Few people now recollect Edna Ferber, once a best-selling novelist. Nevertheless she numbered among her champions Somerset Maugham, who in 1948 told playwright Garson Kanin: “I admire Edna Ferber. She’s a true professional.” To Kanin’s inquiry “What sort of writer would you call her?”, Maugham responded: “The best sort. She writes because she must, compulsively. She couldn’t not write, if you take my meaning.”
That last sentence, suitably altered, summarises us organists. Try as we will, we couldn’t not be organists.
Heaven knows, prospects of glittering financial rewards seldom motivate us. Our incomes (a few French and American star performers aside) would be greeted by plumbers and electricians with Rabelaisian bellows of derisive mirth. We lack even the spiritual benefits that come from being actively resented, like cops, politicians or tax collectors. Rather, we become organists not because we can, but because we must. Why must we? That question’s answer is best left to neurologists.
My own organ-playing began, like many hazardous addictions, insidiously and innocently enough. In an interview for the magazine Fanfare (based in Tenafly, New Jersey), I supplied details of my apprenticeship in the role. Given that Fanfare published the interview as recently as its May-June 2023 number, I must strive to minimise self-repetition here. Suffice it to note that though my father hated the organ’s very sound, my mother, by contrast, had glad youthful memories of attending organ recitals—often in Sydney University’s Great Hall—as well as of hearing E. Power Biggs, André Marchal, and other visiting organ maestri via Australian Broadcasting Commission programs after the Second World War. Probably, then, I inherited my organophilia from her.
This article appears in September’s Quadrant.
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Arguably those among us who started our organ-playing, and who chiefly practise it, within the parish milieu (apart from various recitals) are a dying breed. A shame, if true, since this milieu constitutes the best didactic method for the budding organist, at least in Australia. When I commenced regular playing in 1996, wages remained low—as the child of Great-Depression-scarred parents, I never queried them—yet for the resultant relentlessly empirical training, I feel permanent gratitude. Parish life alone compels you to take snap decisions. You could well need to transpose an elaborate hymn-tune at sight, to suit a congregation’s range. Always you will need to alter your stop-choices for each hymn’s verse (many a conservatoire-trained virtuoso ignores this duty, and belts everything out at the same stentorian volume, regardless of the words’ import). Probably your playing will need to compensate for the absent alto chorister, or the soprano overcome by panic attacks, or the tenor whose absolute incapacity for ensemble blend makes him turn every passage into “Siegfried’s Forging Song”.
None of these proficiencies can be obtained through academic qualifications, or through instructional videos. Least of all can they be obtained through fashionable fast-tracking of youngsters into an antipodean cathedral environment which has increasingly become a kind of theistic Komsomol. (Any Australian secular workplaces as unashamedly ageist as certain Australian cathedrals would face legal action.)
Soon after my move from Sydney to Melbourne in 2001, my organ-playing duties began afresh. A kind of bush-telegraph then operated. Whichever parishes wanted my playing and agreed to remunerate me adequately for it, I served. Some were Catholic, some Anglican, some Uniting Church, and one was (of all unexpected faiths) Christian Science. For each, I played as well as I knew how. I speak of the years up to 1BCE: this last abbreviation meaning not “Before Common Era” but “Before Covid Era”.
Since Melbourne’s lockdowns ended, I have been relieved to behold my organ-playing career largely resuming its former course. Save for one factor: I cannot imagine pre-pandemic (and indeed, within Catholicism, pre-abuse-scandals) levels of suburban choral activity ever again being reached.
Long before Covid, I had decided, rightly or wrongly, to capture my organ performances in a more enduring guise than the requirements of church and concert life allow, and in a more artistically respectable format than mere dissemination via YouTube of amateur-hour domestic strumming. Hence my first CD, The Gates of Vienna, released in 2018 and devoted to baroque repertoire from Habsburg-ruled domains. Hence, too, this disc’s successors, all of much more recent material: Pax Britannica, 2019; French Romantic Church Music, 2021; and Undertones of War, 2022.
Happily, although income from royalties and hard-copy CD sales is usually limited (indigence being most organists’ déformation professionnelle), in pre-coronavirus days I frequently experienced pleasant surprises at the number of auditors, after each concert, who bought copies of my discs. Because of streaming’s omnipresence, ownership of CD players has, notoriously, almost died out among Australians under forty-five. But music-lovers who continue to own these players continue to buy new releases; and while they do, it has seemed worthwhile to persist with my recorded output, about which various music-related periodicals in Britain, the US and France as well as Australia and New Zealand have spoken kindly.
