Dame Gillian Weir has been a performer, scholar and teacher. She has had a unique career as an internationally acclaimed concert organist, performing worldwide at the great festivals and with leading orchestras and conductors. She is known for her virtuosity, integrity and outstanding musicianship, which combined with a notable personal charisma, have placed her in the forefront of her profession and won her the admiration of audiences and critics alike.
Dame Gillian Weir was born in Martinborough, New Zealand, moving to Whanganui with her family, where she spent her early life. Although music became her great love, she was consumed by books in her early years and recalls with amusement being able to reach only the books on the lowest shelf of the Whanganui Public Library, when made its youngest member aged five.
She was co-winner of the Auckland Star Piano Competition at 19, playing Mozart. She left for England a year later after winning a scholarship of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in London. She was accommodated at Addington Palace, the headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music. Dame Gillian studied at the Royal College of Music with concert pianist Cyril Smith and renowned organist Ralph Downes. In her second year there (1964) she won the prestigious St. Albans International Organ Competition.
Her performance on this occasion of a work by Messiaen, at a time when his music was little-known outside France, stunned the audience and jury alike, and she became particularly associated with this composer. She has performed his complete works several times, and her recording for Collins Classics has been hailed as 'one of the major recording triumphs of the century'.
While still a student at the Royal College, Gillian Weir made a distinguished double début, first as concerto soloist on the First Night of the famous Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and in the same season in a solo recital at the Royal Festival Hall, then the youngest organist to have played there. Since then she has engaged in a unique career as an internationally acclaimed concert organist.
Her fame as a performer, which has stimulated numerous young players to follow her, is backed by her scholarly reputation. She is in constant demand as an adjudicator for the leading international competitions and as lecturer, broadcaster, teacher and writer. Her television appearances have reached large new audiences. Her repertoire is exceptional for its breadth and variety, stretching from the Renaissance to contemporary works. She has performed the complete organ works of Bach and others, as well as of Olivier Messiaen. Her pre-eminent position as Messiaen interpreter has been further underlined by her CD release of his complete organ works to great acclaim as well as by her contribution to Faber's The Messiaen Companion and other publications. Her series of six weekly recitals in Westminster Cathedral of Messiaen's organ works in 1998, the 90th anniversary of his birth, brought huge audiences. For these performances she was awarded The Evening Standard Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, the first organist to have been so honoured. Olivier Messiaen gave Gillian the manuscript of his monumental work Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity to give the UK premiere at the Royal Festival Hall in London (1973) and she is regarded as a leading expert on his music.
Dame Gillian Weir has received a host of awards and honours worldwide, the most notable of which was presented in 1996 when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire, the first organist to receive this accolade. She had previously been awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the Queen's Birthday Honors in 1989. Gillian Weir's six-part television series for the BBC in 1989 drew weekly audiences of two million in Britain, exceptional for an arts programme, and has been repeated in many countries throughout the world.
Dame Gillian Weir's artistry was marked in 1999 by the reissue on CD of her series of Argo recordings, and her nomination by Classic CD magazine as one of the 100 greatest players of the century and by the Sunday Times as one of the 1000 music makers of the millennium. In December 2000 ITV's South Bank Show chronicled her worldwide activities as performer, teacher and recording artist in a highly acclaimed documentary. She remains the only organist to have been accorded the accolade of inclusion in this iconic series of documentaries. She has also served as President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, the Royal College of Organists (the first woman president) and the Incorporated Society of Organists (also the first woman president). She is also the Prince Consort Professor of Organ, Royal College of Music, London, as well as Visiting Tutor at the famous Peabody Conservatory in the USA.
The new millenium has afforded the public the opportunity to savour more of her performances via new compact disc recordings. These have brought great praise from critics and public alike, and her legendary Messiaen recordings were re-released recently and hailed as "still the finest available" by the major critics. Her latest release is a DVD of her acclaimed BBC television series. Further recordings in her Bach series are in the pipeline. Her hectic schedule around the world continued until her retirement concert held in Westminster Cathedral in 2012.
Dame Gillian Weir made some 350 concerto appearances with many of the world's greatest orchestras in its most famed concert-halls. In 2011, she crowned this aspect of her career with three concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the world's most acclaimed concert hall, the Musikverein in Vienna, for the opening of the hall's new organ. Such distinguished engagments illustrate the esteem in which she has been held and the way in which she has built bridges from the world of the organ to the wider musical world, as a unique concert organist and one of the world's acclaimed musicians.
Dame Gillian Weir received an Arts Foundation Icon Award in 2011.
In the Daily Telegraph on 7 December 2012 Ivan Hewett wrote:
Celebrated organist Gillian Weir showcased her wonderful gift for making music breathe in her last ever recital, held at Westminster Cathedral. There is nothing like a Dame, says the well-known song, and in the world of organ-playing that's certainly true. There's no organist in the world quite so starry, recorded and honoured as Dame Gillian Weir.
You can read a full list of tributes on Gillian's farewell recital here. Although this was Dame Gillian's farewell to public performing, she continues to teach, give master-classes, and take part as adjudicator for international competitions, as well as doing some recording. Some of Dame Gillian's early recordings are soon to be re-released on CD.