Episode 133: Royal Festival Hall’s Organ

Today’s episode is about celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall’s pipe organ. Joining me today is James McVinnie,  who begins his Southbank Centre Residency with not one, but two concerts, including music by JS Bach. He will shed light on the instrument’s profound historical significance and its pivotal role in shaping the organ music scene in London and beyond.

As we explore the organ’s origins in the post-Second World War era, we’ll uncover how its design and Ralph Downes’s vision mirrored the cultural and musical transformations of the time.

Other music-themed London History podcast episodes:

Episode 89: Thomas Arne in Covent Garden

Episode 57: Gerald Coke Handle Collection

Episode 29: Harp Makers in Fitzrovia

More about Southbank Centre and the Festival of Britain:

Episode 54: Festival of Britain



Hazel Baker: James, very warm, welcome to you.

James McVinnie: Hi. Thank you very much.

Hazel Baker: Now you are starting a residency at the South Bank Center celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall Organ. So could you possibly share with us the historical significance of this organ and also how it’s maybe influenced the landscape of organ music in London and beyond?

James McVinnie: Yeah, this is a great question and complicated one to answer really. But I got two concerts coming up in March when I was putting together the programs , for both of them, I was kind of just trying to think back to what the designer of this instrument would’ve been trying to do in 1951 which is when the hall opened and in fact, the organ was built in the intervening years and, and finally came into being in 1954. The organ was built by and designed by a man called Rafe Downs. Who was kind of a bit of an outsider to the musical establishment. He was an organist himself but wasn’t from the Cathedral tradition. He was the organist of Brompton Oratory which is a Catholic church and had spent some time in America.

So, he was very much interested in the music from the golden era of Composition for the organ. So that’s the 17th and 18th centuries in Central Europe, really the organ tradition that kind of culminated in the music of Johan Sebastian Bach, and the organ at this point in the 20th century, in the fifties, you know, post-war. Was a completely different kind of beast. So the organ in the Albert Hall is a kind of very good example of how organ building was at that time. Bachand they had been developed in this country in the 19th century to be. Kind of vehicles for the Industrial Revolution in a way.

They were technologically more advanced than the instruments that Bach would’ve known. And certainly quite a lot louder. And were designed really to explore the. Kind of orchestrally conceived music that was being written in the 19th and 20th centuries. So they wanted to build an organ in the New South Bank Center that would be forward looking to the future.

However, Ralph Downes his approach was to actually, Rafe Down’s vision for this organ was that it should look back, in fact, 200 years and be a kind of snapshot of organs that would have been known to Bach and his contemporaries. Bachthe kind of, the implication was that organ building had. It Took a bit of a wrong turn in the 19th and 20th centuries. And indeed, if you try to play Bach’s music on a big romantic 19th century organ, it’s a wonderful experience in some respects, but it’s not the ideal kind of treatment that brings the music alive. So this organ really kind of was a very unusual addition to the musical landscape of London. And yeah, I mean, it’s a wonderful instrument as well, and it’s a great instrument for contemporary music as well. So the first concert I’m playing in in March is a concert of the kind of Bach and North German contemporaries and the kind of period that leads up to Bach and then the second concert I’m playing is kind of looking ahead to the future, and this piece by Tristan Perch, which we’ll come onto I’m sure in a, in a, in a minute.

Hazel Baker: So you mentioned about well really the aftermath of the second World War and the organ being designed then now, how did that design and also the vision of Ralph Downs, how did that reflect the immediate culture and also the music shifts at that time?

James McVinnie: The organ music at that point was slightly set apart from the early music revival that had been happening in America and in Europe. So right from the 1920s in Germany and France to a certain extent. And also in America people were beginning to be. Aware of a kind of historically informed way of going about performing this music. So and this of course happened a little bit later in England, but you know, by the sixties and the seventies we were performing Bach on period instruments. So that hadn’t really happened by 1950. I mean, you just have to remember that, you know, London would’ve been completely destroyed by. The blitz and the memories of the blitz would’ve been really still very prescient.

Rationing was still very much a thing, maybe not by 1954, but there was a great sort of political statement made by the government at the time, which said that there should be a new concert hall for 3000 people that would’ve been a kind of way of uplifting people. And to replace the Queen’s Hall that had been destroyed in 1941.

The music at Establishment, I think probably wanted an organ that would do what it had done in the first part of the 20th century. That’s to say support mass singing of Handles, Messiah, like the town hall tradition and an organ on which you could perform orchestral music. And indeed, it’s interesting to think back to the 19th century where certainly the town hall tradition with organists playing music by Wagner et cetera, et cetera, those great big Germanic romantic orchestral pieces, would’ve come to an English. A pair of ears through organ transcriptions.

