark and S S Wesley (key players in the musical life of Leeds) rub shoulders with less familiar, but no less important, figures such as Edward Silas, Oliver King, Charles Swinnerton Heap and the first two Organists of St George's Hall Liverpool, W T Best and Huddersfield-born A L Peace. Mendelssohn and Bach complete the artistic equation in a series of programmes which bear witness to very careful planning and research as much to the seemingly effortless brilliance of their execution.

That great monument to civic pride, Leeds Town Hall – surely the grandest and certainly the most instantly visually recognisable of all Victorian secular buildings – remains the at the heart of much of the cultural and commercial life of the area. At its opening in 1858 by Her Majesty The Queen and her beloved Prince Consort, one of the local tradesmen was so excited by it all that he is reputed to have perfumed the street outside his shop.

Seventeen years previous, the Parish Church of the Borough had been comprehensively rebuilt and re-consecrated with great rejoicing on 2nd September 1841. It was a lengthy service for which the Preacher, the Bishop of New Jersey, had been especially selected for the occasion by the Reverend Doctor Walter Farquhar Hook, the Tractarian Vicar of Leeds who ministered here from 1837 to 1859. Having encountered a greatly dilapidated building at Leeds, it must have been something like déja-vu as Dean of Chichester, to have to deal with the collapse of the spire of the Cathedral within only a number of months after his installation there.

If the opening of the Town Hall here had inspired the afore-mentioned pharmacist to wanton extravagance spurred on by an almost frenetic enthusiasm, the provision of a substantial celebratory meal for the Parish as a whole on the consecration of St Peter's showed a pastoral and material concern for the parishioners at a time when many faced the combined challenges of great poverty, inadequate drainage and often very short life-expectancy. For the mother Church of Leeds, as in so many great Northern cities, is at the heart of the medieval settlement and such settlements nearly always sprung up adjacent to water. The rejuvenation of the waterside area – and indeed of the city as a whole – has been a wonderful story of vision combined with conservation.

Vicar Hook, of course, achieved far more during his incumbency than the merely material – though he build scores of churches, vicarages and educational establishments in accordance with his motto

 

 for every poor man a pastor, and for every poor child a school

 

 

Remarkably for one whose perception of music was such that he found great difficulty distinguishing between The Old 100th and the National Anthem, Hook set about the re-establishment of the choral foundation here with astonishing vigour – organizing lectures and stimulating enthusiasm among the business and parochial communities to ensure that choral services could take place on weekdays as well as Sundays. This tradition, always sustained without the benefits of a resident chorister school – a tradition expensive of effort as much as of financial resource – is today in need of a huge injection of funds to ensure its continuance and development.

Hook had obtained the services of the greatest organist of the day, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, to play for the opening services in 1841.  The year following the volatile Dr Wesley returned to Yorkshire as Organist here – a post carrying a salary of £200 per annum guaranteed for ten years.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Our debt to Hook, to Wesley, and their successors is substantial. What Dr Wesley did for the church in terms of his organ playing, Dr E C Bairstow (in office as Organist and Choirmaster from 1906 to 1913) did for the Choir – like his famous precursor, the included  roles as composer as well as pedagogue. And although it might seem invidious to mention more recent names, the re-ordering of the musical life here after the 2nd World War was something for which Dr Melville Cook was responsible and for which the Parish remains profoundly thankful. Dr Cook's own very high standards and artistry as a keyboard virtuoso and conductor became in a very short time the Choir's own. The list of organ recitalists engaged for the summer series here reads like a Who's Who in 20th century organ playing – and international organ playing at that.

One of the most regular performers, and someone whose connection with this building extends spans over six decades is the greatly-loved Dr Francis Jackson who remains very happily today continuing in his commitment to and support of the life of this Church and its music. Dr Jackson's friendship with, and support of, Dr Cook's two successors remains a priceless asset.

As far as organists are concerned, Yorkshire is richly blessed in matters of what we might refer to as organical infrastructure. The famous great town and city churches contain instruments of national significance – and there are miniature gems a-plenty in Dales and Moorland places of worship – the Annesseens at Illingworth above Halifax and the Walcker at Felixkirk spring immediately to mind.

Here in Leeds, very nearly all the organs in the City's principal suburban churches constructed during the Victorian period were outright gifts from private patrons, often parishioners. These proved often to be musical inspirations that remain cherished and carefully maintained today. Chief among them all is one of international importance – the world-famous instrument by Edmund Schulze of Paulinzelle which, after a fascinating series of peregrinations from a garden chalet in North Leeds via Harrogate St Peter ended up at Armley where the new church opened in 1877 welcomed two years later what is without doubt one of the finest Romantic instruments anywhere.

The heart-warming programme of substantial restoration to the fabric of St Bartholomew's in recent days – a truly worthy project for support from the National Heritage Lottery Fund – is being followed very shortly by the complete restoration of this magnificent musical resource. The ordering of the arrangements has been crucial, as it is sadly too often the case that major work on such an organ is not coordinated sufficiently with prior attention to the environment in which it is housed.

Besides standards of craftsmanship and engineering, what else may be said to encapsulate the spirit of Victorian values for us as organists of today?

Firstly, perhaps, might come enterprise

possibly on a par with the pursuit of excellence

undertaken in a spirit of enlightenment as much as of education.

The achievement of such aims is surely dear to those who have the interests of the organ and its future as prime calls on their energies.

To borrow a phrase from former president Dr Peter Hurford,

the College strives to be

at the heart of the art of the organ.

It is our mission to ensure the continuing fulfilment of that worthy aim.

Coming now to the Conferral, it is both duty and delight to congratulate the College's new diploma holders. It is very pleasant to be able to record a high standard, as witnessed by the award of the relevant prizes.

A particular high point was obviously reached in the Extemporization test at Fellowship.

No less than three individuals are to receive the Dr Reginald Dixon prize –a coveted award established to honour the memory of the distinguished organist of the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Lancaster.

Today's programme contains mention of a major broadcasting project involving the televising of Bach's organ music by this afternoon's recitalist. Those who know John Scott Whiteley will know that he will bring to this occasion a special blend of virtuosic communication and it is with great pleasure that I invite John now to give the Ede and Ravenscroft Recital.

 

 

 

 

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