Composer interview: Alan Bullard

Distinguished Colchester-based composer Alan Bullard discusses composing for organ, and the role of the Moot Hall Organ in the musical life of Colchester.

What was your first encounter with the Moot Hall Organ? What would you say are the distinctive features of its current configuration?

I first encountered the Moot Hall Organ in the later 1970s: the Borough Organist was Leonard Simpson, and he gave monthly lunchtime recitals, sometimes with guests, as happens again today. I remember taking part in one, accompanying (on the piano) a soprano called Una Barry, who now works in Yorkshire. Of course, there was a long period between then and now when the organ was out of action, and I don’t remember it well enough to be able to say how different it is today, though I know that some of the later additions have been removed as part of the restoration to its original configuration, which thus enables us to hear what a civic organ would have sounded like 120 years ago.

Have you ever been an organist yourself?

No, and I don’t really know why, as I must have had opportunities over the years, as I’ve played the piano all my life and been involved with church music. I think it may have been that I didn’t relish practising in a cold, dark church! However, because I write a lot of music for choirs, including church music, people tend to assume that I am an organist: and also, a few years ago I was asked to contribute some pieces to various Oxford University Press organ collections. So I thought it was about time I found out more about it, and bought myself a very nice home classical organ, two manuals and pedal, with physically modelled sounds which are very realistic. So although I still wouldn’t call myself an organist, I feel much closer to the instrument, and my feet sometimes know what they are doing…..

What are the relative attractions of the piano and the organ to a composer?

That’s an interesting question. Actually, as a pianist, I haven’t written anything like as much music for solo piano as I have for some other instruments, (though I’m trying to redress that at present) and I actually find it harder to write for the piano. I think this may be because, having studied so much of the piano repertoire, it’s slightly more difficult to be original with so many existing patterns under one’s fingers! It may also be that there is less demand from publishers or performers for my piano music than for music for some other instruments, except for easier educational piano pieces for which there is a consistent need. So writing for the organ has two advantages: firstly there is more of a demand from players and publishers for new organ music, and secondly, because I don’t play it very well, I can approach it in a way that helps me be more creative. That point is perhaps borne out by the fact that some of my most successful instrumental pieces are for instruments that I can’t play at all!

Given the need of the performer to orchestrate a piece to suit each individual organ, is the organist the composer’s best friend, or their worst enemy?

A tricky point. Some organist-composers (Messiaen springs to mind) really think orchestrally, and annotate their scores with a great many stop and manual changes. But of course as a result organists playing it on anything other than Messiaen’s own Sainte-Trinité organ in Paris, have to do a lot of adaptation to suit their own instrument and still realise the composer’s intentions. Most composers of the British tradition are much sparser in their markings, indicating the type of stop needed rather than being too specific, and this enables the organist to choose the most appropriate stops. However, in either case, the composer is rather more at the mercy of the performer than with many other instruments or ensembles. From a composer’s point of view, this could lead either to nice surprises, or to some disappointment. Hopefully, more of the former.

When composing for the organ, is it most useful to think of it as a keyboard instrument, a wind instrument, or even an ensemble of different instruments?

Both a keyboard instrument and an orchestra. One of my favourite organ textures is a solo stop (clarinet, for instance) accompanied by flute or string chords – and although of course none of these descriptors are the same as the instruments after which the stops are named, one is thinking orchestrally to an extent. In fact, if I ever had time, it would be fun to arrange some of my orchestral pieces for it.

What are the possibilities for a composer in writing for an organ in a purely secular space?

There are perhaps fewer possibilities than when the Moot Hall organ was first installed. In the 1900s most towns had ‘secular’ organs which, in the absence of recordings, were able to broadly replicate anything from popular songs to symphonies. Today, though it’s lovely to hear these organ transcriptions, some might say that there is less need for them. But there are a number of composers today writing secular organ music, and organists specialising in playing them, and I think there is something of a resurgence of interest in the organ as a secular instrument.

What role should the Moot Hall and its organ play in the musical life of Colchester?

The Moot Hall has played a pivotal role in the life of Colchester for nearly 1000 years. I note from the ‘Visit Colchester’ website that the first Moot Hall was built in 1160 (possibly replacing an earlier one), then another one in 1844. The present building, and the organ, date from around 1900, so it’s lasted better than the previous one. Not only does it house the council chambers – a place of important decisions – but increasingly its beautiful rooms are used for civic occasions, concerts, weddings, graduation ceremonies, and many other functions. The organ has an important role to play in all this: just as some would see the organ as the ‘soul’ of a church or cathedral, along with the altar and the tower or spire, so can the Moot Hall organ, along with the tower, be seen as the ‘soul’ of the town. And even better, unlike most church organs, the player is in full view! Even though there have been a few teething troubles since the restoration of the organ, it is lovely to see it being used again, not only in Colchester’s various ceremonies, but in public concerts of many kinds. So I imagine that the role of the organ in the Moot Hall hasn’t changed significantly from when it was installed in 1902, and I feel that is probably as it should be. And the more that it is used, the more that it will inspire people to play – and write for – this mighty instrument.

Alan Bullard‘s music is performed and broadcast world-wide and appears on many CDs and publishers’ lists. He has composed in most genres, for both amateurs and professionals. He is currently editing a new collection of secular choral songs for Oxford University Press, and has recently undertaken commissions for new pieces for Colchester Choral Society and the Childrens’ Chorus of Greater Dallas, USA.

After many years of teaching Alan now works as a full-time composer, and he is also an examiner for ABRSM. He has lived in East Anglia for over forty years.

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