An interview with Colin Walsh, Organist Laureate, Lincoln Cathedral

July 31, 2019

Lorraine Brugh was recently resident director of Valparaiso University’s Study Centre in Cambridge, England. She is professor of music and the Frederick J. Kruse Organ Fellow at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana.

This interview took place October 17, 2018, at Westfield House of Theological Studies in Cambridge, England.

Lorraine Brugh: I’m interested in your visits to Cambridge and what your work is here.

Colin Walsh: I teach the two organ scholars at Trinity College. I work with them both on solo repertoire and also the accompaniments. In some ways, the accompaniments are the most important thing at Trinity, as they have to accompany that choir under the direction of Stephen Layton. Of course, the playing has to be right for the choir to be able to perform at a high standard. I teach on the fine Metzler instrument, which doesn’t lend itself to all literature, so there are compromises that have to be made.

Is it a tracker organ?

Yes, it’s built as a classical instrument, so some of the Romantic repertoire needs quite a bit of thinking through. I use my experience to try and influence these youngsters to find the best solution.

Do you spend much time working on registration?

Yes, quite a bit of that. Of course, the organ is very different from King’s College. King’s is one of the finest organs for accompaniment there is. Trinity was really designed for Bach and his contemporaries, so that takes time to adjust. I like to think that I’m not dogmatic in my teaching. These are bright students who have their own ideas. I like to ask them to justify what they are doing. If I think they are playing something in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with, I would ask if they think that is the right approach. If they think it is, then I would try to work with their idea.

I think that’s where American teaching would be somewhat different. We wouldn’t tend to be so kind.

They are Cambridge undergraduates. They have quick brains, so they soak it up quickly. Of course, debate and justification are very much the modus operandi here. One must believe in the way they are playing.

Who were your significant teachers?

Nicholas Danby, who was at the Royal Academy and taught me at Oxford, Jean Langlais, and Simon Preston. I learned the French repertoire from Langlais and, in part, from Danby. Guy Weitz, who had been a student of Widor, taught Nicholas Danby, so there is another connection with France.

So what inspired you to study with Langlais?

It was Nicholas Danby. I’d been to Notre-Dame and heard Pierre Cochereau, and his playing had a dramatic effect on me. Danby knew I liked all this French repertoire and wanted to study it with someone in France, and he suggested Langlais.

I’ve always enjoyed travelling. I’m going to Germany tomorrow. As long as I get to Luton airport in time, I’ll be in Berlin tomorrow night. Then on Friday morning I’ll take a train to Leipzig, then to Zwickau for a recital on Sunday, which is where Schumann was born, a couple hours from Leipzig.

Anything else you’d like to say about Cambridge?

It’s always a joy to hear the Cambridge choirs when I’m here. Yesterday, for example, I went to the first part of Evensong at King’s, then caught part of Trinity, then ended at St. John’s College.

There is such a confluence of people and excellence here.

Indeed.

I know of you most from Lincoln Cathedral. I enjoyed one of your recitals there. Can you talk about the position, and what the organist laureate entails?

I’ve been there for thirty years. I went as organist and master of the choristers. In 2002 I became organist laureate; I’m there as the organist and have the freedom to be an ambassador for the cathedral, to give concerts at home and abroad, make recordings, and teach in Cambridge.

I do have a regular playing schedule. I spend half of my time in Lincoln and half in other places. In Lincoln we have two treasures; the cathedral is one of the finest religious buildings in the world. Every time I get back to it, I realize it is really special. The other treasure is the Father Willis organ, which you heard in all its glory. I never tire of it. It has such a deep and rich quality.

Father Willis knew that building, and it’s interesting, having worked in Salisbury, which is also a Father Willis, how different those two instruments are. I’ve always thought the Salisbury organ has a more vertical sound, much like the building itself. It was also built twenty years earlier than Lincoln. For me it has a lighter and more classical sound.

Lincoln Cathedral is a big, solid mass of stone, very wide with those huge towers. It is a much broader, reed-based organ.

Do you think he had those ideas in mind with the two organs?

Yes, I think he did. Lincoln needs the weight of the reeds and foundations to project the sound into the building.

And also the 16′s and 32′s?

Yes, there are two 32′s. At the concert you attended I had some choir men singing the plainsong in the Dupré pieces. They were hiding away in the triforium. I love accompanying in that building. The choir is good and fun to work with.

You’ve done some recordings at Lincoln. Let’s talk about recordings.

I have been involved in recordings beginning with Simon Preston during my time at Christ Church, Oxford. I noticed this week that the Archive of English Cathedral Music has put up on YouTube a 1977 recording called Romantic Choral Classics. I listened to some of it the other day, and the choir was so good, so virile, so energetic. When the choir went down to pianissimo the intensity was still there. It was something special, and it’s a great joy to see it now available to all again.

