Autobiography of a Royal Organist


Arts & Culture

Since early on Tuesday morning, devoted crowds have been setting up camp on Victoria Street, eager to catch the very first glimpse of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton as they arrive at the west doors of Westminster Abbey for their wedding on Friday morning.

I’ve stolen a few minutes away to write this, in between music rehearsals, camera rehearsals, my own last-minute practice (and the occasional glass of champagne), for one of the most talked about and eagerly anticipated events in recent history. I’ll be playing organ music as the royal wedding guests take their seats and then assisting my colleague Robert Quinney, who will play during the service. Even though British singer-songwriter and former army officer James Blunt farcically claimed he would be playing the organ (“Like every English or British musician being asked one silly question too often, I gave a silly answer—and then I went to my Wikipedia page and changed it to say ‘classically trained church organist,’ and 4,400 websites picked up on it”), the truth is that the circle of British organists is very small, and I know nearly all of my colleagues here in London.

The news broke last November that the couple had chosen Westminster Abbey for their marriage. I heard the announcement immediately after playing the final chord of a piece at the end of a big service held in the Abbey, which had been attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. I’ve been working at the Abbey for just over three years, having arrived from my previous post as Organ Scholar up the river at St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is a building of national significance and is the mother church of the Diocese of London as well as being a bold statement of civic pride for the city—the image of Christopher Wren’s famous dome is one of the most recognized on the planet. Westminster Abbey has a very different feel to it: it’s smaller, older, and more intimate; it’s a coronation church, the burial place of kings and queens, statesmen and soldiers, poets and priests, heroes and villains; and, as the Abbey’s Web site enticingly describes, it’s a “must see living pageant of British History.”

I first discovered the organ when I was eight, whilst walking past Holy Trinity Church in Coventry. The organist inside was practicing Widor’s Toccata very loudly; I ran into the church to hear what was going on and was completely stunned by the sheer power and volume of the instrument. He let me sit and play, and I stumbled my way through a short Chopin piano prelude, which was enough to make me want to learn the organ as soon as my legs were long enough to reach the pedals.

The organ is like a grand symphony orchestra controlled by one person manning a series of keyboards and pedals, stops and buttons. Much organ music is derived from orchestral music. On the one hand, an organ can imitate orchestral instruments—the ardent string section of an orchestra, a lyrical clarinet, a French horn, timpani—and on the other, it has its own indigenous magisterial voice. Organs are built to speak into specific acoustic spaces. When you play, it’s as if you’re playing the whole building you’re in, which often can be electrifying. You also have a huge amount of power at your fingertips (and in the wrong hands it can sound unrelentingly terrible). An organ can perform anything from a sixteenth-century plainsong verset by Thomas Tallis to an orchestral transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird, together with a Couperin Duo and a Messiaen meditation.

When I was eighteen, I went to work at St. Albans Cathedral with Andrew Lucas and Simon Johnson for two years prior to studying at Clare College, Cambridge. I think these two years were the most formative for me as an organist. I was forced to learn how to prepare a large amount of music in quick succession for daily choral services. I also had to learn how to accompany the Cathedral Choir on a complicated instrument, which involved playing slightly ahead of the conductor’s beat (the choir is often placed at a distance from the organ, so you have to play “ahead” so as not to appear “behind” to the choir and listener). It’s second nature to me now, but it’s very hard when you do it for the first time. The current organ in Westminster Abbey was installed by Harrison and Harrison for the Coronation of King George VI in 1937. It’s the ultimate early twentieth-century English organ, ideal for accompanying choirs in English romantic and twentieth-century choral repertoire, as well as being a comprehensive and exciting recital instrument. The earliest organ known to the Abbey dates from 1304, though no details of it survive.

The spectacle surrounding “Wills and Kate” is incredible, as the swelling crowds and hoards of camera crews outside the Abbey demonstrate. We are all very excited about Friday—it’s a huge honour to be involved—but there’s also a sense that the Abbey has a tradition of worship and music making that stretches back for centuries. This somehow outweighs all the fervor. After all, it’s the same organ we play each day for the Abbey’s regular worshipers.

James McVinnie is the Assistant Organist of Westminster Abbey.