So Ray Downes was trying to do something completely different. He had a kind of foresight that said that the organs that he wanted to design and build would go back to this golden era of organ composition. And, and that sort of making a kind of philosophical statement about what the organ should be and the kind of idealised music. And I mean, I’m, I’m of the opinion that, it doesn’t really get very much better than.

Music by Bach

in general, but certainly for the organ. So it’s wonderful to have an instrument in London still today, in 2024, where you can perform this music and contrapuntal music to kind of idealise standard.

Hazel Baker: Mm. I think it’s also worth considering really the space in which it’s in as well. So I’ve sang with the organ at the royal Albert Hall. But that is such a vast space, isn’t it?

James McVinnie: Yeah, it’s, it’s yeah, the Albert Hall and of course organs are generally. Tend to be heard in big cathedral spaces. And, you know, simple, Paul’s cathedral is a kind of ultimate example of that, where, you know, you lift your hands off the keys and the cord carries on for another 10 seconds. So the festival hall organ, I mean the acoustic in that hall is famously dry.and the hall was refurbished in the early two thousands, and in fact is much more generous certainly to the, the tenor and the bass registers of the of, of music making. But there’s a real kind of clinical detail that you can get from listening to music. That’s one of the things I I love about the organ in there.

I mean, it, it, it, it makes up for the lack of kind of thrilling acoustic with this I idea of detail and the detail that you can get both in terms of the pictures of the notes you’re playing, but also the rhythms. So if you’re playing messian music, for instance, on the festival hall organ, you, you hear detail that you. Really don’t hear in the, in the, in the great big acoustic spaces of a great cathedral. Of course there are that. It’s, it’s give and take. I mean, you, you, you, you lose a certain amount of ambience when you are in that very clinical environment. But it’s certainly nice to have that as an option.

Hazel Baker: And something else that you’ve said as well was about wanting to be uplifted in a way when an organ’s played in such a, say, a clinical setting, it really fills all of that space. It doesn’t expand beyond the walls. It’s, you are living in it, your whole body is filled with the vibrations, and, and that’s in itself uplifting.

James McVinnie: Absolutely. Yeah. And of course at the festival hall you are right next to the organ. You are, you are, you know, you could almost reach out and touch the, the pedal pipes high-pitched pedal pipes that are right above

your head. You get an incredibly thrilling ride at that place in the hall.

And I, I always wish that. It’d be possible to have the audience right up there hearing the concert from the organ bench, it’s a really thrilling, thrilling experience.

Hazel Baker: Yeah, a lot more intimate experience.

James McVinnie: Hmm. Yeah.

Hazel Baker: Now looking, looking at your repertoire, by golly, I mean it’s diverse, isn’t it? I mean, you’re not, I mean, you mentioned your Bach, but you’re all over the place in, in the best way possible. So you’re stretching Bach’s golden age. You’re looking at contemporary works as well. I mean, how do you approach that challenge of bridging very different times in space and also, very different musical epochs in your performances. How do you, how do you go about that?

James McVinnie: Yeah, I mean, that’s a hard question to answer. I mean, I. I, I don’t ever think of myself as a specialist. But I should also say that there are certain parts of the repertoire that I feel less conversant with. I mean, I, I don’t tend to play early French music from the 17th and 18th centuries, which is a very sort of specialised organ, part of the repertoire. But yeah, I mean, the new music I performed, sort of most often now, over the last kind of decade really. I mean, that’s been a result of a real sense of exploration. And the great thing about commissioning music and having composers write for you is that you know, you have the authority, you are given the authority to bring. Music into the world. And of course there will be subsequent interpretations of that. But to be able to kind of draw a line in the sand and, and sort of say, this is how I think this should go, is an incredible privilege as well. Especially if you are, if I’m performing with an another ensemble or a group of instruments, like a big concerto

performance. Yeah, My approach is always to try to get to the heart of the music as, as closely as possible, just in exactly the same way that you would do with Bach or Stain Link or, early music, like I’m playing in March in the 2:00 PM concert. To try to get to that level of knowledge and sort of conversancy with the repertoire that’s new and that doesn’t have any recordings to, to, to reference or, or kind of any tradition. So yeah, it’s, it’s challenging and, and feel like I, I’d never quite have enough time to get to the bottom of a piece or rather, you know, it’s always nice to come back to performances andBach however far you get for the premier, there’s always so much, much further to go. So, yeah, it’s it’s, it’s challenging, but it’s great fun as well.