I recorded at Salisbury with the wonderful choir there, and that is where I made my first solo organ recordings with Priory Records. I did two recordings of French organ music with them in 1984. I was in Salisbury from 1978 to 1985.

Then at St. Albans I made another recording for Priory, Vierne’s First Symphony and the Duruflé Suite. At Lincoln I’ve done several recordings, some of the organ and some of the choir, and one that came out in August 2018 of J. S. Bach. I wanted to do something that showed that Bach can work well on a cathedral organ. Bach works well on the Trinity Metzler, but it’s very different when played in a cathedral on an electro-pneumatic action.

Last July I recorded at Saint-Ouen, Rouen, a Cavaillé-Coll that I believe is one of the finest organs in the world. I recorded all the Dupré Antiphons, opus 18, part of which you heard in Lincoln.

Do you think there is a future for organ recordings?

Who knows? It’s a different commercial world than it was thirty years ago.

I started working with Priory and they are still releasing new recordings. Recordings have been a big part of my career, and there are others being planned at the moment.

There was one recording I did with Priory that came out by accident four years ago. We make a recording of all recitals at the cathedral, primarily for our archive, and also so that a visiting organist can have a recording of their recital—a sort of souvenir of their time in Lincoln. I played Messiaen, La Nativité du Seigneur, which I do every Christmas, and the 2014 version was recorded and is now available on the Priory catalog.

They took it more or less live?

Yes, we just retook a couple moments to eradicate “noises off.” Overall I think it captures the atmosphere of a live performance.

Isn’t it also a problem for students, who listen to these perfect and edited recordings, and think that’s the level at which they should play.

There are plenty of people who can play all the right notes in all the right order. I don’t always want that. If there are one or two small accidents I don’t think that matters as long as they are making music. One also needs energy, drive, and danger. It’s what I call “letting the dogs off the lead.” There are times in a performance when one can change gear and go with the moment. I do like to light the fire sometimes and let it happen. It’s a wonderful feeling when you get this.

That’s also a way students can use their adrenaline, I believe. They’ve got all this energy, and they can put it into anxiety and nerves, or they can channel it for the performance.

Yes, that’s it, this channeling. Use this tension in a big space for the music. We’ve had some fabulous recitals over the years—Daniel Roth, Olivier Latry, Philippe Lefebvre. It is often the ones who have come from big buildings and know how to project the music a long way. There are others who just play to themselves, and that doesn’t work. Every stop needs its own nurturing, has its own little character. It’s a question of action, space, timing, legato, tempo.

That’s a very sophisticated level of performer and performance.

Those are the great ones. When I play on the reeds on the Great organ, I have to play into the keys so that the tone can develop. That’s what makes them carry into the building. One must see each stop as having a separate character, and above all, listen.

You can know those things when you know the instrument intimately.

It’s interesting. You cannot approach any organ with a pre-conceived idea of what you will do. One has to adapt to it. It’s the building, it’s the organ, it’s the music, and it’s you. These four things need to come together. In many cases an instrument will tell you how to play, and you have to be receptive to this.

That’s hard to teach.

It was Langlais who first said to me, “stop playing the console, play the pipes.”

I don’t remember him saying that to me. I don’t think I was there long enough.

There was a reason he had to say it to me. If you’re dealing with a little 2′ piccolo and you just give it a little of air, it will be alright. But if you’re dealing with the huge lumbering woods up in the roof, the largest and deepest pipes, one needs to give them time. It takes time, in a big building, for the sound to travel, so one often has to play them ahead.

Shall we talk about Langlais? I’m fascinated to hear how the experience was for you.

His apartment was in Rue Duroc, you’ll know where. I always felt it was like entering into a mystical cave where the ghosts of Widor, Vierne, Dupré, and Franck were all in the shadows.

Most of my lessons were in Rue Duroc, on a small mechanical-action organ, which played the wrong notes before you even looked at them. His dog, Scherzo, near your left foot, appeared to be waiting for you to play a wrong pedal note. Langlais, too, was listening. I remember once when using my third finger on an F-sharp in a work by César Franck, he stopped me and said, “No, you must use your fourth finger there.” He obviously heard it wasn’t absolutely legato. I remember his teaching was also interspersed with stories about the composers themselves. That brought a nice humanity, it brought it all alive.

He also had tales from when he was teaching in other places. As I prepared to play the Vierne First Symphony to him, he told me a story. In the USA someone was playing the “Final” from the symphony. His interpretation was too fast and mechanical. Langlais sat there and waited until he finished. He kept silent and finally said to the student, “what was that?’’ The student responded with the title of the piece. Langlais said, “I don’t know this piece. What have you played?” He was quite persistent; he wouldn’t let him get away with it. He said, “That wasn’t Vierne; that was you.”

