Organist / Conductor  Simon  Preston

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Simon Preston (Conductor, Organ, Harpsichord)

Born: August 4, 1938 - Bournemouth, England

During a singularly distinguished career, Simon Preston has established himself, not only as one of the great organists of the 20th century, but also as one of the most illustrious musicians in the history of English Cathedral Music. As a soloist and choral director, he has appeared with many of the world's leading orchestras, and his recordings have won universal acclaim. His work with the choirs of Christ Church Oxford and Westminister Abbey set standards of excellence which are regarded as points of reference.

Simon (John) Preston's early childhood in Bournemouth was followed by three years as a chorister at King's College, Cambridge, during which time he studied organ with Hugh McClean; later study was with C. H. Trevor at the Royal Academy of Music. When an unexpected organ scholarship became available at King's College, he applied and was successful, spending the best part of five years there, continuing his studies with Trevor for a while and also working with the Organist and Director of Music, Sir David Willcocks.

At this time Simon Preston's recording career began with the release of a record of music by Orlando Gibbons. His first solo record, L'Ascension, was made with only a week's notice. Preston is renowned for his masterly performances of Messiaen's works and has made highly acclaimed recordings at the Abbey Churches of Westminister and St. Albans of La Nativite and Les Corps Glorieux. His recording career continued when he moved to Westminister Abbey as sub-organist in 1962, a post he held until 1967. Among the recordings he made there were the Max Reger's Chorale Fantasia on "Straf mich nicht" and Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm. Also in 1982 he made an outstanding debut at the Royal Festival Hall in Janacek's Glagolitic Mass.

After leaving the Abbey, Simon Preston gave recitals throughout Europe and North America and in 1970 became Organist and Tutor in Music at Christ Church Oxford where his work with the choir won great praise. The Choir of Christ Church Oxford made numerous recordings under Preston including music by Lassus, Byrd, George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and Haydn Masses with the Academy of Ancient Music, as well as an acclaimed recording of music by William Walton.


Simon Preston was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminister Abbey in 1981, where again his work with the choir received great praise. The Westminister Abbey Choir under his direction made several distinguished recordings for Deutsche Grammophon of music by G.F. Handel, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Allegri among others. In addition, he directed the music at the Royal Wedding in 1986 and was also responsible for composing much of "Salieri's music" in the film Amadeus.

Since 1987, when he resigned his post at Westminister Abbey, Simon Preston has continued to pursue an active career as an organist and conductor. During the past nine years he has had numerous tours of North America, the Far East, Australia and South Africa. His recordings for DG during this time have included the complete organ works of Bach, the Camille Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Francis Poulenc Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Copland Organ Symphony with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He conducted G.F. Handel's Belshazzar at the Three Choirs Festival in England, followed by Walton's Belshazzar's Feast in St. Paul, Minnesota and G.F. Handel's Alexander's Feast in Leipzig. There are currently more than 40 CD’s of his work available, including two versions of the G.F. Handel Organ Concertos with both Sir Yehudi Menuhin and Trevor Pinnock as well as J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto as harpsichord soloist. In addition, Simon Preston is Artistic Director for the Calgary International Organ Festival.


--  From the Bach Cantatas website (with links and photos added).  
--  Throughut this webpage, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 

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Simon Preston made his debut at the Royal Festival Hall, London in March 1962, performing the organ solos in Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass.  However, prior to that, devotees of the annual Christmas Eve broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols had heard Simon Preston accompanying the Choir from the Chapel, where he had been a chorister as a boy, and where he returned later as Organ Scholar.  Shortly after his London debut Mr. Preston was appointed Sub-Organist of Westminster Abbey, and later that same year appeared for the first time at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.  During that period he worked under many famous conductors, including Leopold Stokowski, Pierre Monteux, Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten.  In 1965 he made his first tour to the United States and Canada, and by the time he left Westminster Abbey in 1967 Mr. Preston was already an internationally acclaimed artist.  In 1970 he became Organist of the Cathedral and Tutor in Music at Christ Church Oxford where his work with the choir won high praise.  

Fourteen years later in 1981, he was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, where his work with the choir received great acclaim.  He directed the music at the Royal Wedding of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew in 1986, and was responsible for writing much of the “Salieri” music in the movie Amadeus.

Since leaving Westminster Abbey in 1987 he has continued to pursue an active career as a highly sought-after concert organist.  He recorded the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic and James Levine, the Poulenc Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani with the Boston Symphony and Seiji Ozawa, and the Copland Symphony for Organ and Orchestra with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin.  Since his first tour in 1965, Simon Preston has been a regular visitor to the United States, often appearing as a guest artist at conventions of the American Guild of Organists as well as tours that have included most of the states in America.

The description in a Vienna newspaper of Simon Preston as “a living legend” serves as a reminder that his recording career began nearly fifty-five years ago with the performance of a Gibbons Fantasia on a King’s College, Cambridge disc.  There are currently nearly fifty of his CDs still available, including versions of the Handel Organ Concertos with both Yehudi Menuhin and Trevor Pinnock, and Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto as harpsichord soloist, as well as many recordings with the choirs of both Westminster Abbey and Christ Church, Oxford.  In 1971 Mr. Preston was awarded an “Edison Classique” for his recordings of Messiaen’s Les Corps Glorieux and Hindemith’s Organ Sonatas.  The recording of Handel’s Coronation Anthems with the Westminster Abbey Choir conducted by Simon Preston was awarded a “Grand Prix du Disque” in 1983. In October of 2000 Deutsche Grammophon launched his complete recording of Bach’s organ works.

