Organist interview: Colin Nicholson

Colin Nicholson has been a leading figure in Colchester’s musical scene over several decades as an organist, conductor and composer. Starting off at Colchester’s Royal Grammar School, he went on to study with Herbert Howells and Harold Darke at the Royal College of Music, returning to Colchester to teach and ultimately spending 20 years as Head of Music at his old school. He co-founded St Botolph’s Music Society in 1966. After serving as Director of Music at St Botolph’s Church for over sixty years, Colin finally retired in 2018.

When and where did you start playing the organ?

I started playing the organ when I was a choir boy at St. Botolph’s. A few minutes snatched, with permission of the organist, after the service. My favourite trick was to compose a short piece (hymn or psalm chant) during the sermon, having smuggled paper and pencil in the sleeves of my surplice, and then to ask if I could try the piece over on the organ.

I began playing for services from the age of 13 and took up the post of full time organist at St. Martin’s church from about the age of 14.

I was self taught at this time. I always loved the sound of the organ from my early days at St. Botolph’s. On several occasions during the war, when the electricity failed, I helped keep the sound alive by hand- pumping the instrument (an electric blower was fitted but the hand pump was still in situ).

At 16 I had lessons for about 9 months from Mr. Kingdon at St.Mary at the Walls (a much more modern instrument with 3 manuals, pneumatic action and thumb pistons). I then went to the Royal College of Music full time but still living at home in Colchester. Practice was either at St. Mary’s or at St. Botolph’s (Tracker action, very much in need of restoration) but I always preferred the sound of the St. Botolph’s instrument and building.

Was the organ your first instrument, or did you progress to it from other things?

Usual progression… piano to organ.

As the organist down the road at St Botolph’s, how do the Moot Hall Organ and the one at Botolph’s compare? What are their particular strengths, and do they suit different types of repertoire?

They are very different instruments, St. Botolph’s (Walker 1890) having a major rebuild in 1966 whilst the Moot Hall (Norman and Beard 1902) has been restored nearly to its original state.

At St. Botolph’s we aimed to build on the strengths of the original instrument which we had begun to modify in the 1950s, to produce an organ which could cope with a wide range of music, but particularly aiming at the Baroque repertoire. We had to make some compromises but in fact the instrument can cope with most things and sounds splendid in the acoustic.

The restored Moot Hall instrument is firmly set in Romantic mode and earlier styles present some difficulties.

The concert in 2016 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the St Botolph’s Music Society comprised much of the music performed at the Society’s first ever concert in 1966. Did you find that your taste in organ music or indeed concert programming had shifted since that original concert?

There has been a huge shift in both organ music and in programme content and things are still shifting. There is always new music to be discovered, whether new in terms of contemporary or new discoveries of earlier music now available through reprints etc. There is no end to the process.

Since your composition studies with Howells at the Royal College of Music, how have your decades as an organist shaped your views on composing for organ?

I have, in fact, composed very little for the organ, as I concentrate on vocal music – most of that being for church use. The pieces that I have written have an open, linear texture rather than chords.

St Botolph’s is heavily used for organ teaching locally. Is it harder to attract and bring on young organists in a town without a cathedral?

More correct to say ‘it used to be used’… The supply of organists / organ pupils is a mere trickle and this is reflected widely.

I would rephrase your question to end ‘in a church without a choir’. Most pupils began as choristers but choirs are sadly depleted at the moment. The commitment needed to maintain a regularly performing choir or undertake duties as organist … these are not fashionable things today.

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