Langlais was interested in his students beyond their lessons. He was interested in Salisbury Cathedral, where I was at the time, and what I was doing there. He was interested in other places in England, too.

I remember his approach, which I use with my students, that you must justify what you are doing. If he thought I played something too fast, he would say that the composer wrote little notes to be heard. His basic approach to articulation was that things were either staccato or legato. Staccato was half-length, or maybe three-quarter length. That’s really a Dupré thing, isn’t it?

Legato often meant Franck legato with a great emphasis on line and phrase. Yes, Franck was different from Vierne or Duruflé. Langlais would often say, “Insist on that note,” highlighting by holding a tied note or the middle of the phrase as long as possible.

That’s why I wanted to study with Langlais. I would play a different Franck piece every day and would soak up all of his suggestions. He had a way of seeing that music. I wanted to understand the overlapping legato that he could do so well.

Everything had to breathe. Take your time; don’t hurry. But, at the same time, the music must move forwards. He taught me that playing Vierne involves playing a bit more robustly. In the “Adagio” of the Third Symphony, for example, he would want Franck-like legato, with overlapping notes, etc. In the more rhythmic movements, though, something quite different. There is much drama and emotion in his music that must be conveyed.

I remember watching Langlais play a couple of Masses when I was with him, and it was amazing how he knew how and when to play the pedal ahead of the manuals. He knew how to make the music come together, not at the console, but for the congregants downstairs.

Sometimes we went to Sainte-Clothilde to play the famous Cavaillé-Coll organ. I remember comparing notes with Daniel Roth, who went to Langlais as a student. He played the Fantaisie in A for him. Like me he got some instructions from Langlais before he began concerning strict time or rubato and the use of the swell box in Franck. The idea of the crescendi and diminuendi and the swell box were all connected to his use of rubato and the direction of a phrase.

Yes, inside the pulse was the flexibility. One doesn’t lose the pulse; the flexibility comes inside it. That was a good thing to learn.

The pulse is not a metronome. It should change with the tension in the music. If there is a rising sequence, especially with some of those Vierne symphonic movements, the tension needs to be emphasized. Langlais taught that the closer one got to the resolution, the more muscular playing was needed.

Langlais’ criticism of American playing was well taken, I believe, because of the difficulty of understanding these differences. It is easy to err on either side of that flexible pulse idea. So all this happened while you were at Salisbury. Can you talk about that position?

Yes, I went there in 1978 and stayed seven years. It was great working with Richard Seal who was a consummate musician and ran a fine choir. His emphasis was on color, legato, and line. I like to think I learned a lot from him.

Before that was Christ Church, Oxford. How was that?

Christ Church was another special experience. This gave me the opportunity to work with the legendary Simon Preston. I had been listening to his recordings since I was twelve. His commitment to the choir was staggering. His energy seemed limitless.

How old was he at the time?

He was in his mid-thirties, very young. The influences of Boris Ord and David Willcocks, with whom he had worked at King’s College, were evident. At the same time I worked with Preston, I also worked with Christopher Robinson with the Oxford Bach Choir for four years. That was a great experience and privilege, too.

Shall we keep going back and talk about Saint George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle?

I was lucky there. I was eighteen; I went straight from school, so it was a sort of gap year. The man at the keys at the time was Sydney Campbell, who had been previously organist at Canterbury; he was a wonderful organist and inspiring accompanist. In those days the organist had no sight lines to the choir and conductor, so one had to listen and play, which was a real challenge.

It was a great training. I’m glad I did that, not only because I was working with a great musician, but also it prepared me for Christ Church. Sydney Campbell had enormous respect for Simon Preston, and it was mutual. Campbell was great and quite a character. There was never a dull moment!

Have you been to the United States?

Yes, but it was some time ago. I’ve played at The Riverside Church in New York City, Philadelphia, and Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan.

In the United States, many of our organ departments are declining. Fewer young people believe they can find full-time work in the organ and church music field and are choosing other paths. I don’t know if that correlates to the system here, but I’m interested in your views.

Even here in Cambridge there is that correlation. There are so few organ positions at the choral foundations that the chance of really getting a decent job is quite slim. The jobs don’t open up very often, and the pay isn’t that good. Cathedrals are missing potential talent, and the students are going on into a school or other music-related opportunities.

When I was organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln for fourteen years, there were a lot of administration and meetings to deal with. Nowadays I’m very happy to go to the organ loft, close the door, and play.

Do you encourage young people to go into organ and church music?

Yes and no. Yes, if I think they have a future. I don’t think it’s fair to encourage them if they don’t have the musicality or character to pull it off.

That’s a skill we don’t teach much. We sometimes do a little bit about clergy-musician relationships, but it’s not enough.

Yes, there is never enough time to learn all we need to do all the job entails. We keep at it, both teachers and students, doing what we can each day.

Thank you for the delightful conversation today.

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