Woolsey Hall, Yale


While I was in New Haven, Yale graduate student Jacob Reed kindly invited me along to hear him play Ettrick Banks, a short organ solo I wrote almost 40 years ago. I don’t recall what kind of building/organ I was expecting to meet him in. Yale’s campus is full of pastiches of historic English buildings – most notably the Boston (Lincolnshire) Stump – so I was probably imagining a small chapel with matching instrument.

Which is why I was amazed to enter Woolsey Hall, a 1920s building on the scale of the London Coliseum and right in the middle, a gigantic organ with pipes as tall as a four-storey house. I soon learned that it has over twelve thousand pipes, all still operated by air pressure, nothing electronic or digital. Woolsey Hall itself could do with some tlc, and I was fully prepared for parts of this organ to be ‘not working’ – a condition in which many of our old national instruments in the UK are often encountered. But all systems were go here; I was told that Yale University employs two full-time technicians to look after its fifteen (!) pipe organs. (One of these gentlemen gives an excellent introduction here to Woolsey’s Newberry Memorial Organ.)

It was therefore an extremely pleasurable experience to stroll about the stalls area of this enormous building taking in Jacob’s imaginative performance, and discussing possible new registrations with simply no limits to what we could do. Departing this impressive site, I felt so glad that over the years I’d written, if only briefly, for the organ. Many composers continue to regard the instrument as somehow unfashionable, or even embarassing. But meeting organists and organs has added great cultural enjoyment to my own visits around the musical world, and continues to do so.

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer