April 19, 2020


Organ Music and Education in Britain

April 19, 2020


Organ Music and Education in Britain

The 1934 Harrison & Harrison organ at King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

The 1934 Harrison & Harrison organ at King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom.


William Whitehead, Organ Teacher at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, discusses the Anglican Choral Tradition and training the next generation of young organists to lead it, and his work as curator of The Orgelbüchlein Project in this interview with Vox Humana Editor Christopher Holman.


William, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. To begin, could you talk about your musical training? Did you study piano from an early age? When did you take up the organ, and what attracted you to it?

Like many, I came to the organ from the piano, and I began piano lessons at the age of six. My family was not at all "churchy," and only musical in a very amateur way, so the idea of picking up the organ certainly didn't come from them! At the age of 13, I went to a big school that had a chapel and a good musical tradition and an organ, and we had a very inspiring and active school organist. He encouraged me to try the organ, and very quickly from the age of 13, I was learning how to accompany choirs. We took trips to our local cathedrals — Bristol, Wells, Exeter — to sing evensong with the school choirs, which was very inspiring.

Britain boasts a remarkable choral tradition. How would you describe the present-day church music system?

The Anglican Choral Tradition is something that is in the bloodstream for a certain niche sector of the British population. The idea is that you send your children, at age of six or seven, to a special school to take on the very regimented, disciplined, and time-consuming pursuit of singing choral services. That's the foundation. All the ancient cathedrals (and most of the less ancient ones, too) have some kind of, if not daily, then almost-daily musical offering during term time and major feasts. It's part of the wallpaper of being British (or at least being musical and British), and I think the fact that it's a tradition that goes back hundreds of years is important — that embedding of daily music-making, rehearsal, and discipline built on team spirit and accumulated knowledge is a really important and possibly unique thing to this country.

How does organ music fit into this?

In the Anglican tradition, organ playing is very much the backdrop, a "warm-up act," so to say, whereas singing is the main event. Although there is fine playing of organ repertoire as part of the tradition, it's not the main "meat" of what the organist does, as one might see in Germany or France. In Britain, the art of accompaniment is a very important and long-standing tradition — the organ is there to blend and add color, but primarily, support, rather than be the sole focus of what people are listening to.

Many cathedral organists in England play seven or more choral services per week, often with very difficult music and minimal practice time. As someone who has held such posts, how would you describe the typical workload, and how do you manage such a massive amount of accompanying and solo repertoire?

There is a great deal to get through if you're going to have daily music-making, and sight-reading is a really important skill, both for singers and organists. So the idea that you have to, at very short order, sight-read your way through something is a particularly British skill, one that the Anglican musicians have had to develop. Perhaps — and this is a huge generalization — a French or German musician will be putting out a smaller volume of music per week as a liturgical musician; therefore, sight-reading is not such a major requirement. Conversely for them, there's possibly a greater depth of interpretation and engagement with the music.

With such little rehearsal time for such difficult music, how can an Anglican choir find a unique performance practice when singing the music of, say Byrd, versus Stanford?

There are good points and bad points about the way that the Anglican tradition goes about itself. In a very pragmatic way, there is absolutely a kind of pasted-on style for a choir that sings Gibbons one moment, Parry the next, and then Duruflé the next. With tight schedules you simply can't explore in depth the understanding and interpretation of different music as you can in, say, a scholarly early music institution. One hopes that Anglican choir leaders are continually seeing that this is a compromise and are trying to find ways to make different music speak.

Is there a uniform Anglican choral style that everyone follows, and is there any intersection between this musical "dialect" and more mainstream modern performance practices?

I think there are different strands of performance practice within the Anglican tradition, much of that hinging on the sound that the choristers make. There are very different vocal styles coming out of, say, Westminster Cathedral as opposed to King's College Cambridge. I think that the wider world of serious music-making does affect the Anglican tradition, and (let's put it as broadly as) the "early music revival" of the last 30 or 40 years has found its way into how a cathedral choir might perform Bach, Ockeghem, etc. But again, when it's 5:28 and you've got to put on an evensong at 5:30, then some kind of generalized style and team spirit has to carry the performance off.

How do British organs reflect the aesthetics of this Tradition, and are there any particular organbuilders that especially influence what we see happening in Anglican church music today?

The way organs in Britain are built and placed in the building has a big influence on performance practice — they are designed and voiced primarily for accompaniment. The sound of an organ boxed into a transept right next to the choir has its own acoustic qualities, somewhat confined by its space; this is ideal for accompaniment, but possibly not for solo playing. Harrison and Harrison represents a good example of an organ builder who, over the years, has built good accompanying instruments, but that's not to say that they aren't good solo instruments. Building to a scheme that is appropriate to a choir is arguably part of what they've done, and it certainly is part of their ethos.

You teach organ lessons at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. How would you compare organ study in these and other similar institutions to traditional conservatories, and what do you perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of each system?

The fundamental difference is that in Britain, the organist and choirmaster posts are almost always held by the same person; it's an entirely Anglican thing that is quite alien to the system in, say, the German-speaking world, where someone comes up learning to be either a cantor or an organist. The two roles involve different skills and training (and levels of pay). In the traditional Anglican system, one begins as an Organ Scholar and learns the ropes, then becomes an Assistant Organist, and then an Organist — but being Organist really means you conduct the choir. The idea of making a seamless transition from operating a machine in a secluded organ loft to standing in front of a group of people and making them sing seems bizarre. In Europe, there is some blending these days; Holland especially has taken on the Anglican idea of evensong with some enthusiasm, and I think that's even influenced the way some organists see and train themselves.

Really, the Anglican tradition is amateurism raised to a very high level, if one is honest. If we consider an Oxford/Cambridge organ scholarship as a major way in which church musicians are trained in Britain — it's really a very unstructured, amateurish way of doing things! Essentially, even though the chapel music programs are more professionalized now than when I was a student, you are still essentially throwing people in at the deep end to learn on the job, using their sight-reading skills to learn how to accompany, how the liturgy works, and ultimately how to stand in front of a choir. This all can be very unstructured training. Again, as a teacher who is part of this tradition, this plays both ways. It's a great frustration that we have this amateurism at the heart of what we're doing, yet I cannot deny that it yields results, and some of the most astonishing music-making can emerge from this sink-or-swim kind of training. You kind of have to accept that, in Britain, this is the nature of the beast, for better or for worse. It of course encourages and nurtures a particular kind of musician who can survive that. But I have also seen students who don't thrive on that system, and I'm very much on the alert for the ones who perhaps don't have top-notch sight-reading skills (if we're going to use that as the measuring stick), yet have something extremely valuable to offer; they may therefore need to go off to mainland Europe or North America to go through a more procedural, structured education.

When giving organ lessons that are preparing students for this kind of tradition, do you find yourself mostly teaching repertoire, sight-reading, anthem accompaniment, or something else?

I offer myself as a generalist teacher, which means that I try to address, in a quite reactive way, each student's needs. My hope for most is that the focus will be on repertoire, but then that might devolve to working on accompaniments and the art thereof. I do also offer training in "skills," if one calls them such — sight-reading, transposition, score-reading, figured bass. I try to offer whatever the student needs, bearing in mind that repertoire is in a way the central tenet of all this. If they can play pieces and use what they learn there to get around the instrument, many of the other skills will feed from that. I always find myself slightly limited in addressing sight-reading, where there's very little wiggle room — you either have the skill or you don't, plus or minus some possibility of improvement — it's very hard.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (along with a few others in Britain) are famous for their college system, a collective of basically autonomous institutions that together comprise, but are quite loosely governed, by the larger university. Whereas institutions like Harvard or Stanford Universities have one memorial chapel that serves the entire university, many of the 30+ colleges that form the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford have their own chapels. Some colleges, like King's and St. John's Colleges, Cambridge, or Magdalen and New College, Oxford, have famous choirs that sing daily services, while other colleges have maybe one choral service a week. Given the drastically different demands on organ scholars within one university and the therefore natural range of commitment of the students, what are the most important things that every organ scholar should learn?

As you say, students come at this at so many different levels, that if I proposed an Orgelbüchlein chorale for one student, that would be a stiff challenge, but for another, that would be completely pointless, as they've already learned the entire collection. For choral music, yes, one could list 25 core canticle settings and anthems that ought to be in the fingers if the student is going to take this at all seriously. There is a vast range of abilities, and one hopes that in applications to colleges, there's been some reflection about the level at which one is going into these things. When I was applying to Oxford, having been a bit of a late starter, compared to other young organists, I didn't have much experience by the time applications came around, and there would have been no point in me applying to a choral foundation [a choir of boys and choral scholars/academical clerks that sings daily services] — it would have been way beyond me. So I applied to University College, which has one service a week; that was right for me, as I was therefore able to learn the repertoire at a pace that suited me, and I like to think that I did a good job and learned things thoroughly to quickly make progress. In my day (about 30 years ago), there were many fewer colleges that had professional [i.e. non-student] directors of music. That's a thing that has changed vastly these days. I think about 90% of colleges now do have someone professional overseeing the music and raising the standards thereby.

What is the process of becoming an organ scholar at Oxford or Cambridge, and how would you suggest that a young organist wishing to pursue an organ scholarship at a British university prepare?

"Prepare" is the word. I think that at whatever level you want to make your entry point, being reliable in the simplest form of music is your starting point. Can you play a hymn in time with the right notes? That's a skill which is vastly underestimated. Can you at least, in a very basic way, make some kind of improvisation? It doesn't have to be four-part harmony — can you spontaneously create a melody or a duet at the keys? Can you play a piece of repertoire, no matter how simple, with accuracy and rhythm? These are the basic things which, though they sound rather like a fire blanket being put over the fun of music, are so often missing, such that many more young organists than people think could actually become an organ scholar. Mainly, you have to install some very basic but very reliable skills. Obviously, if you can play the Widor Toccata wonderfully with pizazz, that's great, and you probably need to have a showpiece or two up your sleeve, but a simple piece, well-prepared really goes a long way.