For Simon Preston honors and accolades abound. The New York City Chapter of the AGO named him International Performer of the Year for 1987. Classic CD recently named Mr. Preston in its list, “The Greatest Players of the Century,” which included the entire classical music world.  In 2009 Simon Preston was made a C.B.E (Commander of the British Empire) in the New Year’s Honours List, in 2011 he was made an honorary Student at Christ Church, Oxford University, and in November, 2011 he will be awarded an honorary doctorate by Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada.

--  From the program of a concert given at the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music, 2011  

In May of 1990, Preston was in suburban Chicago to lead concerts by one of the area
’s finest early music groups, His Majesties Clerks (now known as Bella Voce).  He was gracious to take time before the first rehearsal to sit down with me for a conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   We will talk about Handel, and about recordings, and about your career, but first, let’s start out with the concert you’re giving right here in Evanston with His Majestie’s Clerks.  Tell me a bit about the concert, and about your opinions of the group, and the music.

Simon Preston:   I haven’t now met the group yet.  The first rehearsal is tonight, so I’m looking forward to that enormously because they’re doing all my favorite pieces, including My Heart is Inditing of Purcell, a Coronation Anthem, which is a wonderful work, and another favorite piece of mine, God Spake Sometime in Visions by John Blow.  He is contemporary with Purcell, so those two I got to know extremely well.  Actually, I got to know the Purcell piece years ago when I was at Christ Church, Oxford.  I recorded a whole dose of Purcell years ago.

preston BD:   What is it about these particular pieces that make them your favorites?

SP:   That’s actually quite difficult to put a finger on, really.  In Purcell’s case, it’s the sheer complexity of the choral writing and the mixture of the choral writing with the instrumental writing, which is so advanced indeed.  Later composers envied Purcell his assured writing, and from a choral point of view, they’re such terrific pieces to sing, especially for the upper voices, which have great virtuosity.  I’ve always enjoyed working in the past with boys on the top line
which were written for themso the kids always enjoyed that very much.  Then, the other thing about it is that it gives the opportunity for these solo voices to sing in groupstrios, quartets, and quintetsso there is much variety within these very tightly constructed pieces that I like it from that point of view.  But the other thing about it is that they have wonderful feeling as though the Coronation is actually going along at the time.  There’s a wonderful sense of occasion about them, which I think even Handel was hard-pressed to emulate at that time.

BD:   Which Coronation was this?

SP:   My heart is Inditing was actually performed at two coronations, but the Blow piece we’re talking about, and the Purcell, were done at King James the Second’s Coronation in 1685...

BD: auspicious year [with the birth of Bach and Handel and Domenico Scarlatti]!

SP:   Yes, yes, absolutely!  [Both laugh]

BD:   How long does it generally take for you to train each new group that you work with, to get it to be just the way you want in each one of these pieces?

SP:   I wouldn’t like to put a time-span on it, but I usually find that with a group that is as well trained and prepared as His Majestie’s Clerks, that I wouldn’t have thought this would take a great deal of time at all.  On the other hand, they have been trained by somebody else and prepared, and normally when I was working before with my own groups, then this would be done over a period of months.  But this was in terms of doing other things as well as all the repertoire that had to go on at the same time.

BD:   Would you rather train them from scratch, or have them be partially ready, and then you finish it off?

SP:   I quite like the business of working just prior to the concert so that everyone is geared up towards it.  When you work with your own choir, especially on a day-to-day basis, you tend to just let it go along, and as long as the general level of standard is kept up day to day to day, then some special occasion
like a concert or a coronationwould just happen in the normal course of events.  But on this occasion, it’s just very pleasant indeed to be working with a group which is prepared, and then we work towards the concert with a really relatively short space of time.  It concentrates the mind wonderfully.

BD:   You’ve got a couple of days of rehearsal here rather than just an hour before the concert?

SP:   Absolutely, yes, yes, yes.  There are three days of rehearsal, which is really good.

BD:   I assume you would have turned the engagement down if you were just given an hour before the concert?

SP:   I certainly wouldn’t like to do that.  No, there are occasions when rehearsal is at a premium, and you don’t feel you really achieved anything at all.  You may feel that you’ve avoided all the disasters that could loom, but that’s not very satisfying.  No, this something where we shall be prepared to the nth degree.

preston BD:   Is there ever a chance that it becomes over-prepared and too well-rehearsed?

SP:   Oh, yes, I think so.  I know a lot of conductors who do that.  I could name quite a number of thoroughly well-known ones when you feel that every ounce of inspiration is now being sucked dry, and it’s just really an automatic response from the singers.  The singers themselves feel properly vocally weary as well, and I’m against that.

BD:   Do you do all your work in rehearsal, or do you leave a little spark for that night of performance?

SP:   [Laughs]  I would have hoped that there would be some sort of spark.  Also, I tend not to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’, but I would rely on the singers themselves and the players themselves to interact with each other, rather than always go through me.  I’m the guide showing the general way things are, and everything has to be exactly the way I want it.  But then you have to take account of the fact that these singers and the players are interacting very much more, and you are, in fact, trying to help that interaction.  Therefore, that should come together on the night.

BD:   How much do you expect the ensemble to inspire you as opposed to you inspiring the ensemble?

