A while ago I was contacted by a parish church in Sussex; St Andrew’s, West Tarring. My initial correspondent was organist Malcolm Monro who had helpfully stepped into the breach when the longstanding St Andrews organist, Richard Axtell, had died very suddenly in Holy Week of 2015. The parish had been considering commemorating Richard, say with a brass plaque in the church; but the notion of commissioning a new composition in his memory had won the day.
This is how my latest organ composition, The Tree of Peace, * came to be written; and it received a very imaginative and sensitive first (and second) performance in a recital at St Andrew’s Church this weekend, given by the organist of Chichester Cathedral, Charles Harrison. He had devised a whole programme round the new work, culminating in Elgar’s surprisingly French-sounding organ sonata. The church organ had some forthright reed stops and a bizarrely enormous trumpet sound, with which Charles made brilliant and witty use in some French baroque music.
I have on various occasions been commissioned to write music in memory of people I didn’t know in their lifetimes, and it can be a little worrying trying to guess how best to commemorate them. However, from the original invitation I had picked up the idea that Richard Axtell might have been a refreshingly atypical organist, and was delighted when arriving in the church to see him represented front-stage in a larger-than-life cardboard cutout photo, surveying the audience with a natty and jaunty expression. Clutching generously-sized glasses of red wine handed to us on entry, it was a pleasure to meet his extensive family and circle of friends in this relaxed environment. A reminder that church memorials, and indeed organ recitals, can potentially be joyous, even fun, occasions. Thanks to all concerned in West Tarring.
* 'Cultivate the olive, therefore, the tree of peace': Virgil, Georgics