Ulster Society of
Organists and Choirmasters

Est. 1918.

Centenary of the Society


Article from Organists’ Review – Dr Michael Callender ARCO

Centenary of the Ulster Society

In 1918, there was a meeting in Belfast of 54 organists, including 5 FRCOs and 3 Mus Docs, who formed the Ulster Society of Organists & Choirmasters with Dr Laurence Walker Mus Doc [Cantab], Lecturer in Music at Queen’s University as first President.

Members paid an annual subscription of five shillings and listened to organ music and papers by members as well as some distinguished visitors – Dr [later Sir] Edward Bairstow in 1922, Harvey Grace in 1924 and Mr [later Sir] Sydney Nicholson in 1927 amongst many others.

Charles Brennan, Organist of St Anne’s Cathedral, presided over the Society for many years. During the High Tea which followed the annual Composite Recital in the Cathedral, “Captain” Brennan’s vote of thanks to the players tended to stray into adjudication mode, sometimes subtly. A lady organist was thanked “for playing the Bach in such a nice red dress”.

Ulster and Leinster

Following the 1st world war Irish Catholic bishops attracted graduates of the Lemmens Institute in Belgium to organist posts in Ireland and began a tradition of Flemish organists in major Irish churches. One of these, Michell van Dessel invited the Ulster and Leinster Societies to his church in Dundalk and thus began a long series of joint meetings of the two Societies, alternating between Dublin and the North.

Organ Building

Amongst lectures, masterclasses, discussions and recitals, some very popular meetings (up to ten each year) of the Society have been visits to old and new instruments throughout Ulster. Older instruments have often involved members in extensive research beforehand so that the Notes for visits have revealed unknown parts of organ history – the origins of a beautiful 19th century Walker chamber organ and a large William Hill in churches in Co Armagh; the 18th century contract for the Hollister organ in Derry Cathedral of which the handsome case stands on the west gallery; and the origins of an early chamber organ by Telford of Dublin.

Away Trips

1975 saw the first “away trip”. Members took the overnight ferry to arrive in Liverpool at 6:00 a.m.; hear the Organ Scholar Assistant Organist, Mr [now Prof] Ian Tracey play a recital at Liverpool Cathedral at 8:00 a.m.; then off to the Met; enjoy afternoon organ music and Choral Evensong at Chester Cathedral; then back to the ferry and home at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday in time to play at their morning services.

May Bank Holiday trips, usually for several days and by air now, have enabled members to visit most of the finest instruments, old and new, in the British Isles. Many of our leading organists have received the Society graciously and played short recitals specially for us. These have included Francis Jackson at York, the late John Scott at St Paul’s and a performance of the Reubke Sonata on the 94th Psalm at Chester Cathedral which had more than the usual emphasis on “vengeance” since Roger Fisher had toothache! Just last year James Lancelot gave us a substantial private recital in Durham just a few weeks before he retired.

A particular delight of “away trips” has been to visit members or former members of the Society in significant musical positions throughout the country – Organ Scholars at Cambridge or Oxford colleges; Dr Martin Ennis playing at Cambridge; Christopher Gray conducting his choir at Truro Cathedral; and Professor of Organ, David Graham, demonstrating the [then new] Walker organ in the East Parry Room at the Royal College of Music.

“Away trips” have extended to Amsterdam, Berlin and Frankfurt and in this centenary year a return trip to Paris. The Society’s Paris member, John Crothers, arranged for members to explore the tone colours of an original Cavaillé-Coll; try improvising in the French style at the Madeleine; hear the 3-manual organ on which Duruflé practised in his apartment opposite St-Étienne-du-Mont; and admire the fabulous view of Paris from Duruflé’s kitchen sink!

The website www.ulsterorganists.org is a way of seeing what is planned and other organists and choirmasters will always be welcome to contact the Secretary and arrange to join us.

Travel Fund

A Belfast pharmacist the late Arthur Beggs established a fund to assist young members with travel costs. Other members have contributed over the years and the Fund continues to make awards to members travelling on Society trips or to St Giles and Oundle organ courses and the Eton Choral Course.


Since the 1960s one meeting each year has been addressed by a distinguished visitor – organists such as Lady Susi Jeans and John Scott, choral conductors Sir David Willcocks and Dr Stephen Cleobury, organ builder Kenneth Jones and organ historian Cecil Clutton. Usually the visitor has been a guest at the annual dinner on the previous evening. The Diamond Jubilee dinner in the Great Hall of Queen’s University was a memorable occasion with cigars and snuff served with the coffee – but not envisaged for this year’s Centenary Dinner! Bernard Rose was amongst the visitors and a young local organ scholar, Martin Ennis, played a chamber organ tribute of carefully disguised pieces that included the word “rose” but ended with the instantly recognisable Final Amen from the Rose Responses.