Another key thing is going to evensongs to observe what the Assistant Organist actually does during the service. Learn about the shape of the liturgy. Try to find out what exactly you're getting yourself in for, in terms of duties, expectations, and repertoire. I think that, for any young person who is at all inspired to play the organ, there's an awful lot you can do to unlock your ears and get your eye in for the sorts of standards that apply before you audition for a university organ scholarship.

Following graduation, what is the typical career path for an organist in Britain who wants to pursue a Cathedral organist position?

I think "typical" is difficult to pin down, especially these days. Again, it's changed a lot since I was an undergraduate. There were plenty of people contemporary with me who wanted to be cathedral organists, and indeed, some went on to do just that — Matthew Owens, Robert Sharpe, Stephen Farr, to name a few. There was a kind of appreciation for the career process and the progress one could make. Today, that's changed, and it isn't that some people don't see a cathedral post as an ultimate goal (as a teacher, I've developed pretty good eye for spotting the ones who really should be following that path, and encourage them in that direction), but it's fewer than it was, partly because the profession itself has become more disparate. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism, but it's a more wide-ranging job than it ever has been. The life of musicians these days in most spheres has become a more portfolio-based career path — many develop different para-musical skills, including publishing their own music, running a website, etc. — I see a lot of young organists coming through the university system who see church music as only one panel of several in their ongoing portfolio career. I think, again, that plays both ways: it allows them greater freedom and flexibility, but the element of focus and structure is much less strong than it used to be. Organists have to justify our position much more these days; it's not a given that a church will support music and will be able to continue to fund it. The ability to stand up for a music department in a cathedral — and defend it — is something that has to happen nowadays that didn't 50 years ago.

You have served on many international competition juries. Are there certain trends you see, for example, in the sort of players who win first prize? Do juries tend to favor “safe” players or those with a unique voice? What do you listen for when you are adjudicating, and do you have any advice for young organists entering these competitions?

I think there are many different types of competitions. The way they are structured can encourage different kinds of outcomes. Let's compare the Toulouse Competition to the Odense Competition in Denmark; when I was on the jury in Toulouse, there were 20 members, and that kind of structure and process can lead to a very different outcome than a five-member jury. It depends on so many things, the least of which being the marking system, which sometimes almost requires a juror to be a mathematician! One man's extraordinary, captivating playing is another's horror playing. That said, I think superb musicianship will always out, though whether it wins is another matter. But in a way, one has to look holistically at competitions; yes, someone comes out with a first prize (probably), but the collegiality and exposure are just as important, if not more so. I was in a competition once, and I remember one person who got through to the final whose playing was extraordinary and captivating. She didn't win — in fact, I think she was ranked last in the final — but she's gone on to do very good work, running an organ department at a Swedish University, and that was partly through the people she met in that competition, and presumably the jury members who did value her playing.

In addition to your teaching and concert career, you also are curator of The Orgelbüchlein Project, a collection of newly-composed organ chorales that are intended to be a modern-day "completion" of Bach's collection (the latest volume, published by Edition Peters, is available here). Please tell us about this project.

The project is simple in concept: to commission new pieces of organ music to complete the missing pages of Bach's Das Orgelbüchlein manuscript. Bach laid out a whole manuscript with a grand plan — i.e. he put in the titles of the chorales he was intending to compose, and then only composed roughly 45 of them, leaving 118 gaps; he wrote the title of the chorale melody he intended to compose, but then follow blank staves. The pieces he did write are usually one page in length (though sometimes two), and are a setting of a choral melody — once through, and the melody is generally very clear. Probably (though there's no conclusive evidence) these were meant to encourage or set a model for improvising before the singing of a chorale. The Orgelbüchlein Project, which I've run for nearly 15 years now, is to commission composers from all around Europe to try and fulfill, in a contemporary sense, what Bach is setting out to do with the pieces he wrote — namely the setting of a tune once through, end to end, in whatever style they wish. There's a great range of styles representing all the possible modes of organ composition available to us at this moment in history.


William Whitehead has gained a wide reputation for his engaging and inspiring interpretation of the organ repertoire. His concert career was given a boost when he won first prize at the Odense International organ competition in Denmark, 2004. Since then he has travelled widely giving concerts in Europe and the United States. Recent venues include The Royal Festival Hall, London (his debut at this venue), Westminster Cathedral, The Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms, and Berlin Dom. A recorded artist on dozens of discs, he is most recently to be heard as organ soloist in Handel's Op. 7, No. 1 Organ Concerto with the Gabrieli Consort and Players (Winged Lion label). His work as a continuo player brings him together with groups such as the Gabrieli Consort, the Dunedin Consort, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Proms 2019). 2015's Proms saw him appear with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Trained at Oxford University and the Royal Academy of Music, William Whitehead is now a sought after organ teacher, teaching many students at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Previously he has held appointments as Assistant Organist, Rochester Cathedral, and Director of Music at St Mary's Bourne Street, and is now the Associate Organist of Lincoln's Inn in London. He has been a professor at both the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity College of Music. As curator of The Orgelbüchlein Project, William Whitehead is seeing through a large-scale project to "complete" Bach's unfinished collection. This international project has already garnered much interest and is fast becoming a cross-section of the most interesting composers at work today.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.