SP:   That also happens.  I haven’t met either of these two groups yet, but I feel that already by the way we’ve talked about it.  There’s going to be a considerable amount of give and take on both sides, and
inspiration, I suppose, if you like.  Because they will plainly have notions of how these things are to be playedas I havethen we discuss it, we work through it, we see how it sounds, and it comes from them as much as from me.  In fact, I much prefer that.  I don’t really like the idea of conductors dictating everything at all.  It’s the players and the singers that matterand the music, of course.

BD:   Where is the balance between having the music dictate, and having your inspiration dictate?

SP:   By and large it’s the music which counts, really, and the more one knows about the musical conditions of the performances that they were written for, and the social conditions that the composers themselves worked under, the more you can then rely on the music to take its own course, and take its own shape.  I’m not saying just leave it
like a lot of conductors do these days with Early groups.  They tend to just say, Oh, well, here’s the downbeat.  Off you go.  It’ll work itself.  I’m not quite like that.  It does need a certain amount of re-creation of the moment on the spot.

BD:   How much do you stretch the original notes?

SP:   [Thinks a moment]  Without having a specific instance in front of me, I wouldn’t have thought very much.  I tend to go by what is on the printed page, and what is expected from what the composer has written.

BD:   There’s a movement now towards using original instruments, but I assume you can’t go back to original voices...

SP:   No???

BD:   [Surprised]  Can you make more of an original-type sound with modern voices?  Or are you even looking for that?

SP:   Oh, I think you can.  A lot of groups these days probably only do that.  There are many groups
especially in England, although it’s probably the case in America as wellwhere singers are chosen for a group particularly because they make a sound which is more suitable to this style of music-making.  The voice doesn’t have the rich vibratos which would go with choral groups nowadays.  But these specialist groups are of themselves self-perpetuating in a way.  It’s been started, and now goes on, and the conductor really has very little to do in the way of voice training in that way now.

BD:   Do you find that the original instruments, or original vocal groups, are expanding the way that music itself originally expanded
little by little, year by year?  [The Academy of Ancient Music (in the recording shown above-right) uses ‘authentic’ instruments.]

SP:   Yes, I think so.  In England I get the impression that there are a multitude of groups, but you have to take into account, that a number of these people are performing under different names.  It’s rather like the makes of auto-cars these days.  The word ‘Mazda’ may cover a multitude of different models, and it’s the same with these early-music groups.  The number of people who actually play or sing in a certain style is probably quite small, really.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you design a program, do you have only baroque music on it, or do you also have some romantic and some new music?

SP:   No, I don’t tend to do that now.  I tend to have  programs with a particular rationale behind it.  I didn’t actually design this program.  It was Ann Heider [Artistic Director of His Majestie
s Clerks] who did this, and it was chosen around these composers of the Chapel Royal in England and Westminster Abbey.  That’s how it grew.  It would be probably wrong to have introduced any other period into it.  The one composer who is slightly out of the norm here is Matthew Locke.  We’re doing a Latin motet of his, and his style is definitely more foreign to the Blow, Purcell, and Humphrey.

preston BD:   I just wondered if you did a mixed program, would you try to actually change the sound of the group from one work to the next.

SP:   Yes, I would.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t tend to mix it too much because I think it’s too big a struggle with the differences, really.  It’s quite a lot to ask somebody to start thinking in a totally different style.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean you can’t ‘re-register’ a choir like you would an organ???

SP:   [Laughs]  Well, I suppose you could, but they would need a break before they did it.

BD:   Perhaps one half of the concert, and then the second half?

SP:   Yes, that’s possible.  I sometimes do instrumental programs like this because that is a bit more easy to go from one thing to another... especially with a group of Purcell at the beginning, and then possibly Benjamin Britten in the second half, but that would have to be very carefully worked out.

BD:   It seems that a lot of times the old and the new work out well together, leaving this great big gap of the Romantic period out in the cold.

SP:   Yes, I think that’s true.  Nowadays, people tend to react to one or the other.  Of course, there are always the people these days who are trying to carry one set of ideas over into another composer.  Now we get Berlioz on original instruments.  We’ll probably have Schumann fairly soon on original instruments.  [Both laugh]  Who knows!  It just goes on like that.

BD:   We’ve been dancing around this a little bit, so let me ask the question directly.  What is the purpose of music in society?

SP:   I wouldn’t even begin to worry about the answer to that from my point of view.  Perhaps the idea is really that the people who are making it should enjoy it, and if audiences can go along and take part in their enjoyment vicariously, that seems to me even finer.  I suppose it does have a life-enhancing quality, and you can’t imagine people who go to listen to a concert of Blow and Purcell committing genocide on a great scale, or anything like that!  But I would have thought that music in those terms really would be rather equivalent to having a beautiful gallery of paintings of some sort.

BD:   So then you’re really just performing it the best you can, and letting the audience almost eavesdrop?

SP:   Absolutely, that’s always been my view.  I wouldn’t like to feel that I was pandering to the audience, and if the music is worth performing, and if a performance is worth considering at all, then the audience would be greatly privileged to hear it, and would pay for the privilege.  That’s my view about it.

BD:   Do you have any expectations of the audience that comes?

SP:   I would feel that the audience is prepared up to a point for what they’re going to receive.  I would be very disappointed if one hears somebody saying,
I didn’t realize that Purcell sounded like that.  I’d rather hoped it was like Tchaikovsky.  I would be disappointed if the audience that comes to hear us this weekend wouldn’t have some expectation of what this music is going to be like.  On the other hand, I also hope that they will be illuminated by what they’re going to hear.  Somebody could say, I never realized that Purcell could write such wonderful music.  I hope it’s a revelation, as well as something which they are prepared for.