Binding Together

The first of the Society’s list of “Objects” is “To bind together organists in a common bond … originally ‘to promote friendly intercourse and mutual help amongst its members’ ……… ” Membership is open to all who hold or held a position as organist or choirmaster and to other interested people. The membership is thus diverse and a very pleasing feature has been the extent to which professional organists in the Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals have been prepared to befriend and encourage the amateurs and newcomers.

This diversity is reflected amongst those elected to the current two-year term as President – professional organists, teachers, lecturers, organ builders, medics and businessmen.

The Society’s President at the time of this centenary is Emeritus Professor Desmond Hunter who has regularly given recitals in major European centres and is one of the few organists in the country to have held a chair of music.

Choral Issues

It is possible for an aspiring organist to have organ lessons from a leading player. However, acquiring skills as a choral conductor is rather more difficult and not all organists have voices that would gain them entry to a top choirmaster’s choir! Successive Presidents and committees have grappled with this question, as other Societies will have done, of how best to provide choral training for members. Choral workshops; opportunities to eavesdrop on nationally recognised conductors rehearsing top choirs; post mortems on choral performances; a conducting masterclass with David Stevens of Belfast Cathedral teaching [quite brave!] volunteers exactly what do with their hands. All these have been devised and recently Philip Sawyer played a Couperin organ mass in alternatim with Nigel McClintock’s Schola Cantorum at St Peter’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Belfast.

One less usual choral venture was when the Society invited the newly arrived Director of Music at Belfast Cathedral, Philip Stopford, to compose an Easter anthem that could be sung by choirs with variable numbers of parts. At the Society meeting the composer explained the composition structure, conducted a parish choir rehearsal and eventually performed the complete anthem. The Stopford “Christ the Lord is risen again” now forms part of his considerable body of published choral works.

A more recent choral event was devised to encourage teenagers to become interested in university choral scholarships and help them to prepare for voice trials. Society member David Martin, a Lay Clerk at Westminster Abbey and director of Ensemble Plus Ultra, put some 6th formers through voice trial format including memorising and singing apparently random collections of notes which he referred to as “tunes”. Happily some of those who took part are now choral scholars at Cambridge.

Centenary Conference

Centrepiece of the centenary year’s activities is a Conference in Queen’s University Belfast on Saturday 15 September 2018. The Conference will include the launch of Alasdair MacLaughlin’s history of the Society – “A Society Formed” ; Bach authority Professor Yo Tomita will discuss performance issues in the Orgelbüchlein; an organ masterclass will be conducted by David Graham of the RCM; IAO President David Saint, Mark Duley of RTE Philharmonic and Ruth McCartney MBE of Methodist College Belfast will contribute to a symposium on choral standards; and an organ recital on a modern instrument by local builders Wells-Kennedy will be followed by Dinner at one of Ulster’s gracious manor houses. There are guest houses close to the university and hotels nearby. Everyone is welcome to come and help the Society celebrate its centenary.

Reference to Centenary Book – A Society Formed by Alasdair MacLaughlin including reference to his website – www.asocietyformed.com

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Reviews of A Society Formed

Dr Alan Thurlow

Congratulations on this fascinating and excellent book!

It recounts the movement to establish local associations of organists in our country.  This began in 1889 with the founding by John Brook of the Wakefield and District Association.   In 1913, when similar associations were appearing in other parts of the country, the same John Brook initiated the National Union of Organist’ Associations – later to become the Incorporated Association of Organists.  The Ulster Society of Organists & Choirmasters (USOC) was founded in 1918, but it is not clear how soon after that it became affiliated to the National Union.  The minute book recording that decision belongs to what the Author describes as the ‘missing years’ from 1918-36; that is an intriguing story in itself!

However, what we do know is that since its affiliation, USOC has become a greatly valued member of the IAO. It has become noted for its many activities and unified strength of purpose; these are all recorded in the book.  Alasdair MacLaughlin describes how, with the continuing inspired leadership, and the enthusiasm of its members, USOC has continued to develop and become the vibrant organisation it is today.

In 2011, it was my privilege, as then President of IAO, to bring the Annual Congress to Northern Ireland and to the Republic of Ireland – the only occasion on which Congress had ever assembled in Ireland.  The large numbers who attended were grateful for the typically warm welcome they were given, and enormously impressed by what they discovered about USOC and the quality of church music in the Province.  These events are recorded in the book.

We welcome this substantial, interesting and well researched history, which records how, from its earliest beginnings to its Centenary Year, the Society has become what it is today.  A substantial history it certainly is, but with anecdotes, photographs and interesting people from all over the UK and beyond, it makes for an entertaining read.

Dr Alan Thurlow
Organist Emeritus – Chichester Cathedral, Chairman BIOS

Professor Emeritus Gerard Gillen

This absorbingly written and meticulously researched history of the 100-year old Ulster Society of Organists & Choirmasters offers an insight into the social and cultural history of a period of great change in Ireland’s political evolution, North and South. The insights are fascinating and are sure to be of as much interest to the general reader as to church music aficionados.

