Saturday 13 June 2020

An organist in lockdown: I chat to Edmund Aldhouse, director of music at Ely Cathedral, about his work, the English romantic organ, & how to keep choristers motivated without regular services

Edmund Aldhouse recording Chris Warner's Wonders of the Cosmos at the organ of Ely Cathedral
Edmund Aldhouse recording Chris Warner's Wonders of the Cosmos at the organ of Ely Cathedral
I first came across Edmund Aldhouse playing the organ of Ely Cathedral on Chris Warner's Wonders of the Cosmos [see my interview with Chris]. At the time Edmund was the assistant organist at Ely Cathedral and has since become director of music there, in succession to Paul Trepte. I recently caught up with Edmund, via Zoom, to chat about his work at Ely, the history of the organ there and, of course, how the music department and the choristers are coping with lockdown.

The building at Ely Cathedral dates back to 1083, though there has been a church on the site since AD 672. Originally an abbey church, it became a cathedral in 1109. The list of the cathedral's organists/directors of music can be traced back right to 1541, when the cathedral was re-founded after the dissolution of the monasteries by King Kenry VIII.

Edmund Aldhouse (Photo Ely Cathedral)
Edmund Aldhouse
(Photo Ely Cathedral)
As director of music, Edmund is responsible for the music at any and all of the services at the cathedral, and this includes having overall responsibility for the cathedral's choirs, of which it has a number. There are the boys trebles and the adults (the lay clerks) who historically sang the cathedral's services, and in 2006 they added a girls choir so that services are sung by a mixture of these three groups. In addition, there is the voluntary adult choir, the Ely Octagon Singers, and the children's choir, the Ely Imps. Edmund has direct responsibility for the boy trebles and the lay clerks, with Sarah Macdonald the directing the girl choristers, and Ely Octagon Singers being directed by Glen Dempsey (the cathedral's assistant director of music).

When I ask Edmund how much organ playing he does, he ruefully comments 'not enough'. He feels that he ought to play more, but this is one of the dangers of becoming a director of music, when administration and other musical activities take over from organ playing. He sometimes swaps services with the assistant director of music, and also Edmund does play recitals. As well as studying at Oxford, Edmund studied in France with Frédéric Blanc and François-Henri Houbart, and made quite a name for himself with his performances of organ music by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and Marcel Dupré (1886-1961) in the UK.

The other problem is the difficulty of actually scheduling time to play the organ at the cathedral. The cathedral is both a working church and a major visitor attraction, so during the daytime the organ can only be played inaudibly which is fine for learning notes but not for developing a piece. Evening events also play an important role in the cathedral's life, especially as many of these help to balance the cathedral's books. Hence, it is a logistical challenge to even get to play the organ!
The organ at Ely Cathedral was originally built by Harrison & Harrison in 1908 and there have been subsequent changes during re-builds. This has left Edmund with an eclectic organ on which he feels that you can play anything from Frescobaldi to contemporary music. It does not have the range of colours of a Cavaille-Coll organ, but its flexibility means that you can play French composers like Messiaen and Dupré on it.

Essentially, what we hear today is Harrison & Harrison's 1908 organ, though some of the pipework dates back to the 1860s and the organ's predecessor. There have been modifications since, with a major one in 1975 which was supervised by Edmund's predecessor but one, Dr. Arthur Wills. Wills introduced a new positive division which was very much of its time, geared to the more authentic practicalities of performing Baroque music, and Edmund feels that this has been very successful. More controversially, Wills introduced changes to make the organ closer to a French romantic organ, and opinions were divided about these changes. When the organ was rebuilt in 2000/01 many of Wills changes were reversed, and the instrument returned closer to that which Harrison & Harrison built.

Ely Cathedral organ (Photo Wikipedia: Diliff)
Ely Cathedral organ
(Photo Wikipedia: Diliff)
Effectively this was a rediscovery of the English romantic organ, and this is something that has happened with a number of major English instruments where rebuilds and restorations have returned them to something more like the instrument the builders intended. These changes are understandable in the way that the focus of performance has changed. When Edmund began his training the focus was on understanding Baroque styles, and this very much influenced the style of new organs and the rebuilds of existing ones. Ely is a good example of this.