BD:   The subscription audience will help that a lot.  If you subscribe to a group and they do this kind of thing, then you have a certain expectation.  Even if you don’t know a certain name, you’ll feel that it fits in.

SP:   Exactly.  This idea, for example, of doing a motet by Locke is a very fine idea, because Locke is not a well-known composer at all
in choral terms at any rateand this will come as a surprise to a lot of people with his Italianate texture and the Italianate nature of this work.

BD:   You want him to
unlock their ideas!

SP:   [Enjoying the pun]  Yes, absolutely!  [Much laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about Handel.  You’ve recorded Handel, you’ve played Handel.  Is there a secret to ‘handling Handel’?

SP:   [Laughs]  Yes, there is, as a matter of fact.  Handel has to sound natural.  So many people these days sort of fiddle around with Handel, and they try and interpret Handel.  The great thing, especially in some of the well-known pieces, like Messiah as an example, should sound natural.  People from Mozart onwards like to interpret Messiah with orchestrations, and this, that and the other, but that’s not the only thing.  It’s the conductors who get hold of it and re-interpret it to their own way.  That all sounds false to me.  The great thing about Handel is that he is the most natural-sounding composer of all time.  It’s as though the music is just being written.  It’s hot off the pen.  It’s just being re-created there and then.  All Handel’s master-strokes are almost improvisatory at times.  He’s not, what I would call, a composer who thinks things out technically beforehand, but it is done almost on the spur of the moment.  It is almost as though he’s sitting around there and playing it himself.  The master-strokes are all improvisatory.

BD:   So it can only be what he has written?

SP:   Yes, and the more naturally it’s performed, the better the music sounds.  For a long time, I subscribed to the view
especially with the organ concertosthat they needed fleshing out a bit.  There was a lot missing, and that literally meant to double-dot everything, and that you had to put trills in whenever you possibly could, and all that sort of rubbish.  But if we go back just to the way that the music is, the way it’s on the printed page, it’s amazing.  Then, when you play it as it is, and you realize how extremely Handelian it sounds, or how natural it sounds, there’s very little need for performers to get in the way of it.

BD:   Had you come to this conclusion before you made the recordings?

SP:   I’ve done the organ concertos twice.  The first time I did it with Yehudi Menuhin.  Actually it’s a very nice set, and I still enjoy it occasionally.  But in those days, it was then that you had to fill everything out a bit in the left hand, and you had to put trills in left, right and center, and double-dot everything rather unnaturally.  There was a lot of that kind of musicology about it at the time.  Then, when I re-recorded the whole thing with Trevor Pinnock and his English Concert, the style of playing was so much more natural.  You could actually take the notes as they’re written and the note values as they actually are on the page, and this worked.

BD:   Will this be a lesson to interpreters, to hear the early and then later recordings of yours?


SP:   Yes, there are one or two movements where it’s very, very apparent the change in all this, to the point where some critics thought that the second version is slightly more pedestrian in terms of realization; not in terms of tempos, just in terms of realization.  Still, a lot people like to feel the former when it is embellishing the work, which I think is wrong.

BD:   Is that just their expectation, or are they right?

preston SP:   No, I think it’s their expectation.  I don’t think they’ve caught up to what’s going on half the time.

BD:   Do you want to be on the cutting edge of Baroque music?

SP:   No, no, I just like to do it as absolutely as it is, not blazing a trail or anything.  People come round to it in the end. I’ve noticed.

BD:   You play concerts and you make recordings.  Is there a difference when you are in the recording studios as opposed to when you’re in the concert hall?

SP:   Oh, yes.  There’s no doubt about that at all.  I greatly enjoy recordings, especially when I’m working with a group of singers, or a band, and doing something over a period of time.  Recordings can be extremely exciting as a way of working with other people, because there’s not usually quite the desperate time element about it all.  It seems to be a chance to discuss things in more greater length and the feeling about it.

BD:   How do you know when you get to the point that it should be committed to tape, or, if you have several takes, which one to select?

SP:   I usually rely on the man who’s in charge of the tape and the technical side of things.

BD:   The producer?

SP:   The producer, absolutely.  He’s usually somebody I trust absolutely on that.  I’m more concerned with working with the people to get the performance we need, and he’s the man who has to decide, if time is pressing, what we need out of this, and what is happening.  Can we do a whole movement, or can we do the whole piece, that sort of thing.  I need to rely on him, and I’ve worked with only very few people in my life for that reason.

BD:   Are you pleased with the records that you have done?

SP:   Yes, I usually am extremely pleased.  There are some I don’t listen to anymore...

BD:   Maybe you’ll come back to them?

SP:   Yes, I tend to.  The other day I heard Symphony of Psalms, which I recorded years ago, back in the early
70s, with the Christ Church, Oxford, Choir.  It wasn’t at all well-received at the time, but when I heard it again the other day, I actually found it’s really stunningly good!

BD:   Maybe it should come back out as a re-issue to give it new life.

SP:   Oh, it has been re-released on CD!  It is amazing how tastes have changed, and sort of caught up, actually.

BD:   Is there ever a chance that one of these records, which is pieced together and everything is perfect, becomes an impossible standard that you can’t duplicate in the concert hall?