The author’s style is light and eminently readable, and we find interesting and remarkable personalities coming to life in unexpected ways, as their contributions to an important elements of musical and cultural life are remembered, explored and analyzed.

The terrain covered is primarily Ulster, yet the connections with the not so resilient Leinster Society of Organists & Choirmasters is carefully chronicled, as sincere and important friendships developed in what must surely be among the very earliest and most enduring examples of cross border cooperation.

Professor Emeritus Gerard Gillen
Maynooth University

The Very Revd Dr William Morton

What a delightful, absorbing and well written book this is – very difficult to put it down!

The Very Revd Dr William Morton
Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin

Professor Emeritus Brian M Walker

What an impressive book this is! This important volume reflects much dedicated research by Alasdair MacLaughlin. The author provides an invaluable insight into our music and church heritage. At the same time, he highlights the good work still being done by the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters.

Professor Emeritus Brian M Walker
The Queen’s University of Belfast

Professor Emeritus Desmond Hunter

This account of the Society’s first 100 years is richly informative and provides a lively and engaging read. What is offered is a detailed narrative of the progress and achievements of a provincial society that punches well above its weight, with vivid portraits of personalities, places, encounters and experiences; and it is not confined to Northern Ireland alone. The Society has travelled far and wide. This is an important history, documenting a century of activity that has provided educational opportunities, enrichment and enjoyment for its members’.

Professor Emeritus Desmond Hunter
Centenary President of the Ulster Society of Organists & Choirmasters

John Norman

This fascinating history of the Ulster Society of Organists & Choirmasters is notable for its independent, realistic and complete view of the place of Church Music in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Eschewing a mere listing of facts, the emphasis on individual personalities and their various backgrounds is of special interest.

The extensive evaluation of the work of the various organ builders who have practiced in Northern Ireland over the last century is particularly useful, yielding information not available elsewhere in such a readable form.

John Norman
Former Chairman British Institute of Organ Studies

Sarah Beedle

I was very pleasantly surprised by the readability of this volume. The style is extremely approachable and I would have loved to have met the people described as their humour and quirky take on life shines through. Kudos to Alasdair MacLaughlin for keeping the focus off himself and leaving it firmly on the people in the church music community.

Sarah Beedle
Editor, The Organists’ Review

Many thanks for sending me a copy of A Society Formed.  As I sat down to read it, I wondered just how interesting a history involving people and places of which I knew nothing would be; within a few pages of reading my interest was captured.  The author has certainly brought to life the characters who were involved in the history of USOC, and that is of great credit to him.

Histories such as A Society Formed are as much a history of the organisation as of the social and (in this case)  musical and religious trends over the century.  I thought the year by year break down of events was a most interesting story of developing trends and activities. Congratulations!

Revd Canon, Dr Peter Thompson

Being invited to review a newly published history of the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters would, I expected, be a relatively short and simple affair, and I wasn’t quite prepared for the size of the volume which arrived some days later. Reading this book has been a thoroughly engrossing and rewarding experience. Alasdair MacLaughlin has produced a meticulously thorough account not just of the history of the Society, though that is of course his primary intent, but of the musical and social history of Northern Ireland, through the lens of the organist and choirmaster.

He gives a very general overview of the origins, flourishing and development of the society, reflecting on the social history of the province and the fortunes of music and musical education more generally during this period. This is followed by a comprehensive catalogue of the activities of the society year by year, with special reference to the joint activities with the sister organisation, the Leinster Society of Organists and Choirmasters, and the annual May trips abroad, the highlight of the annual calendar for many organists.
Mr MacLaughlin is thorough in his critical appraisal not just of the society, but of its members and the churches in which they serve(d), and he analyses both problems faced in the past, and significantly, the challenges for the future.

Copious and very helpful indexing is provided, and two chapters have been contributed by others, one by Dr Joe McKee outlining the work of the many organ builders who are or have been active in the Province, significantly enriched by the inclusion of many valuable personal reflections, and the other the script of an address given by Billy Adair to the society in 2003, entitled “An Octogenarian Organist Looks Back”, and important personal reflection which adds significantly to the historical narrative.

This whole volume is no dry historical account, it is vibrant with the tales and personalities of many musicians who have held prominent roles in the musical life of Northern Ireland and well beyond, and it is peppered with humorous anecdotes and stories. It is hard to be critical of such an impressive work, but if any comment was to be offered it would be that there is, from time to time, a degree of repetition, which might be accounted for by the fact that this is a book which can be dipped into for small sections, and not just read from cover to cover.

It is an ideal gift for any musician, not just for Organists and Choirmasters, and should be required reading for all students of music.

Revd Canon, Dr Peter Thompson
Rector of Donaghmore, and Assistant Organist, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, Reviewed in the Church of Ireland Gazettes.

Ulster Society for
Organists and Choirmasters

Est. 1918.