Dame Gillian reflects

Charlotte Wilson:
Gillian, what made you choose the organ?

Gillian Weir:
The organ chose me, really...  I won an organ scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, and took organ and piano as joint principal studies.  I was so fortunate to be able to study the piano with Cyril Smith, a very great concert pianist, who gave me so much - musically and in every way!   For example he taught me how to practise properly.  I had been lucky in having a marvellous teacher in New Zealand too, the wonderful Edith Smith, who was a great character in Wanganui and who gave me a very sound basis.   Moving then to Cyril Smith I moved to the next level.  He did find it very odd that I was planning to play the organ professionally rather than the piano, but I won the St Alban's International Organ Competition in my second year at the Royal College and found I was being given a lot of invitations to play the organ in concert.  I became fascinated by the baroque Dutch organs, after my organ professor took me over there; I encountered the Schnitger organ in Alkmaar and the organ in Haarlem that Mozart and Haydn played.  I loved these instruments; in particular I found they revealed so much about Bach and other early composers that I had not understood before, since this repertoire is so much tied to the right instrument for its success.  It meant a great deal to me to discover how the music of Bach can sound when played on these ideal instruments.   After winning this competition I found myself embarked on a career as a solo artist - suddenly I was a concert organist.  I really didn't think it could continue, as a purely concert organist was unknown; but I'm still hanging in there!

Charlotte Wilson:
Gillian Weir is one of the world's greatest organists.  Born in Martinborough, she burst onto the scene in London at the age of just twenty-three and has travelled the world ever since as a performer both solo and with the world's great orchestras and conductors and as an organ champion.  Her television series ‘The King of instruments' attracted 2 million people a week in Britain alone.  She is also one of the world's most highly decorated musicians with numerous fellowships and doctorates.  She has been the first woman President of three major British institutions.  She was the first organist to be knighted, in 1996.  She made the first guest recording on the Millennium Bach organ, in Bach's own church, the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.  She was also invited to give one of the first opening concerts.

Gillian Weir:
That was immensely exciting.  It is quite intimidating to play there, as the console is right opposite the famous "Bach window," so-called because of its life-size portrait of Bach.  I could feel his eyes boring into my back all the time I was playing.  But it was thrilling to play the whole of Part III of the Clavier-Übung there, the great collection of chorale preludes set between the Prelude and Fugue in Eb, in the opening series, and then to record The Eighteen Chorales.   The new organ, by Gerhard Woehl, is magnificent.

 

Charlotte Wilson:
Oh how wonderful, because Bach's own organ was demolished long ago I think, wasn't it?  And he didn't like it very much.  Was that right?

Gillian Weir:
Yes - sometimes musicologists want to copy exactly the organs that Bach worked with, but they forget his son's remark (to paraphrase): "Dad had terrible organs all his life!"  It is not necessarily a good idea to go back to the specific organs that he had; one needs instruments that best present the essential characteristics of the music.  The most important thing about Bach is his polyphony, and if an organ does not reveal that counterpoint in all its clarity and beauty, then that instrument is not suitable for it.

Charlotte Wilson:
You said to me before that it's a shame that a lot of people regard his organ music as the big momentous churchy huge stuff that gets played a lot in England.

Gillian Weir:
Yes, it is;  the famous cathedral organs here are wonderful for a certain repertoire and they are superb for accompanying the choirs, as they serve the theatrical accompaniments so well, and allow the organists to illustrate "hills skipping like sheep", plagues of locusts and so on in the psalms.... all of that much-loved Anglican tradition which the English College and Cathedral organists do so brilliantly   But their internal balance - treble to bass, balance between families of stops, balance between divisions - is not designed to present polyphony (and other early music) so well, hence audiences sometimes think that organ music is just bombast or religious musak.  That can all be thrilling too, but there is a large repertoire that needs organs of a different tonal design in order to win over a secular musical audience. 

Charlotte Wilson:
Gillian, the unique thing about you is that you have always had this genuine concert career, performing for 45 years right around the world, rather than being attached to a cathedral, doing recitals.  Is that something you fought for, or did it just happening?

Gillian Weir:
Well, as I said, it more or less chose me.  I had never sought to be a cathedral organist; I'm sure I would be quite disastrous, actually!   The whole idea of stopping and starting at the command of a light flashing on the console, and playing at the end of the service as the congregation leaves noisily and people greet one another doesn't appeal... I have always been obsessed with music ever since I was a child dancing around the house in the dark to the sound of music coming from the radio's wonderful 2YC, which was a fantastic station.  I like to listen to it and be swept up in the story it tells, rather than playing to order, so to speak, often while people chatter.   And I regard performing as a conversation with the listener - one is saying "Listen to this wonderful bit! - And look what happens here!"  However I have always loved to listen to wonderful choirs singing great choral music, whether Wesley or Purcell anthems or Palestrina and Victoria motets or Bach Passions or the Berlioz Te Deum...!