SP:   [Laughs]  That happens to most people!  Think of the number of reputations that have been made in the recording studio and have not being fulfilled in the concert hall.  It’s true the whole world over.  I should imagine there are very few of these great conductors we hear of so much all the time, who are really could say,
I did it all myself.  They certainly didn’t.  Recordings bring out these problems, especially, as I’m an organist.  You go to play a concert on an organ, and this organ is maybe not quite as good as one would like.  And people might be disappointed because they’ve heard your compact disc of such and such a piece, and then they come to hear it on a different instrument, or different acoustic, and they could be disappointed.  But, by and large, recordings work quite well.

*     *     *     *     *

preston BD:   When you go around the world, you play on all these different organs.  About how long does it take you to get into a new instrument, and figure out exactly what it can and cannot do?

SP:   When traveling
as I am at the momentI usually allow a minimum of eight hours.  It’s rather like a pilot piloting a plane.  If he hasn’t done his so-many-hours, it’s not happening.  He hasn’t got a license to go up, and I feel that an organist is somewhat similar.  You really do need that time to sit at the keyboard, and get acquainted with the instrumentjust the controls of it, quite apart from the sound that you’re then going to start making, which can also be quite complicated.

BD:   I would think that in most cases, the organist at the console is perhaps in the worse place to make judgments on balance and sound and contrast.

SP:   Yes, yes, he can well be quite often.  I usually make sure that I have somebody who can either play some of my registrations to me so I can listen, or somebody I trust who could go and hear it for me.  I usually get a second opinion, but, on the other hand, quite often now I begin to know what is coming out.  You make adjustments and allowances for the fact that you are underneath the instrument.  The instrument is going over the top of you, so you can work those things out by and large.  You can hear a certain amount coming back from the building itself, so that the number of times when I’ve actually been confounded is really getting less and less.

BD:   That’s good!  When you record, or when you perform an organ concerto, is it good to crowd the orchestra into the church, as opposed to a concert hall that may or may not have the organ?

SP:   No, I prefer to play them in concert halls with orchestras.  I like an orchestra in a concerto to be comfortable, because it’s difficult enough with the organ as it is.  If you’ve got an orchestra that’s all crammed into pews, they don’t play well, and they get a feeling against the organ.  The organ is not an easy instrument to convince people of.

BD:   Why?

SP:   I don’t know why.  It’s partly because the organist is not usually facing people, and is not communicating terribly directly.  It’s communicating through a series of switches, and there’s a certain inflexibility in the organ sound, which is worrying to an orchestra.  The orchestra can always adapt a little either way, but there are other reasons as well.  Usually the organist is miles away, and usually to communicate with the organist the conductor has to shout.  It’s more like dealing with an old man.  So, it’s not always the organist’s fault, or the fault of anybody in particular.  It’s just the situation.  But I find that if I’m in a concert hall, and the organ console is near the conductor, it works extremely well, and I find everyone’s very happy to co-operate fully enough.  I’m not too unhappy if I’m stuck up a little way out of the orchestra’s sound, because then I don’t get it quite so deafeningly on top of me, with the heavy brass going off.  But I do prefer to be as near as possible.

BD:   Is the organ really
The King of Instruments?

SP:   It’s got a lot going for it, really.  It produces so many wonderful composers, apart from anything else.  There must be more than sometimes meets the ear, really.  Bach and Handel were wonderful organists; Mozart was keen on the organ;  Liszt was enthusiastic about the organ.  In this present century we have Messiaen, who is arguably the greatest composer living.  Certainly he’s had a very profound affect, basically as an organist, so there must be something about this.

BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write music for the organ?

SP:   It would be what Sir Michael Tippett gave me when I asked him about writing another organ piece.  He’d written one small piece for me, and he said,
I would like to, but it would mean that you and I would have to work together for really quite a long time.  I wouldn’t commit anything to paper unless I was hearing it, and you were playing it, and we worked together as a team like this.  Any composer who’s contemplating writing a piece should work closely with an organistunless he happens to be an organist of some sort, or understands it at any rate.  The idea of working with a particular player, so it is almost written for that player, for a particular organist, is not a bad idea.  After all, the Poulenc Concerto, although it was written for Princess Edmond de Polignac, actually was worked with Maurice Duruflé.  He made the first performance of it, and all the registrations were helped by Duruflé.  So, that combination of composer and player is probably the way to do it.

The Poulenc Organ Concerto was commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac in 1934, as a piece with a chamber orchestra accompaniment and an easy organ part that the princess could probably play herself. The commission was originally given to Jean Françaix, who declined, but Poulenc accepted. Poulenc quickly abandoned this idea for something much more grandiose and ambitious. As he wrote in a letter to Françaix, "The not the amusing Poulenc of the Concerto for Two Pianos, but more like a Poulenc en route for the cloister." Indeed, Poulenc referred to it as being on the fringe of his religious works. Poulenc himself had never actually composed for the organ before, and so he studied great baroque masterpieces for the instrument by Johann Sebastian Bach and Dieterich Buxtehude; the work's neo-baroque feel reflects this. Poulenc was also advised about the instrument's registration and other aspects by the organist Maurice Duruflé. Duruflé was also the soloist in the private premiere of the work on 16 December 1938, with Nadia Boulanger conducting, at Princess Edmond's salon. The first public performance was in June 1939 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, with Duruflé once again the soloist and Roger Désormière conducting.