Hazel Baker: I think that’s part of that living experience. You know, you’re always going to be continually learning and developing as an individual performer anyway. It’s worthwhile really busting the myth of organ music. Not just being for the past,

James McVinnie: That’s a comment which is often made about organ music. And my sort of sense is that, knowing all of the early music in the way that I do, I always have the sense that the organ somehow has been a tremendous inspiration. As an instrument for whoever’s writing it. So such a strange instrument as well, and it’s really despite the technological sort of advances that I was talking about in the 19th century before, really the organ has kind of remained unchanged as an instrument since the 15th and 16th

centuries. The way that we control them is sort of advanced and, you know, the festival hall organ for instance, it has electric action. But if you, if you have a mechanical action instrument, you know, they really haven’t, the organs haven’t really changed that much in the, in the, in the in a way that the piano has changed, you know, that the keyboard family has advanced and the violin family has, has changed. So I think that. Music has always

seemed new. but I mean, just going back to your specific points, I’ve always loved working with composers, and composers have always been incredibly, taken by the organ and the possibilities that it presents, and they’ve always been completely sort of bowled over by what it can do. So working with living and breathing human beings to bring new art into the world has I. I guess has really influenced my appreciation of music from different times in different centuries. So there’s a kind of freshness that you get from an approach to playing Bach, for instance. So I always try to make my Bach playing sound like the music was just, just written, written yesterday. It’s hard, hard to do that with his most famous works. But yeah, working in contemporary music has helped my repertoire playing beyond all measure really, I think.

Hazel Baker: I think working with composers is so important, especially, when writing for a particular instrument. Being also a trombone player. Sometimes I really want to get the throat of some composer going, what were you doing?

James McVinnie: yeah. I mean, occasionally I. If I come across new music that I haven’t had a hand in, in the compositional process, I look at the score and I’ll think, okay, I, I know what the composer’s after here. I. But the way that they’ve gone about notating or actually choosing the notes is just not ideal. And I think there’s, you know, there’s lots that composers can learn from performers and, and vice versa, of course. But yes, I agree.

Hazel Baker: So if we’re continuing our conversation about the future really with organ music

James McVinnie: I’m never as aware of the kind of long-term effects of these new pieces as perhaps other people looking at them from the outside are, I mean, I, I don’t I mean, a lot of. A lot of what’s been said about the work that I do has been to kind of diversify and to bring the organ to a wider audience.

I mean, that’s obviously a great, a great thing and I’m, I’m not saying that I’m not doing that, but I, I’ve really always been interested in the work and sort of creating a repertoire that kind of is. Conversant with my own musical tastes. And that comes from a kind of sense of not dissatisfaction with the organ repertoire, I’ve always enjoyed working with composers as we’ve just talked about, but I think that in terms of the future of. Organ music. I mean, the legacy of great pieces of music, speaks for itself. And, if this body of work helps to shift the trajectory of the composition for the instrument, then that’s great, I think that I mean, just going back to what I was saying about composers always being really interested in the organ. I tend to work with composers from American backgrounds or I mean American composers or, or composers that write in a kind of American music style. I’ve always been very taken with music by Philip Glass and Steve Reich. And have been working with the sort of generation below, you know, my generation composers. There are two things to say really. I mean, fir, firstly there’s the. There’s the organ music being influenced by their kind of musical ecosystem and their ecosystem being influenced by the organ itself. And I like to think that there’s, you know, there’s something there for both sides. 

A lot of new music and synthesised music. You know, electronic music is written for instruments that have their models in pipe organ. Systems. So the synthesiser, the original kind of synthesiser takes, it’s kind of, you know, its genesis comes from, from a kind of pipe. Pipe organ model. So that’s been really fascinating and, and Tristan Pert who has written this piece, infinity Gradient is very much from an electronic music background, but he himself is an organist and knows the pipe organ instinctively well as well. So there’s a nice dialogue there with that project.

Hazel Baker: If we are thinking about the wider world ’cause you’ve clocked up your air miles, you’ve gone across the uk, Europe, and of course America and you’re expanding this, this, this ever expanding breadth of organ repertoire. It’s growing Now. How do you see your role in. Evolving the public perception of the organ.’cause it’s a little bit different. Whereas you can’t take the organ around with you.

James McVinnie: That’s what makes the organ so special. I mean, you are going into a space and, you know, having said what we said about the, you know, the rather clinical acoustic of the festival hall, but you know, there, even there, you know, your sense, the sense is that the whole hall is part of the instrument.

