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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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