But the conclusion to this process was to realise that whilst some rebuilds were successful, others were not and organs were returned to their original aesthetic. A good example of this is the organ at York Minster where the current rebuild is returning the organ to something more akin to the aesthetic of instrument from the early 20th century. This move back to English romantic organs can be seen, to a certain extent, as a reaction against neoclassicism.

There is always a risk when rebuilding an organ, but organs are not static and the mechanism needs renewing, and each rebuild is a function of the prevailing zeitgeist. Edmund feels that you should plan for a rebuild every 25 years (so Ely will be due in 5 years), which with fundraising and other exigencies may slip to 30 years. Regardless of any tonal or musical changes that are desired, an organ is a complex piece of machinery with moving parts which wear out, and electronics which need replacing. Add to this that cathedrals are dirty places full of candles and incense, not to mention dust, as well as mouse and bat poo!

Edmund was musical from a young age; his mother was a choral singer, and he started on piano lessons. When he was small, he was taken by his grand-parents (who lived in Bristol) to the Edington Festival; (now he feels this an odd thing to do with a six-year-old). But when there, he heard Andrew Lumsden (now director of music at Winchester Cathedral) playing the organ and Edmund announced that he wanted to do that! Whilst the older Edmund did many other things, organ playing remained. He studied Modern Languages at university whilst also being an organ scholar, so he kept his options open towards other careers, but he nursed an ambition to play the organ professionally. He had been a chorister at Manchester Cathedral from 1988 to 1993, and when it came to a choice after university he chose to be cathedral musician.

Edmund's love affair with French organ music began when, aged 10 or 11, he discovered the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). The work made a big impression on him, he loved the harmonic language, and this led to him exploring the French composers who came before and after Duruflé, such as Louis Vierne (8170-1937), Messiaen and others. Edmund has always been a fluent improviser and whilst improvisation is important in many traditions, it plays a strong role in this school of 19th and 20th century organist composers; the French school has a particular way of improvising, and a particular use for it in the liturgy.  It perhaps helped that Edmund had done an in depth study of the French language as part of his Modern Languages degree. But he also points out, in passing, that he is not confined just to French organ music and is a great fan of the North German Baroque, the music of Bach and his predecessors.

Like many organists, Edmund has been finding lockdown something of a challenge as he lives in a small flat and so does not have a house organ, and has to make do with an electronic instrument for practising (which means he cannot practice with his feet!).

Edmund Aldhouse (Photo Ely Cathedral)
Edmund Aldhouse (Photo Ely Cathedral)
The cathedral music department's response to lockdown was, inevitably, done in rather a hurry; with an incredible rate of change in events over 10 days in March, they had to plan quickly. Whilst the boy trebles are Edmund's direct responsibility, musical provision for the girl choristers is through the school.

For Edmund, the priority was to ensure that they kept the choristers engaged. This has meant getting used to using Zoom; using this he is able to do individual lessons with the boys, and some group sessions, though rehearsals are difficult owing to the technical limitations. This had meant a focus on individual lessons, theory and musicianship, but they have done Evensong on-line with the boys singing plainchant, something that they are used to.

So whilst group rehearsals are difficult Edmund feels that all the boys have made progress, and in some ways faster than usual. Ordinarily, the choristers are very busy, combining singing with school activities and there is a fine balance between all this activity and keeping good vocal health. And ironically during lockdown, the boys' voices have flourished as has their independence. With a one-to-one lesson via Zoom, the usual crutches fall away and boys have come on in leaps and bounds, with sight singing particularly improving. The situation, however, is not ideal and some boys find it difficult to be motivated.

But by the time September comes, after the Summer recess, the model will become unsustainable, and they will be trying to give the boys some face to face attention. The question, of course, is how safe is it to sing, can cathedral choirs reform?

In response to this, they are modelling lots of scenarios, ranging from being back to normal, to singing in a socially distanced manner, to singing in small groups, as well as ideas such as singing less frequently and making services shorter. Colleagues in other establishments are doing the same; there is an awareness that, in some way, they need to get the choristers singing in public so that they feel like a choir. Being a chorister is about being part of a team, and it is difficult to keep this aspect together when movement is restricted.