See my interview with André Previn

As the full title of the piece denotes [Concerto pour orgue, cordes et timbales], the piece is scored for a solo organ, timpani and a string orchestra. The piece uses such comparatively small forces, relative to Poulenc's other concertos, so that the piece could be played in a quite small space with an organ, such as Princess Edmond's salon, that were quite popular in France at the time. The piece would have been premiered on a Cavaillé-Coll instrument, as the company supplied many organs to private customers, one of whom was the princess.

The piece is just over 20 minutes in duration and consists of a single continuous movement with seven tempo marks. Each movement often differs substantially in style, tone and texture. For example, the opening movements are loud and quite violent, with substantial organ chords; yet the following middle movements are much calmer, softer and more emotional.

BD:   Are organists really obsessed with registration?

SP:   Well, I think they have to be.  It’s the most important aspect, really, in terms of making sounds.  Depending on the sort of instrument we’re talking about, unless it’s an electric action instrument, then the sound of the stops is the most important thing.  There’s nothing much you can do about the action.

BD:   What about a tracker action?

SP:   Yes, if you’ve got a mechanical action, then there are other elements that come very much to the fore
the touch, if you want to call it that, the phrasing, the articulation, and all those things are very, very important, indeed.  But when it comes down to it, it is the combination of sounds that you’re making and need to be historically suited to it.

BD:   Is there a sense of excitement when you come to a new organ to discover what kind of registration you can do?

SP:   Oh, yes, yes!  This is the thing that keeps one going!  [Much laughter]  I’ve now been traveling around this particular tour for about two and half months, and it’s marvelous.  I’ve just now come from Long Island where I was playing a grand, big instrument in Garden City Cathedral.  I stayed and played for a long time because there were possibilities which were exciting.

BD:   Even on an organ you know well, do you ever exhaust the possibilities?

SP:   I should think you could, yes.  It is amazing.  The other day I was recording in a little church... actually it was quite a big church in a tiny little village in Denmark named Sorø [population 7,866 in 2016]
, and the Marcussen organ there was built in 1942.  I went to record the ‘Orgelbuchlein’ [of J.S. Bach] and I turned up about two or three days before to rehearse and to get to know the instrument really well.  The first day I was there I played the organ for eight hours because it was just so beautiful, and I just couldn’t stop playing this instrument.  It wasn’t just that the ‘Orgelbuchlein’ is an hour and a quarter of music, but it was a pleasure to find the possibilities of this beautiful organ.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you divide your time then between being an organist, and being a conductor and choir master?

SP:   At the moment I don
t actually do the dividing.  It seems to be divided for me by whoever ask, and at the moment things are working out extremely well.  It’s a wonderful life!  I can play the organ for the bread and butter, as it were, and then there are these marvelous engagements, like His Majestie’s Clerks, which are just very enjoyable indeed.  There are different styles of music-making, which makes one a better organist in the end, and I hope that my organ playing experiences will make me a better director.  The two things seem to go very, very well together, indeed.  It comes out about half and half I suppose.

preston BD:   In one of your biographies, it says that you are a perfectionist.  Is that a good or a bad term?

SP:   [Laughs]  I certainly didn’t write that one!  It’s a good term, I think, yes.  It would be terrible to meet a musician who’s not one.

BD:   I just wondered if it could mean you are overly obsessive.

SP:   It probably could, but most successful musicians are rather overly obsessive in some ways or other.

BD:   Are you obsessive about your technique, or are you obsessive about music itself?

SP:   I try to make my technique the servant of the music.  I wouldn’t like to feel that I’m just practicing the piece simply because I’ve got to get my fingers even more this, that and the other, or whatever it is.  I don’t really divide those two things up in my own mind.  I like to feel that technique is a servant to the music, and I haven’t had any problems with it so far.  But it’s the music, really, which I would be obsessive about.  There are times when perfection is just not obtainable.  There are situations where you cannot, with the best will in the world, say that you’re totally happy with the end result.  But even so, being a perfectionist in those terms means that you’re actually trying to do the very best you can even in a slightly imperfect world.

BD:   So, you attain that highest level of possibility and let it go?

SP:   Yes, that’s right.  Sometimes you have to live to fight a better day.

BD:   Is that the advice that you have for your ensemble players and singers?

SP:   Yes, I would.  Never worry if there has been a disaster, especially if you’re young.   You’ve got another chance.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean when you get older you don’t get them???

SP:   [Smiles]  Well, you do, but they’re already being ticked off in the heavenly domains!

BD:   So, going up the hill is perhaps easier than staying at the top?

SP:   That’s right, yes.  It’s the falling off the pyramid, really.  [Much laughter from both]

BD:   Organists, I assume, can play until they’re very old, as opposed to brass players and singers whose lips and voices give out.

SP:   Yes, I think that’s right.  I feel sorry for singers, particularly because there must be a terrific pressure on them when they’re younger to go for it.  It knocks them sideways, but I always think that is a disaster for singers.  The great thing is to conserve one’s voice, and it’s a great problem.

BD:   Is there any kind of similarity to conserving keyboard fingers or conducting-arm action?

SP:   I don’t think so, no.   I used to subscribe to the view that with regular muscle training, or jogging, or whatever one does, that you’re actually building muscular power, but it’s not true.  Age, I’m afraid, wearies the muscles.  That’s one of the reasons organists can survive quite considerably longer than everybody else, because the muscular effort is not so very great... except on some very heavy mechanical action organs, and then, of course, one is in slight difficulty concerning energy.  But a bit of steak will give you the added power for that.  [Laughs]  But it is possible for organists to play on, provided the brain is working.

preston BD:   There’s nothing straining on the back than when you’re working with pedal board?