Charlotte Wilson:
Your mother was in the church choir in Wanganui, wasn't she?

Gillian Weir:
Yes, she was.  That is how I came to play the organ the first time.  The organist of my parish church was unable to do a weekday service one Lent, and because I played the piano the Vicar asked my mother if I could come along and play a few hymns for the service that evening.  There was a great deal of music-making in Wanganui; we had the splendid British Music Society (BMS), for instance, where all the little hopeful pianists came along and played their pieces.  I had been part of that since I was very small so was known as one of the hopefuls.    So somewhat protesting I went over to the church to try to figure out how on earth to make this instrument work.  It was so different from a piano; nothing happened when I put down the key unless I pulled out a "stop" - but what stop should I pull?  I had no idea.  But I experimented for a while with the sounds, and tried over the hymns.  Then after carefully preparing a selection of stops in readiness I went away to put on the gown and hat one had to wear.  When I came back everyone was quietly kneeling, and I walked across the pedals to seat myself on the bench, forgetting that I'd left the organ switched on, to be ready.  So out came cacophonous noises, and I began my organ career in a way that Victor Borge might have appreciated.   Perhaps I should have continued that way and not tried to be serious......

Charlotte Wilson:
One of your CDs was recorded in three all-night sessions in November 2004 between one and six in the morning.  It's kind of the lot of organist that often you'll find yourself practicing in lonely large spaces very late at night.

Gillian Weir:
Yes, and some of them are haunted!  One is often in very old buildings and churches, and other places where there have been very dramatic events historically, and sometimes it certainly feels as though they haunted.   For instance I was practising in St Alban's Abbey once, preparing for a BBC recording of Messiaen's "Pentecost Mass".  This has a thrilling movement called "Things Visible and Invisible" (from the Creed), and introducing it Messiaen refers to all manner of strange things such as the growling of the Beast of the Apocalypse, and the clashing of protons.  It is a hugely powerful piece, especially when it's four a.m. and one is alone in a vast, ancient abbey.  While I was playing I heard strange noises down below in the nave, sounding like a group of people whispering, and gradually getting louder.  I stopped playing to listen and heard "Shhhhh!" - and it all stopped.   That happened about three times.  When I finally made my way through the darkness to the door I left a note for the resident organist thanking him for the use of the organ but saying I could have done without the ghost.  He later told me that he had seen one, just under the organ loft.

 

Charlotte Wilson:
Do you believe in ghosts?

Gillian Weir:
I don't know....There does often seem to be something odd going on, but scientists keep discovering more and more strange things, so who knows what will be next!

Charlotte Wilson:
The Royal Albert Hall is one of the many famous halls you have played in across the world, but it must be extra special to you because you made your debut there in the Poulenc Concerto, way back in 1965.

Gillian Weir:
Yes, and I was terrified!  I had won the St Albans Competition while I was still a student (at the Royal College of Music), and one of the jury members was a senior producer at the BBC, who run the famous "Proms" - the festival of Promenade Concerts begun by Sir Henry Wood.  He telephoned me shortly after the competition and asked "Do you play the Poulenc organ concerto?"  I said cautiously "Ah...yes."   He said that a famous French organist had had to pull out of the opening night of the Proms, just two or three weeks away as I remember, and asked if I would like to take his place.  I said that would be marvellous and thanked him.  So we made a few arrangements and I hung up the phone and then immediately telephoned my organ professor, Ralph Downes, and said "What is the Poulenc Concerto and do you have a copy?"  Although I was actually an extremely shy and timorous young person, even I could recognise an opportunity like that!  So I played on that wonderful occasion, the Proms Opening Night, which is  held in the Royal Albert Hall, televised and broadcast all over the world and for which people vie for tickets from a ballot, and sleep in the streets for a place standing in the central arena.  It was quite a year, as I also played a solo recital at the Royal Festival Hall, then the youngest organist to have done so; I've now played at the South Bank complex nearly 50 times.

 

At the Prom the legendary Sir Malcolm Sargent was the conductor; it was both alarming and thrilling to be playing under his baton.  Before the Proms season had even begun he had apparently reduced some soloists to tears, I gathered, but he was incredibly kind to me at the rehearsals and showed me just what to do on the night - how to bow, how to acknowledge the conductor and orchestra...Just what a totally inexperienced young player needed.  And he was very generous in his remarks about my performance, happily!   I have now played the Poulenc in concert some 60 times, and recorded it commercially twice, and I do have a slightly proprietorial feeling towards it.  It is a wonderful work, showing both sides of Poulenc's contradictory character (he was called "both monk and libertine"...); playing the piece is like embarking on a journey, in which one experiences both the agony and the ecstasy of the tension between the opposing emotions.