So to my fifth and final CD (Ars Organi AOR005), Empire to Commonwealth. Whereas Undertones of War contained mostly music from the 1920s and 1930s, Empire to Commonwealth surveys music from the Second World War and after. Besides, whereas the earlier disc confined itself to Britain, the newcomer has not only British works but works written in Australia and New Zealand. The original plan included two Canadian works also; sadly, recording sessions never permit leisure for everything which one yearns to incorporate. Moreover, thanks to often-excruciating car, truck, tram, fire-engine, ambulance and motorcycle noise near our chosen venue—the Basilica of Our Lady of Victories at Camberwell in Melbourne’s east, with its marvellous late-Romantic organ—every minute of recording time attained a new preciousness. The epoch is long gone when Decca’s sound engineers could ensure first-rate releases from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra through their peremptory telephonic commands to the city’s mayor that a curfew be imposed on all downtown vehicular traffic.
By a variant of Parkinson’s Law, the longer one’s recording sessions, the greater one’s appetite becomes for more of them. Extra sessions having been vouchsafed, one craves another session, then another, then another. That way madness, not to mention bankruptcy, lies. Highly accomplished recording producers’ skills are expensive; one cannot forever monopolise the building where an organ CD is being made; and essential to the recording artist’s skill-set is a simple instinct for knowing when to stop. Particularly if (as happened amid sessions for Empire to Commonwealth) a nearby householder, not content with using by turns a lawnmower and a leaf-blower, insists on running both noise-pollutants simultaneously.
Several works on Empire to Commonwealth, as on its precursors, are new to CD. One is the Church Prelude No. 1 (1941) by A.E. Floyd (1877–1974). Originally from Birmingham, Floyd presided over Melbourne’s musical life for so many decades—chiefly as cathedral organist and as broadcaster—that many believed him to be Australian-born. Perusal of both hard-copy and online discographies yielded no evidence that anyone, even Floyd himself, had recorded this prelude. Well, recorded it now is; and those who rightly value the 2012 Floyd biography by Hobart-based scholar Ian Burk (titled Goodbye ’Til Next Time, Floyd’s accustomed farewell phrase to his radio listeners) will, I hope, appreciate this long-forgotten miniature’s revival.
The other Australian composer represented on the CD was, unlike Floyd, born locally (in Ballarat): William G. James. Doubtless James (1892–1977) would have preferred to be remembered for his working relationships with leading conductors (Sir Henry Wood, Sir Thomas Beecham) and leading singers (Dame Nellie Melba, Toti Dal Monte, John Brownlee). Yet today, outside musicologists’ ranks, his name evokes his own delightful Christmas carols. With one of these, Carol of the Birds (1948), I fell in love as a boy, when I heard it on an ABC radio transmission to rural New South Wales. I am pleased to have chosen it for Empire to Commonwealth, not solely through nostalgic considerations, but in homage to James’s astonishing talent for that melodic memorability nowadays denoted by the noun “earworm”. The five singers heard in the carol and the disc’s other vocal tracks—Elizabeth Barrow, Tina Battaglia, Emily Tam, Leighton Triplow and James Emerson—all relished James’s beguiling utterance, hitherto new to them. High time for others’ memories of that utterance to be jogged.
At least Empire to Commonwealth, like the previous four discs, exhibits carefully chosen programming. I laboured to avoid the absolute stylistic confusion far too frequent on organ recital discs: the flinging-together of compositions any old how—ignoring chronological pertinence, sensible key-sequences, or even an identifiable emotional progression—on no more cogent pretext than the player’s whims. Such grab-bags call to mind the dessert that Churchill famously rejected: “Take away this pudding! It has no theme.” If my CDs have appealed to listeners, they have done so partly because they do possess themes, and because they emerged from my default assumption that listeners are intelligent, historically-informed adults.
Ultimately, though, issuing a CD resembles farewelling a child who moves out from home. You can wish the child every blessing, lament the child’s departure, and pray that no harm befalls the child. What you must not do is cling embarrassingly to your offspring, over whose longer-term fate you retain no control. Thus with a recording artist’s “baby”. For Empire to Commonwealth, it has been enjoyable to act as first the midwife, then the parent. But once November’s release date arrives, the disc must go out into the big bad world by itself.
R.J. Stove is an organist and writer living in Melbourne. His CDs are available from www.arsorgani.com