SP:   Oh, there’s a certain strain, yes, but that’s healthy.  It’s not quite as athletic a pursuit as one would like.  There’s a tendency to sit, and sit rather squarely, and cut down the excess movement on the organ.  Now if you’re talking about keeping fit and healthy, then the conducting is the thing!  One sheds pounds... unobtrusively I hope.

BD:   When you’re conducting, you’re taking in great big breaths.

SP:   Oh, it’s wonderful!  It’s aerobic!  It’s absolutely wonderfully good for the health.  That’s why they live so long.  You’ve got so many conductors around the world.  Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.

BD:   Do we really have too many Chiefs?

SP:   Oh, yes, too many conductors, yes.

BD:   Yet there really aren’t enough Indians?

SP:   It is possibly that as well.  There are far too many people scrabbling away, I think.

BD:   But you enjoy conducting?

SP:   Very much so, yes.  I’m not in any any form of competition simply because I’m not solely a conductor.  If I were on that circuit, I would probably be a very different sort of person indeed.  That’s why some conductors are really not terribly pleasant to work with.  They’re possibly driven by feelings of competition, and they take it out on the people that are working for them.

BD:   I’m glad you’re not unpleasant to be around!  [Much laughter from both]

SP:   I like to feel I’m creating a nice sort of feeling, a nice, ambiance so that everyone can enjoy themselves up to a point.

BD:   That, then infuses itself into the music that you’re playing?

SP:   One would hope, yes, the general feeling.

BD:   Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

SP:   I do, quite!  I enjoy it, yes.  It’s something that I wasn’t certain I would enjoy, but I do.  I like the variety of it.  That’s what I didn’t get at Westminster Abbey.  It was not a palace of variety at all.  It was very one-dimensional, and the traveling part of it is incidental to the fact that there’s a variety of music picking.  Just my few appearances in America this time show the variety both in conducting and playing.  There’s a lot of difference there, and I don’t think many musicians can claim that variety.

BD:   You were at Westminster Abbey for how long?

SP:   Seven years.

BD:   Was that when Charles was married?

SP:   No, he was married in St. Paul’s, but Prince Andrew was married there.

BD:   Did you play for that?

SP:   I did indeed!  I did the music.

BD:   Was that just another concert, or was it a big special event?

SP:   [Laughs]  It was a big concert!  Actually, it wasn’t so much a concert, really.  It was very much a wedding.  It was extremely well-balanced.  The wedding was very fine, I thought.  With Charles, I thought it was a concert, and music took over to the detriment, actually.  But with Andrew, the music was the handmaiden.

BD:   William Mathias wrote a piece for the wedding of Charles.  He was here in town a few years ago, and I was able to interview him then.

SP:   Yes, a charming man.  He and I were at the Royal Academy of Music together.

*     *     *     *     *

preston BD:   Is playing the organ fun?

SP:   Yes, it is in the way I’ve described it.  You suddenly find an instrument which is just the one that you want to play very much indeed.  Even when it’s not the greatest instrument, there’s always something to be got from it; some new twists, some new sounds somewhere.  Actually trying to work the very best out of a rather recalcitrant instrument is still fun.  It’s lonely, though.  You’re on your own.  You’re a solo performer.  There’s nothing much around.  You can be stuck in some cold cheerless church, or overheated cheerless church, and it can be grim from that point of view.  But no, I think it’s fun.

BD:   At the console, you’re perhaps off to the side.  Should we use the electronics perhaps?  Have a small television camera on you, with a great big screen so that everyone can watch as you are playing, and watch the stops being pulled and pushed?

SP:   Yes, I do that.  I’m all for that, actually, up to a point.  I’m at the point where I would pander to the audience a bit, because audiences do feel rather deprived if they can’t see the player.  Fortunately, in this country, the player is usually very visible.  They wheel the console out so it can be seen.  I have used television and a screen and the cameras, and it’s made a great deal of difference.  [With a smirk]  As somebody once said,
People like to do two things in lifethey like to go to organ recitals, and they like to watch television!  [Much laughter]

BD:   So perhaps the ideal is to watch televised organ recitals?

SP:   Absolutely!  That’s my feeling exactly!

BD:   As you’re progressing in your career, do you find that your playing is changing as society is changing?  We’re going through ups and downs in the economy, and there are all of these upheavals that are going on.

SP:   I can’t honestly say that contemporary worries and contemporary political events really make much difference to my organ playing, but I do try and follow trends of interest.  For example, ten years ago nobody would have dreamed of playing a sonata by Alexander Guilmant.  He was lowest of the low, with no interest harmonically, so people would shy away.  But now it’s amazing that there’s some interest.  It’s just clicked somewhere, and people will now listen to Guilmant’s music.  Then there are those now who play orchestral transcriptions again, whereas ten or twenty years ago, nobody would be seen dead on an organ bench playing an orchestral transcription.  It was just so awful.  But now some of the brightest of the young stars, the rising stars, are all playing ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ and things like that.  So those trends I try to look out for, because I feel if an audience wants to hear things, then I’m very happy to play something that they like to hear... as long as I can stand it!  [Much laughter]

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Maybe some time you should record The Ride of the Valkyries on a Handel organ.