 

After the broadcast I received lots of mail. Appearing on television always evokes a huge response, occasionally rather odd - one woman wrote in and said that I had worn "far too much nail polish"!  Everyone commented on my shoes.  They seemed to find it odd that I wear organ shoes (to play the pedal board) that match the dress - but though I'm a musician first and foremost I'm definitely like every other woman in that I adore shoes.    When I made the six-part series for the BBC in 1988 (which has just been released on DVD for the first time) it had a weekly audience of two million, and I felt at one point that most of them had written in about my shoes.   (As long as they watch, the reason is fine with me!)

Charlotte Wilson:
The Poulenc debut was in 1965, one year after the historic competition win playing a movement from Messiaen's ‘Le Corps Glorieux'.  And Gillian Weir has been associated with Messiaen ever since, playing his complete works several times over and performing at all the important Messiaen celebrations, worldwide, including his 80th birthday at the Brisbane Expo with Messiaen himself.  Her recordings of the complete works are currently being re-released for the third time over. Why did you choose Messiaen for the competition originally?

Gillian Weir:
Ralph Downes, my organ professor (who was responsible for designing the Royal Festival Hall organ, among others, and who was organist of the famous London Oratory), was known for his championing of new music.  He premiered many works, including one of the Hindemith sonatas, working on it with Hindemith himself.  He was always playing something new, and when Messiaen's music came along he said I must play one of his pieces called "Combat de la Mort et de la Vie" - the battle between Life and Death.  So I obediently learned this amazing piece.  It is an extremely intense, very difficult 15-minute piece, highly dramatic.    The Death theme stalks up the keyboard in pursuit of Life;  crashing chords portray the battle, then after a huge sweep across the keyboard there is silence and then 10 minutes of very slow, soft music as the Death theme "metamorphoses" (changing from minor to major) into a theme of Life.   At the competition I played this work, unknown then in England, and all the jury were apparently seen to be in tears.   It is wonderful when one has been the vehicle for truly moving an audience; it is certainly what I always try to do.

Charlotte Wilson:
That began your association with Messiaen that has lasted, since that day?

Gillian Weir:
Well yes, I became very much associated with his music, which was still quite new, not only in England but elsewhere.  Years later I gave a Summer School course in France and the director asked what I would like to focus on for the topic.  I said "What about Messiaen?" and he said "Messiaen?  Well, I suppose you could; what a novel idea."  I was so surprised - it was the old story of a prophet being not without honour, save in his own country.  His music was highly controversial when it first appeared; now, of course, it is universally loved and respected, and it has been an honour to have played a part in bringing that about.   In 1972 he gave me the manuscript score of the great suite 'Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity', which he had just premiered himself in America, so that I could give the UK première in the Royal Festival Hall.    I met him first in Washington just after his première at the National Shrine there.  I later played the complete works at Expo in Brisbane and for the ABC in Sydney, and played at the ceremony at Sydney University at which he was given an Honorary Doctorate; the ABC had mounted the largest festival ever of virtually everything he had ever written, and had brought him out to be part of it, along with his wife Yvonne Loriod and a host of other performers, including myself.  I had already recorded most of the music on LP, in the sixties, and after the ceremony at the University he said, charmingly, "You really must record the rest now on CD.  It's all the rage, you know!"  He was very humble about his music; he just wanted to have it played - like every composer!

Charlotte Wilson:
You said that everyone loves his music, but a lot of people don't understand it, do they?  How would you characterise it for someone who finds Messiaen difficult?

Gillian Weir:
Many people have been discouraged about Messiaen by too much analysis.  He was indeed extremely methodical in the way he wrote; he worked out new modes (scales), he used rhythms of great complexity, he used bird-songs and Oriental ragas, and much else.  The rhythms are often a problem to the player as the score looks so involved, and often students will either give up trying to work out the rhythms or they will go to the other extreme (as with one player who came to me for a lesson) and work out the rhythms on a computer, so as to play them with mathematical precision.  They do need to be exact; nevertheless there remains room for subtlety in their use, and one has to remember that his idea was to express freedom with them, not the opposite.  For Messiaen (as should be the case with us all) rhythm and meter were opposites; rhythm is the alternation of strong and weak, arsis and thesis, action and reaction, and it sets things in motion.  Meter is the division of the beat into exact mathematically precise parts (like a watch ticking) and it imprisons the music in its sterile precision.   A quintuplet is a group of five notes which take up the time of one beat, but in the context of the music it still needs to be alive and to express movement, and while this is not the place to go more deeply into how this is done, one can certainly say that the first step is to recognise that it is possible and that it needs to be done.  (Thinking constantly of the voice, and the way in which a phrase or motif might be sung, is particularly helpful in pointing the way.)    Messiaen always thought on two levels and everything he did had meaning on two levels: the practical and the philosophical.  For example, he used the song of the lark in his music because the soaring rhythm of its song in itself is beautiful, but also because the lark flies higher than any other bird and thus expresses freedom through its flying close to heaven - which also underlines the idea of spiritual freedom.