I mean, Gillian Weir talked about this, a wonderful organist. I remember her talking about this on the South Bank Show with Melvin Bragg in the early two thousands. And, and I, I heard her say this when I was sort of 17 or 18. It really kind of made a huge impression on meBach where she said that, you know, the instrument is the room, or the room is the instrument.

So, she was at San Police playing some Messian, a great big, huge church in Paris. And she let her hands you know, release from the keys and you know, the sound goes on for. Seven or eight seconds and it, there is that sense of bringing an audience into a very specific space and the instrument is custom made for that space as well, which is unlike any other instrument in the kind of classical music field. And concert halls tend to be, you know, you place an orchestra in that hall and of course concert halls often have their own acoustic you know, senses of identity. I mean, the conser in Amsterdam. You know, is thought of as being one of the very greatest and has an identity of itself. But yeah, I mean it’s, I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to perform a lot of this music to great crowds and audiences who are. Inquisitive and interested and open to these new works. I guess it becomes a responsibility for the legacy of the instrument that I feel quite strongly. And at the end of the day, the only thing that you can do is play music that merits being listened to. There’s a lot of music which is worth listening to. So yes, absolutely.

Hazel Baker: I’ve got a question for, I suppose, the youngsters. So what advice would you give to young musicians as you and I have both been looking to explore the organ and also its potential in contemporary music? What advice would you give them?

James McVinnie: I think it’s so important to try to find your own musical community.The world is, I. You know, social media has changed the world out of all existence, and the world now is smaller than it ever was. I mean, people are connected in, in ways in which they just never were, certainly weren’t when I was a teenager. I just encourage everyone to harness that and to use that to, to, to their advantage and. Find, try to find musical kindred spirits. And I mean, this is a hugely complex thing to talk about, especially in our own political climate here where we are under such an incredibly depressing set of artistic constraints and with funding and, you know, it’s really, really difficult. And, you know, the provision of music in schools is really shockingly low. So it is a really tough, it’s a, it’s a tough thing to try to find your own community when you don’t have there’s not even pro provision in schools.But if you are someone that is interested in contemporary music and, and interested in. In carving out a career for yourself in music, I would try to find composers and composers always need performers to play their music. I mean, Nico Neely speaks very eloquently about this. You know, find your own musical community and write for your friends. You know, write music and put on your own concerts and, you know, create opportunities for the work as much as possible. I know that’s a tough thing to do because everything costs money, but I. It’s remarkable what a kind of sense of shared ownership of music can give you and a kind of sense of identity in the world. And it is possible to create some really beautiful things and also the way that streaming works now. I mean, you can put out into the world anything that you want musically. I guess what I’m trying to say is try to make your own party and and, and live in your own musical ecosystem as much as possible.

Hazel Baker: And Wise words. Now I’ve got a question for you. Have you played Henry at London Bridge Station?

James McVinnie: I, I actually haven’t, so I was going to go, I was going to try and go with my very wonderful friend, Claire Singer, who is the organist and music director at the Union Chapel who’s been there to the London Bridge organ, but I haven’t yet that it was behind. We tried to go, but it was behind closed doors and they were, they were, the barriers were up, so we couldn’t get to it, which was sad, but yes, I would love to at one point.

Hazel Baker: Excellent. It’s always nice hearing a little bit of pipe organ as I walk through London Bridge station.

James McVinnie: Yeah, exactly. It’s so weird, isn’t it?

Hazel Baker: Tell us a little bit about your upcoming performances.

James McVinnie: I’ve got two concerts at the festival hall on the same day which is a slightly mad thing to do, but I, I always like a challenge. So I’m playing at 2:00 PM on the 23rd of March. This is a weekend of celebrations around the Royal Festival Hall organ 70th birthday. And there are family oriented events in the foyer and some demonstrations of, organs et cetera, et cetera. And then I’m playing at two o’clock. I’m playing a wonderful selection of early music. I mean, it looks quite esoteric on paper, but I can assure everyone this is gonna be a great, very kind of easy listening experience with some wonderful, very approachable music. Even though the list of composers might seem a little bit daunting. Again,I’m kind of doing a bit of a deep dive into repertoire that would’ve been. Absolutely kind of current in the 17th and 18th centuries Bach and then culminating in some music by Bach at the end of the concert, and then at eight o’clock I’ve got the UK Premier of Tristan Parish’s Infinity Gradient, which is a wonderful hour long tour de force by Tristan for organ and 100 speakers. And yeah, it’s, it’s a wonderful experience to, to, to listen to that music in the, in the seats of the festival hall. It’s gonna be amazing.

Hazel Baker: Fantastic. Thank you very much, James. Lovely.

James McVinnie: Thank you very much indeed.

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