With 15 or 16 boy trebles, this takes up a considerable amount of time, not just the idea of 15 or 16 Zoom sessions of 45 minutes each, but the necessity to scan the music needed, and so for each 45-minute session Edmund can spend 75 minutes of his time. Which adds up to half of his working week, but he reckons that it has been worth it. And with experience, he has streamlined the process as well as producing contingency plans for other situations. The boys and their parents have been fantastic, supportive and appreciative. One of Edmund's regrets is that, for financial reasons, the adult singers, the lay clerks had to be furloughed, so he has not been able to work with them in a similar manner.

Ely Cathedral choir (Photo Wikipedia: Diliff)
Ely Cathedral choir (Photo Wikipedia: Diliff)
When things do get back to normal, Edmund is sure that the effect of the lessons learned in lockdown will be felt. He would like to be able to carry on something of the techniques he is using at the moment, but is aware that logistics become even more complex when school timetables have to be taken into account.

The way things normally work, as boys get older they get less individual attention as they 'sing with the herd', whereas Edmund has been struck that during lockdown the boys have been as vocally and as technically strong as he has heard them. And he would like to be able to carry this over to the future, in some way. He feels that there are lessons to be learned. It is not just regarding individual musical attention, it is the idea that new disciplines (washing hands, handkerchiefs etc.) might help prevent the spread of ordinary coughs and colds.

There is also the idea of experimenting with other liturgical forms; Evensong is a lovely service, but it does last around 50 minutes and there are possibilities for shorter services. But another problem to be addressed is congregational engagement, and whether congregational singing will be possible in the short to medium term. This means that cathedral staff are having to think creatively about all aspects of possible services in the future.

Ely Cathedral Choir during a service in the Cathedral
Ely Cathedral Choir during a service in the Cathedral
But the lessons learned might also benefit other areas of the cathedral's music. The voluntary choir (Ely Octagon Singers) are a group of adults, all auditioned, who come and sing on the day. So there are daytime rehearsals ending in a performance of Evensong. Under lockdown, they have been doing weekly sessions on Zoom (something that many choirs have been doing). Looking to the future, there is the possibility of moving to a blended model, holding a rehearsal in the song school but also on Zoom as well. As many of the singers come all around the area, with some having complex journeys across the fens, the idea of being able to add extra rehearsals done via Zoom, for more complex pieces, is also appealing.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Hee-Young Lim: the young Korean cellist in Prokofiev & Rachmaninov cello sonatas on Sony Classical - CD review
  • Cultured, well-made songs: The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook from Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow - CD review
  • From the pen of the septuagenarian swan: Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis from the Choir of Keble College and the Academy of Ancient Music - CD review
  • Early Beethoven, late Faure and Schumann's birthday: Steven Isserlis and Mishka Rushdie Momen at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Adventures on the Green Hill: Tony Cooper explores Richard Wagner's villa Wahnfried at Bayreuth - feature article
  • A fascinating conundrum - Les contes d'Hoffmann: with its troubled genesis & editorial confusion, Offenbach's final opera seems unique, yet it developed out ideas from the composer's lesser-known late period - feature article
  • A sense of shimmering silence: music by the Catalan composer Josep Maria Guix on Images of broken light from Neu records - CD review
  • A remarkable achievement: Gustavo Díaz-Jerez's Maghek, a cycle of seven symphonic poems inspired by the Canary Islands recorded on Signum Classics - Cd review
  • Song recitals return to Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3, with Lucy Crowe and Anna Tilbrook celebrating the 20th anniversary of their partnership - Concert review
  • Live music returns to the Wigmore Hall: Stephen Hough in Bach/Busoni and Schumann - concert review
  • Adventures on the Green Hill: with no Bayreuth Festival this year, Tony Cooper looks back at previous festivals - feature article
  • 'Home

1 comment:

  1. I found this blog quite by chance but it's lovely to have news and a couple of photos of Edmund in this very strange time. I suspect he's quite enjoying the techie stuff but it does take up so much time having to teach like that. We've known Edmund since his days in Ripon Cathedral, but we did meet in Ely in early September last year when he was just launching his new term choir - all very enjoyable. Hope we might meet in autumn next year if we get down to Cambridge again.
    all very best from us both - Jo and Robin Peach


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