 

Science (as with medicine) has for many decades looked at life from a mechanistic viewpoint, and this attitude filtered through to music too;  some of the problems we have with misunderstandings in the field of early performance practice might be said to stem from this attitude's having pervaded our thinking.   Now this is changing, and music such as Messiaen's, which seeks for meaning at a level deeper than just pretty sounds and interesting forms, will gradually win even more audiences, I think. 

Charlotte Wilson:
Something like his ‘Dieu Parmi Nous' makes one think of his very staunch Catholicism.  Do you need to share his faith to understand his music?

Gillian Weir:
No, I don't think so.  In any case I feel that religious faith is one result of believing in certain values, which are being expressed in these religious terms.  I know that many people will violently disagree with that!  I think of a wheel, with spokes going out from a central hub.   In the centre is truth - difficult, perhaps impossible, to describe, but nevertheless felt by many.  They find various different ways to express their understanding of that ineffable kernel of truth and those are the spokes that go out from the centre, all given different names but ultimately expressing the same thing.  If one gets hung up on the words Messiaen has chosen for the description of his own understanding of the meaning of life, one may entirely miss the "vision splendid".   One has to submit to his music; it can't be studied entirely objectively, but rather one has to submit to his ideas and bathe in the highly-perfumed harmonies and soar on the unusual rhythms if one wants fully to appreciate all that can be heard in it; but that does not necessarily mean that one would choose the same symbols and words to describe the experience which is at the heart of it as he has.

 

Some people find the long slow pieces hard to take; one well-known critic who had sat through a concert of Messiaen said that it had not so much described eternity as forced him to experience it - he was not a happy man...But if you submit to the hypnotic quality of the music you begin to understand that there is always movement, even when a chord might be held for six seconds (as at the beginning of his first organ work, 'Le banquet céleste').  In that chord, if you listen to it ('experience the sensory moment', as Messiaen quoted Debussy) you start to hear that one note is seeking to rise to a resting  place in a concord, another might want to fall - and this seeking gives a sense of movement.  The chord will then slowly shift to another chord, a different discord where the notes will again be seeking to resolve.  This is repeated until the tension at last gives way to a simple concord, and the moving stops; the music rests.  It is just like a scene in a landscape over which clouds are lazily floating, changing their shape and changing the scene also as they do so.  Or it is like light coming through a stained-glass window and creating slowly-changing patterns or shapes on the floor of the cathedral, the one simply flowing into the next.     As the harmony changes, so the music moves on.  It is extremely beautiful; it is just a matter of changing one's perception.

Charlotte Wilson:
You knew Messiaen very well?

Gillian Weir:
No, my association was with the music, not really with the man, even though I met him several times and we corresponded, especially when I gave the UK premiere of the Meditations at the Royal Festival Hall (1973).  You know, I feel strongly that great music has a life of its own.  While I did spend years thinking "if only I could meet Mozart and ask him about the cadenzas!  If only I could meet Bach and ask him about this note here and that note there, and these accidentals!" - despite all that, I think the artist bonds with the work itself and whatever muse he finds within it, rather than with the composer, however much he may revere him.  Fine music is like a prism; it can be seen from many angles and it throws off different kinds of light.  I had an immediate and instinctive connection with Messiaen's music right from that first experience; I bonded with it, and I didn't want that immediacy, that conviction, endangered by someone - even this great composer - saying "Now make this note a bit longer or that one shorter".   It is not arrogance; it just wants to be spontaneous in one's music-making and to play with total conviction.    Of course I have always taken the greatest possible care to observe what the composer has asked for and to learn everything possible about his aims and ideas and beliefs, so that the interpretation emerges from what I feel to be the heart of the music.   Fortunately Messiaen liked what I did; otherwise of course I would have stopped playing it!

Charlotte Wilson:
That puts music as its own entity.

