Writing for the Organ

Thanks to the fine people at St George’s Hanover Square, the renowned organ recitalist Thomas Trotter and I gathered together with a sizeable crowd to hear and discuss seven compositions selected out of a healthy number submitted to Choir and Organ Magazine for a workshop. All present (including well-informed folk such as RCO President Philip Moore and C+O Editor Maggie Hamilton) agreed that none of us had ever been to an organ composition workshop before.

It didn’t take us a moment to realise why this was; for the most part, the organ has been completely shut out of modernism, and therefore out of many present-day composers’ practice. The exceptions of course are Ligeti, a composer whose music I increasingly quote in all contexts; and Messiaen, whose wonderful organ oeuvre was frequently referenced during our session. Meanwhile, the instrument itself is in the ascendant, with wonderful new instruments appearing or being refurbished all the time. The organ we worked on at St George’s recently had a million pounds spent on it, well spent I would say, after hearing many fascinating soundscapes during the afternoon. And there is a public interested to know what these huge (and often visually beautiful) contraptions sound like. Recently I recall big audiences at Thomas Trotter’s thirtieth anniversary recital as Birmingham’s City Organist; and at the Southbank Centre’s reinauguration of the refurbished 1954 Festival Hall instrument, a truly civic event for the many ‘ordinary’ Londoners who had financially supported its restoration.

For any composer thinking 'what am I waiting for?' here’s a very brief summary of Thomas’ many thoughtful remarks from the afternoon. Organists don’t wish or expect to see full registrations when you deliver your new composition. Dynamic and expressive markings are much more helpful in building a registration, which is what has to happen anyway, each time the performer plays your work on a new instrument. Note durations are performed with complete accuracy by the instrument (ie either a key is depressed or it isn’t) so be clear what you want. Articulation marks are helpful – combinations of staccato, tenuto and accent marks are very indicative to the player. Rapid switches back and forth between different sound areas isn’t very characteristic of the organ (we encountered several quasi-orchestral set-ups of this kind during the workshop). Nothing is gained by writing a passage for the pedals which could instead be played on a manual.

I would have added ‘remember the performer is working with all four limbs at once, while mentally designing operations for a computer-like machine of great complexity’. But lifetime organists like Thomas Trotter don’t seem to be phased by the apparent mental-physical impossibility of the extreme skills they have to combine. All the more reason for today’s composers to get in touch with these remarkable musicians.




© Judith Weir, 2020