The first week of April this year was a bit of a marathon for organist Richard Gowers: a Brahms Requiem in the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir on the Saturday; online Evensong for the Royal School of Church Music on Monday, followed by a trip to Northern Ireland for a lunchtime recital in Portrush on Tuesday and a gala recital in Belfast Cathedral with past winners of the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition on Wednesday, including a new work by Grace-Evangeline Mason dedicated to victims and survivors of the Troubles; back to London as soloist in the Poulenc concerto with the Orion Orchestra in Cadogan Hall; then off to Venice to play for a Palm Sunday Mass and a concert of Venetian choral music.
If that wasn’t enough, the next week included a switch to piano with mezzo soprano Hannah Bennett for the semi-finals of the Kathleen Ferrier Awards at the Wigmore Hall, as well as Holy Week services at the church in Pimlico, where he is Director of Music.
The mix of roles is typical for a skilled organist with good contacts, and younger players such as Gowers are becoming more and more adventurous in how and where they choose to work.
Claire M Singer, for example, trained as a composer of acoustic and electronic music, including for films and installations, and is largely self-taught as an organist. She has developed a reputation for her experimental approach to the instrument, using it to explore rich harmonic textures and complex melodic and rhythmic patterns, often inspired by the dramatic landscapes of her native Scotland. She has established the Organ Reframed festival at Union Chapel, Islington, to focus on commissioning and presenting innovative music that reimagines the organ for both artist and audience.
James McVinnie took the more conventional church-based route to the profession, but has diversified into working in a wide range of genres, with musicians such as Philip Glass, Angelique Kidjo, Nico Muhly and Darkstar. He has recorded for Bedroom Community, Orange Mountain Music and Warp Records; and this season’s premieres included Infinity Gradient, an hour-long work for organ and 100 speakers, written for him by Tristan Perich, and Gabriella Smith’s new concerto exploring the relationship between humans, forests and fire, commissioned by the LA Philharmonic.
It’s all a far cry from the traditional image of an organist, often considered a breed apart from other musicians. But that perception is changing, thanks to the newest partnership between the MU and the Royal College of Organists (RCO), offering organists and choral directors who are RCO members 50% off the MU’s annual membership.
The relationship emerged from conversations between the MU’s National Organiser for Live Performance, Dave Webster, and organist Sir Andrew Parmley. The two rekindled a 20- year-old friendship when Webster attended a seminar on the future of music run by Parmley during his time as Lord Mayor of the City of London between 2016 and 2017.
Shortly afterwards, Parmley was appointed as Director of the RCO. Recalling his childhood, when the local school music teacher was also the church organist and conducted the choral society and/or the amateur operatic society, he was keen to re-establish organs and organists at the centre of their communities. He emphasises that the RCO has a broad remit, catering for home organists, cinema organists, those who play for Masonic ceremonies and keen enthusiasts. He said:
“People think we’re a religious organisation, but we’re not, hence our strapline – the first stop for every organist.”
The drawback to this, however, is that organists can often be perceived as keen amateurs, as indeed many of them are. “But many of our members are astonishingly professional musicians with exceptional skills, and I wanted to find a way of making that clear to the outside world. Putting them in the same company as the MU’s 32,000 members seemed a good way of doing that.”
The offer differs slightly from the MU’s other joint memberships, says MU Assistant General Secretary Phil Kear, “where you become a member of either organisation and get the other half price. In this one, you join the RCO and get MU membership half-price, but with exactly the same benefits and services as any other members.”
Advantages for RCO members includes support with issues such as securing adequate pay for their work, which is often a problem, especially when dealing with churches that may have limited resources, or with wedding couples who request difficult or unfamiliar pieces of music, yet have no appreciation of the time it will take to learn.
“Our Royal Charter means we can’t recommend fees and rates of pay, but the MU can offer advice on that, and on issues such as streaming rates and Employment Law,” says Parmley. “We can also benefit from the MU’s lobbying on the current difficulties with international travel.”
The life of an organist can be solitary. On the plus side, there’s a vast repertoire of music from many centuries to explore, via an instrument that has intense power yet can also be played so quietly, the sound shimmers in the background. But the challenges include having to practise in the dead of night in beautiful but freezing buildings, on an instrument that may not be well maintained. Unlike pianists, they may not always be able to adjust the height of the bench they sit on, though a campaign led by the Society of Women Organists is tackling that problem.
Bearing all that in mind, Andrew Parmley concludes that:
“It’s great for RCO members now to have the comfort of a relationship with a major national body, which has a professional workforce that’s recognised as such. Organists can now feel, ‘I’m a professional too, I’m part of the MU’.”
Royal College of Organists (RCO)
We are working together to deliver services and support for organists and choral directors.
As part of our partnership, RCO members can get a 50% discount on the MU's annual standard membership. This offer can’t be applied to RCO membership subscription fees.
Read more about our other joint rates and how to apply