Gillian Weir:
If it is great music then it has a soul, a pulse within that one should be able to recognise and project.   Interpreting music is not a matter of just repeating the notes as they are written on a page.  Unfortunately I do hear that sort of performance much too often, especially when I am on a competition jury.  I frequently act as an adjudicator and it is fascinating to hear how a dozen or more candidates can all play the same piece but make it sound quite different.  It is often thought that we judge simply on whether the candidate plays all the right notes in the right place at the right speed, but one is looking for much more than that.  Each piece has a personality (it can be interesting and instructive to ask oneself "If I met this piece coming down the street, which would it, be?  How would he/she act?")  And the message of the piece has to be communicated.  Too often one hears a demonstration (of organ colours, or finger dexterity) rather than an interpretation.

Charlotte Wilson:
Can a young person learn that, or do they just have it or not have it?

Gillian Weir:
To a certain extent they have it or they don't, but much of it can be fostered.   Take for example music from the French Classical period, still not completely understood these days. It is a very special style that springs from the way life was lived at the time of Louis XIV, in particular at Versailles.  This is known as France's 'Golden Age', when the arts flourished and style was all.  The King held concerts and divertissements - shows - every evening, he practised the intricate dances for hours every day, and every element of one's deportment and behaviour was regulated.  One was expected to walk elegantly, to be interesting in one's conversation, to be amusing and witty.  All this is reflected in the distilled elegance of the music, perfect without (at its best) being superficial; under the flowing melodies and the charm there is immense passion and emotion.   If a student has immersed himself in books that describe the extraordinary way of life lived at Court he will be equipped with an internal library or a gallery of images, and he will respond instinctively to the hidden subtleties in the music and the delicious wit.  If not, he will see only the rather simple notation and think that each piece is too easy to bother with,  thus missing some of the most sophisticated music ever written.   It is tragic that young people don't seem to read these days; by and large they will read the précis of a book but otherwise are locked into the internet or television.   I am so lucky that books have always been available to me;  I learned to read through following along while my mother read to me;    and later on my brother, who owned several bookshops,  would allow me to wander around them for hours and borrow the books.    So I read all the time and now positively beg students to read, because it fills the mind with images that stay there for ever for one to draw on and to turn one's life into technicolour.    It doesn't have to be a matter of studying a dull textbook; in fact the best books for getting into the French Classical period initially are those by Nancy Mitford, who wrote so many classic and hugely funny novels.   Her books about the Sun King (Louis XIV), Mme de Pompadour and other contemporaries are very easy to read but extremely well-researched (and thus reliable), and they evoke the atmosphere of fun, elegance, intrigue and charm that can be found in the music.   And this can be said about any era; the context in which the music was written is so important.

Charlotte Wilson:
What image should we have in our mind for Couperin's ‘Tierce en taille' from the ‘Messe pour les Paroisses'?

Gillian Weir:
Although the piece comes from the Organ Mass and treats words from the liturgy it is deeply emotional and passionate.   Many of the movements in the Mass are in dance form, and they retain the elegance of the court dances; one might think of a beautiful lady at a ball making an assignation behind her mask as she dances.  This is not a specific dance but the phrases are like beautiful gestures of the hands or arms, never angular or awkward.

Charlotte Wilson:
One of the first thing that Dame Gillian did as President of the Royal College of Organists in the 90s was to introduce workshops on Couperin and the dance.  She also became the first female President of the Royal School of Church Music, bastions of the British male establishment. What sort of reaction did you encounter as a double outsider?

Gillian Weir:
Most people were wonderful - at least to my face; who knows what they said behind my back!  I have been very lucky with my colleagues, though I do know that when a cousin of mine came to England on holiday he happened on an organist practising in a church he was visiting, and remarked to him "You might know my cousin;  she plays the organ."  The organist drew himself up and said "Kindly tell your cousin that she is the wrong sex to play the organ!"   One does still hear the occasional remark that women shouldn't play the organ, but given the reputation of such as Marie-Claire Alain and Jeanne Demessieux in France, Catharine Crozier in America and now many more women in the profession, I think the scene has changed.  I was the first woman president of the Royal College of Organists and of the Incorporated Association of Organists (and also President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians) and had the chance then to bring women onto the Councils and to play at prize-giving and conventions, and now their participation is taken for granted, I'm pleased to say.  I also like to point out that the Patron Saint of music, Saint Cecilia, is always depicted as an organist. (I don't go on to tell people that in fact she was a Roman matron and didn't play the organ....I'm happy to claim her!)   I am however very much against feminism.   These days people sometimes try to redress the balance, as they see it, by having all-women series of recitals, for example (whose invitations I politely decline), or a set quota of women at Conventions and such events.  This "positive discrimination" (as it's called) is both patronising and self-defeating, as similar movements in other fields have revealed (beauty competitions, for one);    the reaction simply becomes "Oh. She won only because she's a woman" or "only because she's deaf" or....whatever.   Positive discrimination and political correctness are both absolute evils, in my opinion.

