Organist interview: Ian Ray

Hon Borough Organist Ian Ray shares his memories of the Moot Hall Organ, thoughts about the role of a Borough Organist, town hall repertoire and the musical life of the Moot Hall.

Ian Ray Borough Organist since 1988
Ian Ray
Borough Organist since 1988

When and where did you first start playing the organ?

I started playing the organ when I was about 12 years old growing up in Dedham. We had moved there from North London where I had been born at the end of the Second World War. My father ran the hardware store in the village and I learnt to play on the organ in the Congregational Church at the bottom of the High Street where my Great Grandfather had been organist. The church is now an Arts and Craft Centre and the organ has been removed.

What was your first experience of the Moot Hall Organ?

I first saw the organ when I was about 8 years old as a pupil at the Dedham C of E Primary School. The occasion was a festival of folk dance that the school was taking part in which was being held in the Moot Hall. I remember being impressed by the magnificent organ case and the (to me) huge beautiful front pipes, although my biggest memory of the occasion was the sense of relief we all felt when, under the enthusiastic direction of the Head Mistress, we managed to manoeuvre the school’s may pole up the stairs without decapitating the statue of Queen Victoria on the landing! However I did not actually hear the organ until I was 14 years old singing as a member of the Gilberd School Choir in one of the Saturday afternoon recitals that Leonard W. Simpson my predecessor as Hon Borough Organist organised in the Moot Hall.

After the recent refurbishment, has the instrument turned out as you expected?

During the planning of the project I had to came to terms with the fact that the character of the restored organ was going to be altered in order to fulfil the requirements necessary to receive money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The condition of receiving the funding was that the organ should be restored to the original specification and this necessitated losing some of the bright mutation registers on the choir which had been introduced during Leonard Simpson’s tenure as organist and which I had found particularly helpful in giving the necessary clarity without resorting to increased volume.

The plus of the restorations on the choir organ is that we have a delightful flute, a beautiful clarinet and a sensuous string register, though it has to be said that in my opinion the dulciana on the choir is a complete waste of space! Overall it has been a great thrill to hear this magnificent organ making music again in the generous acoustic of the beautiful Edwardian Moot Hall after a ten year silence. Inevitably in a major rebuild of as complex an instrument as a pipe organ, particularly one using a somewhat archaic action, so far we have had our share of frustrating faults as the organ beds down and recovers from major surgery. Hopefully these will soon be a thing of the past.

What is the role of a Borough Organist, and what is the significance of a town hall organ in civic and local cultural life?

As far as the Borough Council is concerned the role of the Borough Organist is to play for the two most important civic occasions each year – the Annual Mayor Making Ceremony in May and the Famous Oyster Feast in October. However there are other civic events which involve the organist including secular civic funerals, the making of Honorary Aldermen, the installation of High Stewards and at the other end of the scale playing camp fire music for cub scout sit-ins.

In Colchester there has been a tradition of these and other significant occasions being enhanced and given a sense of occasion which adding some organ music is frequently effective at achieving.

Is there a particular repertoire associated with town hall organs, as opposed to that typically encountered in churches and cathedrals?

Well, as one would expect for civic occasions which frequently involve processions, marches are a significant part of the repertoire and generally I try to avoid really ‘churchy’ chorale based music which will have unfortunate ‘religioso’ associations for some people. I am also always keen to avoid the pomposity with which organ music is associated. In previous eras a lot of transcriptions of orchestral music were played, since very often in the era before recorded music, the town hall organ recital was the only chance for the population to enjoy this music. Nowadays, when the vast majority of the population have access to recorded music through CDs and Youtube, I don’t see much artistic justification for continuing to distort the subtleties of orchestral music by playing it on the organ! At a recent performance of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March by period instruments I was reminded once again how delightful Mendelssohn’s orchestrations are and how inadequate the organ is as a vehicle for this music.

During the activities around the recommissioning, you advised on the Pipeworks competition for new organ works. What advice would you give to composers considering writing for the organ – both the one in the Moot Hall, and organs in general?

Well the important thing is to keep it simple and coherent. The worst sort of organ compositions are those in which the aim is apparently to demonstrate how many different sounds an organ can make or how many different things an organist can do at one moment in time. Remember merely because it is possible does not necessarily make it desirable artistically! The essential thing is that the musical ideas work for the comparatively inflexible quality of organ sound – tonal gradation within a phrase, such as virtually all other instruments can give is not available to an organist who is limited to shaping a phrase by merely shortening or lengthening the sound. This could be the reason why the clavichord was said to be Bach’s favourite keyboard instrument rather than the more powerful organ. A wise cellist friend of mine when asked if he had enjoyed an organ recital he had attended said characteristically directly, ‘Well it would have been quite enjoyable if the organist had not kept changing the stops all the time!’

How would you like to see musical activities develop at the Moot Hall?

The exciting thing since the opening of the restored organ has been, thanks in no small part to the support of Councillor Nigel Chapman and his wife Mary and the town hall staff, the successful establishment of lunch time organ recitals on the first Tuesday of the month. These have been consistently well attended and the generous gift of a splendid new grand piano by Councillor Nick Cope has enabled us to make these programmes more varied and appealing to a wider audience. I am keen to involve more children from local schools who I hope may well be pleased to come and perform in their choirs and ensembles. This will give them a chance to hear the Moot Hall organ and even more importantly see their magnificent Town Hall which hopefully will enhance their feeling for being part of a community.


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