SP:   [Smiles]  Yes, that’s right!  Well, that has happened in the past.  It can be amusing.

BD:   Have you ever run into an organ that is just literally too big?  They’ve over-built it?

SP:   Yes.  There are quite a number of organs like that, especially in this country.  Maybe not especially in this country, but I’ve met them in this country.  Everyone talks about this great six-manual instrument at Wanamaker
s in Philadelphia, and the time I played it I thought it was just rather sort of dreary.  It doesn’t interest me at all.

preston The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, in Philadelphia, is the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world. (The Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ has more pipes but fewer ranks and at least 80% of the pipes have been unplayable for most of its existence). The Wanamaker Organ is located within a spacious 7-story court at Macy's Center City (formerly Wanamaker's department store) and played at least twice a day Monday through Saturday, and more frequently during the Christmas season. The organ is featured at several special concerts held throughout the year, including events featuring the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ Festival Chorus and Brass Ensemble.

In its present configuration, the Wanamaker Organ has 28,750 pipes in 464 ranks. The organ console consists of six manuals with an array of stops and controls that command the organ. The organ's String Division forms the largest single organ chamber in the world. The instrument features eighty-eight ranks of string pipes built by the W.W. Kimball Company of Chicago. The organ is famed for its orchestra-like sound, coming from pipes that are voiced softer than usual, allowing an unusually rich build-up because of the massing of pipe-tone families. The artistic obligation entailed by the creation of this instrument has always been honored, with two curators employed in its constant and scrupulous care (what leads to the state of one of the best maintained organ in the world). The organ, with its regular program of concerts and recitals, was maintained by Wanamaker's throughout the chain's history, even as the company's financial fortunes waned. This level of dedication was maintained when corporate parentage shifted from the Wanamaker family to Carter Hawley Hale Stores followed by Woodward & Lothrop, Lord & Taylor, and finally to Macy's.

BD:   Now you say you
meet the organ.  Do you feel that you are collaborating with the instrument?

SP:   Oh, yes.  Oh, yes, oh, yes!  It’s a meeting of Beauty and the Beast, or something.  I don’t know quite what it is.

BD:   It’s the only instrument that really breathes on its own.  You have to breathe into an oboe...

preston SP:   Yes, yes, that’s right.  You haven’t to do much else to it, no, no.  It’s got it all.  It’s self-sufficient.  It just needs to be touched
for the toccata!  [Both laugh]  But I’m not one of those people who regards the organ as opposition, as it were.  You often hear organists talking about ‘getting at the opposition’, as though it was something to be feared and dreaded.  To me, it’s a Stradivarius to take control of.

BD:   Then who is the master
the organ or the organist?

SP:   I think the organist really, or with any luck I suppose the organ builder would be, but he’s usually an unsung hero.

BD:   Is organ building still in sound condition?

SP:   [Grins at yet another pun]  Oh, yes, and especially in this country.  There are lots of developments everywhere.  I can’t keep up with them.  One minute we’re recreating organs of a past age, only to try and make them into twentieth-century idiom.  Then, the next minute we’re trying to recreate the instrument that Bach might have played, right down to the candlesticks, and a couple of children pumping the bellows.  It’s a very fluid situation in organ building at the moment.  People are not quite sure which way it’s going to go
whether it’s very historically one of things which you should go back, or try and take the best of the historical aspects and make it into a twentieth-century idiom.  Then there is the question about how far should you resist an electronic in-road.  It is an instrument in the classical inventory which is undergoing such an exciting metamorphosis really.

BD:   Each one is individual, and it doesn’t have to fit in, whereas every oboe has to fit in with every orchestra.

SP:   Right, but there’s nothing more that is happening to the oboe as an instrument now.  It’s there.  It’s been done.  Probably somebody’s adding a key somewhere to get an extra note from it, but basically the oboe is the oboe is the oboe.  But the organ is now a different sort of instrument.  It could be anything.  It could be any way.  It could go any way, and the direction of the organ is something which organ builders, organ players, and the public up to a point, are having quite an input into.

BD:   Do you have any resentment at all towards the electronic keyboards?

SP:   I don’t have anything to do with it at all.  If I start getting confused with that, that doesn’t help matters in terms of the real organ.  I regard the electronic as something being like the saxophone is the clarinet.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  It’s perfectly fine.  It’s a real legitimate development of the organ is, but it’s not the same, and that’s my view.  I leave that to the pop boys, where the money is, probably.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

SP:   Not terribly, no.  I don’t feel that the mainstays of classical music have really got much longer to run.  The symphony orchestra is having its day, and in another twenty-five years we won’t have symphony orchestras... but I don’t know.  It’s difficult to foretell that.

BD:   They will only exist for recordings?

SP:   [Laughs]  I think they only exist for that now!  The audience is very privileged indeed, but I don’t know... Maybe that might be a slightly Cassandra-like judgment.

BD:   This is how you feel?

SP:   It’s something to be proved wrong.  That’s the main thing.

BD:   So, you’re looking forward to being proved wrong?

SP:   Yes, absolutely.  [Both dissolve into laughter, imitating doddering old men saying things like,
“Back in my day we had live musicians playing...”]

BD:   [Returning to normal countenance]  Good luck with these concerts.

SP:   Oh, thank you very much.  It’s grand!

BD:   It has been a pleasure talking with you.

SP:   And to you, too.


See my interviews with William Bolcom

© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Evanston, Illinois, on May 1, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that evening, and again in 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.