Charlotte Wilson:
It's so hard to ask someone like you for highlights of such an extraordinary career.  There must be some that stick in the mind.  The closing of the Edinburgh Festival in 1980 for instance?

Gillian Weir:
Oh, the Edinburgh Festival concert was such fun.  The organ in the Usher Hall, the splendid concert hall where the Festival's main events take place, was kaput, and had been so for some time.  However they wanted to do the Berlioz Te Deum and this needs the organ.  It is not a concerto, but the organ plays an important rôle.  Berlioz called the organ and orchestra respectively "Pope and Emperor"; in other words of equal stature but in their own dominion.  The Festival Director at that time was John Drummond, later Head of the BBC, who was a wonderful entrepreneur.  He had the idea of having the organist play in St Mary's Cathedral, a mile and a half down the road, with the sound transmitted to the Hall via enormous speakers, and he invited me to play the organ for the performance - the closing concert of the Festival.    Well, it was such an amazing technical achievement at the time that experts came from America for the concert, which was broadcast and televised.  There were 40 speakers in the Usher Hall to cope with the organ sound, and endless opportunity for something to go wrong!  The orchestra was the famous London Symphony Orchestra, and the conductor the great Claudio Abbado.  He had a small TV screen in front of him showing me, and I had one showing his beat.  At the rehearsal we began but soon one of the cameras went down and I was flying blind, grimly counting bars... They got the camera going again and I was still counting my way along when my screen suddenly went white. One of the percussion players over in the hall had stood up in order to clash his cymbals together, and in extending his arms was obliterating the camera's view, while I shouting from the cathedral "Sit down! Sit down!"......  Drummond, a splendid showman, had had the idea of having me whisked over to the Usher Hall at the end of the work by police car, to take a bow with the orchestra, choir and conductor.  Immediately the last chord ended I was dragged from the console, led rapidly through the maze of wires and technical equipment all over the lawn outside the cathedral, and into a police car, still wearing my organ shoes and quite dazed.  The policeman said smoothly, "Just lean back, Madam; this will shake you about a bit".  Off we went, roaring along the road with the siren going.  Very exciting!  We reached a red light at a crossing where a man in a little car in front of us had stopped; the police car then put on its flashing light as well and made him go through the red light, moving forward in little disbelieving hops.  On we sped to the Hall.  Outside the hall was standing an imperturbable John Drummond, holding a stopwatch and perfectly calm as usual.   "Well done, gentlemen", he said; "One minute and 28 seconds.  "And then to me: "May I take your shoes?" - I had changed my organ shoes in the car and was about to step on stage still carrying them.    So I went on stage to join the others, still less than two minutes since I had left the cathedral.  There had been two enormous screens in the Hall showing me at the organ, not really justified by the part I was playing but all part of the fun.  We did the Te Deum again a week or so later at the Flanders Festival in Belgium, but without the police ride it was much more low-key!  For a long time after that it was quite disappointing not to be driven off by a police-car after a concert instead of just getting into a taxi....

Charlotte Wilson:
Thinking about other great organs that you have played, I think of the enormous organs in the States of course, and many of those built by your late husband Larry Phelps.  We have here a recording of the Reubke Sonata on his Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Church of Christ the Scientist in Boston.  Eight storeys high, this beast.

Gillian Weir:
Yes, it's enormous.  It's the world centre of the Christian Science Church and a famous building in itself, and the organ is correspondingly big; for a long time it was the largest church organ in the world.  He designed it originally when he was very young and working for the firm of Aeolian-Skinner, who built it;   in his last years he came back to Boston as Curator of the organ, so he was able to oversee the $3 million rebuild and restore some features to his original vision,  and expand others.  I made the recording to celebrate the rebuild.  It is an extraordinary instrument that can play virtually any of the repertoire faithfully.  It sounds especially wonderful in something like the Reubke Sonata, one of the great pieces from the Romantic repertoire.

 

Charlotte Wilson:
Larry himself sounds amazing.

