The organ is playing

In response to Richard Morrison’s article in The Times, June 4th 2020

You don't know what you've got till it's gone

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

When I was growing up, on the weekends when I visited my father we would attend Sunday services together at Guildford cathedral. Completed in 1961, only 10 years before I was born, the brown-brick structure may not be in the same league visually as, say, my local cathedral of St Albans Abbey, with its heady mix of Norman/Romanesque/Gothic architecture, but it has its own charm.  Along with the rest of the congregation, we would file in via the west door and be greeted first by a smiling cathedral warden handing out service sheets, next by the stunning vaulted ceiling and finally by the sound of gentle organ music filling the incense-scented space. My father, Sebastian Forbes, sometimes deputised for the then regular organist, Philip Moore, on which occasions I would have the honour of following him up the steep spiral steps to the console and perching next to him on the long organ stool, my legs dangling safely out of reach of the pedals. I would watch in awe as he pushed and pulled the stops in and out, moved his hands deftly about on the multiple manuals and danced his feet over the pedals, waiting with bated breath for the all-important slow nod which indicated that I should turn the page. On the Sundays when we were sitting in the pews, even when I wasn’t yet tall enough to glimpse the organist’s head poking out of the top of the organ console way up above us, I was fully aware that he was there and my father took great pains to tell me that it wasn’t right ever to say that ‘the organ is playing’ but always to say that ‘someone is playing the organ.’

It’s an important distinction to make. We may not always be able to see the organist but this doesn’t mean that the organ is playing itself. At St John’s College in Cambridge, where my sons were choristers, there’s a lovely tradition of a Sunday evening organ recital, given by the current or former organ scholars or by visiting organists from other cathedrals, which takes place just before choral evensong. Regular attendees know to sit quietly and listen, as one would during any recital, but occasionally visitors arrive early for the service and, assuming that the organ music is merely ambient background music, continue their conversation (until they are politely shushed by a neighbour.) Despite the fact that choirs are generally not hidden from view, they can suffer a similar fate if the distinction between ‘there’s a choir singing’ and ‘people are singing in a choir’ is not observed. Whereas the former carries with it an implied disregard for the circumstances which enabled there to be a choir, the latter acknowledges that choirs do not simply happen, as anybody who has sung in one, be it as a hobby or as a living, will know. When couples want a professional choir to sing at their wedding, they are often surprised to learn that they will have to budget for this alongside the venue hire, florist and catering. Surely it’s just a few singers standing up and singing a few hymns? And don’t get me started on the music to accompany the signing of the register; there can’t be many professional singers who haven’t experienced the humiliation of delivering an aria or song to a congregation chatting loudly throughout. Just after graduating from Oxford and before becoming a professional performer, I was a secondary school music teacher for three years; my Headmaster expected the school choir, which I conducted, to perform at the Open Day but refused my request to have one lesson off teaching in order to prepare for this, assuming it could and would just happen.

The photograph accompanying Richard Morrison’s excellent article in The Times two days ago carries the caption ‘The award-winning Tenebrae choir is among Britain’s world-renowned groups awaiting advice on how to resume.’ I am well-acquainted with this choir (being second in from the left in the photo) and can assure you from personal experience that choirs of this calibre don’t happen by accident. They are the product not only of years of vocal training, of regular and detailed rehearsal and of performing together so often that the singers in them literally breathe as one, but of artistic vision, of skilled leadership, of long committee meetings, of forward planning, persistent fundraising and patrons’ generosity. Likewise with our cathedral choirs, they don’t sound the way they do as a result of singers simply rocking up just before the service begins, throwing on a cassock and surplice and grabbing a pile of music. For starters, the boys and girls singing on the front rows will have rehearsed for an hour every day before school and for another after school and will have sung weekday as well as weekend services, all of which will have been made possible by the support of a choral foundation and/or choir school. It’s a 500-year-old tradition, one which is respected and revered by choral enthusiasts the world over but which, even before the arrival of Covid-19, was struggling to survive financially, hence the need for wonderful organisations such as the Friends of Cathedral Music. (They’ve recently created the Cathedral Choirs Emergency Fund.)

Perhaps people who aren’t fortunate enough to have sat in organ lofts or sung in choirs genuinely don’t know how special this tradition is in Britain. Or perhaps they’ve never made the distinction between ‘the organ is playing’ and ‘someone is playing the organ.’ Perhaps they have become so accustomed to music being in the background that they’ve stopped noticing it’s there at all. Perhaps they don’t go to many concerts. Perhaps they’re unaware that, while the country has been in lockdown, so have all of the people who make live music happen. Perhaps they think that, when lockdown is eventually lifted, it’ll all miraculously return to normal and they’ll be able to wander into a church or cathedral and hear organ music and a choir singing. As a professional musician who’s from a family of professional musicians and whose friendship circles are full of musicians, perhaps I have a skewed sense of the importance of live music in this country. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more a case of, in the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, from her song Big Yellow Taxi, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ We’ve been taking it for granted that live music, in concert halls, theatres, opera houses, churches and cathedrals, will always be there; unless we act now, I’m with Richard Morrison in fearing that we may lose it altogether as we witness this government paving over Paradise and putting a car park in its place.

Joanna Forbes L’Estrange
June 6th 2020

Posted in Blog, cathedral music, choral music, oxford university, tenebrae and tagged , , , , , .