Gillian Weir:
He was amazing, because he brought together sophisticated engineering principles with highly informed musical principles in a very special way.  He knew the past as a scholar and he constantly looked to the future, but he neither blindly copied old organs nor indulged purely personal preferences for the sake of novelty.   Many builders will copy an old organ simply because it is old and 'historic', but without always considering how well it actually serves the music.  As we said about Bach, it doesn't always follow that the organs he had were the most effective for serving the counterpoint in his music.  For Larry, who was trained originally to be a conductor and who was immersed in the traditions of the great conductors he heard night after night conducting the Boston Symphony, the music itself was always the most important thing, so he wanted an organ that was both engineered with great sophistication and also had a tonal design that served the needs of the music as faithfully as was possible.  So the balance had to be right, as I said earlier, and the various registers had to be on the right manuals, and the divisions properly encased (not merely with an attractive façade) and the action had to be part of a total concept (mechanical action is useless unless the voicing, wind pressure and placement correspond) and absolutely controllable by the player.  Then there is the problem in our day of whether of not to try to reconcile in one instrument the widely differing schools of composition - French Classical, German baroque, French symphonic, Italian, English Romantic - and so on and on; a question too big to start on here but one which he resolved with great success in so much of his work.

 

Charlotte Wilson:
What makes a great organist as opposed to a great pianist?  Because it's more than just adding the feet, isn't it?

Gillian Weir:
Yes, that's the first hurdle to overcome.  That was difficult for me, having played the piano for some time and therefore finding it frustrating that my feet now had to try to acquire an equally flexible technique!    The next is the registration - what is effectively orchestration.  This consists of choosing colours that are appropriate to the specific piece, bearing in mind the tradition in which it was composed, if the specific colours have not been indicated;  one also considers the acoustic of the building, which can vary from 10 seconds (as in St Paul's Cathedral) down to a carpeted American church with almost zero reverberation - one tries to achieve clarity in the one and warmth in the other by the stops one uses but also by the kind of touch one employs and by the accentuation of the phrases and motifs so that the rhythm is still strong.  An organ can have 10,000 pipes (Royal Albert Hall, London) or it can be a tiny organ in a marble salon in an Italian monastery, so the repertoire will be very different and the stylistic considerations vast.  Without all this the music does not give up its secrets or make its proper impact (French Classical music, which do much depends on the right sounds, has suffered particularly from this) and can sound either boring or bizarre.  

Charlotte Wilson:
As an organist you have to visit your instruments.  You don't own it yourself; and pianists think they have problems.  You must have a few stories about organs you've encountered.

Gillian Weir:
I get a specification of the organ well in advance, hopefully with such details as the manual and pedal range, the temperament and the combination system as well as the list of stops;  also the acoustic, the occasion (is it the one yearly recital in some small place or is it part of a University series of high-level performers, for instance), is it part of a festival with a theme, is it the opening of a new organ, do they want one hour's programme without interval or a full-length evening event with interval, and so on! -  And then I spend a long time choosing the best programme for all the factors.   I can still get surprises, however! - I'll find, for instance, that some of the stops are not working on the day or that a new organ is not yet finished after all and I have to do without some of the stops which I had chosen certain pieces especially to feature.  Builders (and purchasers) are often over-optimistic about when a new organ will be ready, and I plead with people to allow time for a new organ to settle in so that the grand opening can go without a hitch and display the organ at its best. I always ask for about 5 hours' rehearsal on the day before a concert and 3 on the day, to have time to explore the organ, plan the registration, write into the score all the indications of the pistons I'll press (on a modern organ) or the stops the assistants will be controlling (on a historic one), as well as to get used to the console measurements etc. But on one occasion in South Africa I had travel problems so did not arrive until the afternoon of the concert.

 

On this occasion the organ had been rebuilt but there was the console - all still in pieces littered around the stage of the Town Hall where I was playing.  The Council officials and I stood and looked at the organ.  From its innards came a distant voice, which said "Sorry; we'll be ready soon".  It was now 3 pm, with hours of work to be done, and I had to play at 8.  I sat down at the console and pressed a pedal piston; only to see my foot disappear into the woodwork.  The city fathers said nervously "Er - how about a cup of tea?" - The universal panacea!  Off we went for tea and a tour of the gallery of former Councillors and finally I said "Look, I've got to get to the organ and do something."   It was hastily put together, but that evening I began, after a long speech from the City Treasurer telling how much the rebuild had cost (an invitation to disaster), and also at once it ciphered.  Abandoning the piece (Liszt's B.A.C.H.) I stood up and mustered funny stories to entertain the audience while the organ builder was hunted down.  He was finally found in the local pub, but as he had already had an hour or so's imbibing his head was not the clearest, either for climbing the necessary ladder or for finding the offending pipe.  

 

On another occasion, in America, the proud janitor of the church polished the front pipes of the new organ the night before the dedication, causing some US$30,000 worth of damage; they all had to be replaced.    One has to watch out for similar proud cleaners polishing the organ bench - I once began the Bach D major prelude's first scale and continued right off the bench....

 

Charlotte Wilson:
Gillian Weir is just as busy as ever, with a touring schedule that sees her on the road for 300 days in every year; and beginning in 2011 with a recital in Hamburg; and her 70th birthday on January 17th; and continuing with tours of the UK, the States, Europe.  Summer sees her as a jurist at the international Bach Fest competition in Leipzig and in March performing at the opening of the new Rieger organ at the Musikverein in Vienna.  It must be a unique thrill to open, to inaugurate a new organ?

Gillian Weir:
Well yes, especially on this occasion, in what is generally thought to be the most famous concert hall in the world and playing with one of the three greatest orchestras.  I have had the privilege of opening many new organs and while - see above! - It is occasionally fraught it is also a thrill; it is the opportunity to ferret out the personality, the soul, of a new organ and bond with it.  Earlier this year I played the opening of the Salzburg Mozarteum organ.  Mozart is my hero and I love to wander around Salzburg and imagine him in the cathedral or hurrying through an old square here and an inn there and of course in his house.   I played my first Mozart piano concerto for the Auckland Star competition, in (I think) 1961 - marvellous music.  I want to have a word with him someday though as to why he didn't write for the organ; there are only a few pieces, written originally for that intriguing 18th century device the orgeluhr - an organ inside a clock.  These are transcribed for performance on an organ, and the biggest one (K 608) provided the first note to be heard on the new organ, which I played just after it had been blessed by the Archbishop of Salzburg.  We read much about Archbishop Colloredo, the Archbishop in Mozart's day, of course - he was not the most sympathetic employer!

Charlotte Wilson:
Have you played the new organ in the Auckland Town Hall, in New Zealand, the Klais organ?

Gillian Weir:
No; they very kindly asked me to come and open it, and I did think about it for some time, but I am not going on very long-distance flights very much anymore.

Charlotte Wilson:
That's understandable.  It's a very long way from England.

Gillian Weir:
Well yes;  it's disappointing that I don't get to see my brothers , and my NZ friends, but there comes a time when one gradually turns things over to other people, and in this case a former student of mine, Thomas Trotter, came, so there was a connection!

Charlotte Wilson:
Does it mean much to you to be a New Zealander, because you are regarded quite a lot as British over here, I think?

Gillian Weir:
I've been here so long that it is inevitable I should be seen in that way, and I have become aligned with British institutions - I've been President of three national organizations (not only related to organ), for example.  But I'm still listed as a New Zealander - except in the Philharmonie in Berlin recently, where they announced me at the concert as coming from Australia!  I pointed out that mistake rather sternly....

 

Charlotte Wilson:
And for your 70th birthday, Gillian, what's going to happen?

Gillian Weir:
I haven't planned it yet, but champagne will certainly be on the menu.

Charlotte Wilson:
Are you giving concerts, as well, because for your 60th birthday there were massive bashes all over the world?

Gillian Weir:
I don't know about all over the world, but there was a wonderful, wonderful concert in Christchurch.  It was so exciting, with a sold-out audience - we had to start more than 20 minutes late - and a superb party afterwards.   There was a magnificent cake, complete with a little organ, even with a proper pedal board and music-desk, on the top.  I still have some of it as a souvenir and of course many pictures.    I must say that it was also absolutely the most delicious cake I have ever tasted.  But best of all was the warmth of the welcome, from everyone there;   it was a real homecoming and meant so much to me; I shall never forget it.

Charlotte Wilson:
What keeps you going?

Gillian Weir:
Oh, I just love the music.  I have been so lucky to have been able to have a career in music.   It is not an easy life, but it is a great privilege.  And I just want to keep on trying to "get it right".  If I could not have been a musician I'd have liked to be an actress - but in fact with the organ I can be.  Any musician is, really, because one is playing music from so many different periods and countries and traditions and styles.  It is especially true of the organ though because it has music from so many centuries and since it can be a little chamber organ or a huge symphonic instrument.  It is like having a time machine:  one day I enter a Renaissance world and play charming little anonymous dances on the buzzing stops of a chamber organ in some exquisite salon while the ghosts from an old palace flit about me;   the next day I fly to the 19th century and play the sweeping lines of an organ symphony in the Berlin Philharmonie and emulate von Karajan conducting Beethoven.    It's a life filled with the rich images from the music.

Charlotte Wilson:
Do you ever tire of the travelling?

Gillian Weir:
Yes; the travelling is becoming very exhausting.  Like everyone else, I don't enjoy being barked at to take off my shoes in the airports, or carrying my cases on and off trains, or the constantly increasing noise everywhere.  But these are details; I have played so much in so many countries that I have friends in each place, so it is not lonely.  It's wonderful.  I'm lucky.