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SPOTLIGHT ON… Carolyn Craig – an American Organ Scholar in London



Who, or what, inspired you to take up the organ?  What was your training as an organist?

 I was surrounded by organ music from an early age, as a chorister at Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.  It was an immense privilege to hear the organ in the masterful hands of Raina Wood and Dr Edie Johnson, who both hold graduate degrees in organ performance from Indiana University.  Their service playing and repertoire playing opened my ears to what the organ could do, and they shaped my idea of what really good organ playing is – I owe a lot to the high bar that they set.

 

I started piano at age 7, and took organ as an elective at Interlochen Summer Arts Academy, aged 14 or so, with Thomas Bara.  When I went back home to Knoxville, I started lessons with John Brock, who taught at the University of Tennessee, and was lucky to be able to practice on the UT campus.  I then studied with Chris Young as an undergraduate organ major at Indiana University and with Jon Laukvik and Martin Jean at Yale, with a gap year as organ scholar of Truro Cathedral between my undergraduate and graduate degrees.  Since graduating from Yale, I’ve held organ scholarships at Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

 

You studied in Austria (with Ulrich Walther and Johannes Ebenbauer).  How did the organs you played in Graz and Vienna compare to the ones you were used to in the US?

 In Vienna especially, I got to play short-octave meantone organs, which I hadn’t encountered up to that point in the US (I would later become acquainted with the Taylor & Boody in Marquand Chapel at Yale).  My lessons in Vienna were on the recently restored 1642 Wöckherl organ in the Franziskanerkirche, the oldest functioning organ in Vienna.  It just so happened that the Malteserkirche, where I booked practice time through my institute, housed a Gottfried Sonnholz instrument from 1767, also recently restored.  It was amazing to me how much sound could come from instruments with so few stops, and playing in meantone heightened my awareness of the diversity of character inherent in different keys and intervals.

 

On those instruments, I was learning Froberger and Muffat for the first time, and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know that music on instruments and/or in sound-worlds those composers would have known, but I didn’t fully realise what was particular to their music on those instruments until I went back to the US and tried to recreate those sounds.  Conversely, when I played Bach on a Silbermann organ for the first time in Bad Lausick, having played Bach for such a long time, my pre-existing notions were challenged and my interpretation shaped not only by the registrations possible, but also by, for example, the leg weight that was needed to help the pedals go down, and by what the smaller-than-modern pedal compass meant for the drama of a pedal line with a wide range.

 

In the US, at the University of Tennessee and Indiana University, I was used to trackers, and to instruments that could have a German accent, although before studying in Austria, I wasn’t always sure how to find those Germanic sounds.  In the US, we also have an incredible national heritage, including symphonic organs like the Newberry Memorial organ at Woolsey Hall, Yale University, and smaller gems with enclosed greats and little or no upperwork that are products of their time.  We also have some fantastic replicas of European baroque instruments, and some new instruments that are built in historic styles specific to certain organ-building traditions.  It’s a great gift to be able to study instruments representative of international styles without having to leave the US.

 

I believe you have been to the UK twice, returning to the US in between to further your studies.  Why did you decide to come to, and then return to, the UK?  As an organist, what differences have you found between the US and UK?

 I attended Oundle for Organists and The Organ Scholar Experience (TOSE) one summer before my third year of undergraduate studies at Indiana University, and those courses demystified not only what UK cathedral/college organ scholarships were, but also what skills were needed and how to work on acquiring those.  I was completely taken by the organ/choral culture here and wanted to give an organ scholarship a try.

 

While studying in Vienna, I auditioned to be organ scholar at Truro Cathedral, which I’d heard knew what they were doing with visas.  Little did I know, their music program is pretty amazing!  Chris Gray was the best Director of Music I could have hoped for, I sometimes teared up because the choir was so good, and I got to spend as much time as I wanted with an 1870 Willis (with choral scholars sometimes scaring me at the console in the middle of the night, which was honestly really good fun).  I caught the bug there – I felt pushed as a musician, fulfilled as an educator, and part of a wonderful community.  I could not believe there was a job where so much of my day was doing what I loved.  Of course, the US also has churches with plenty of weekdays culminating in choral services – St Thomas Fifth Avenue and Washington National Cathedral, to name a couple.  And, of course, being pushed and fulfilled and part of a wonderful community are all things that can happen outside of cathedral music!  It’s all about the people and about what’s possible in any given place.  But I’m very happy to be back.

 

In terms of US/UK differences, there’s our training and there’s the instruments.  In terms of training, at the risk of overgeneralisation, US organists tend to study a smaller number of pieces to a very high level, based on the demands of our institutions, and UK organists tend to be quicker at keyboard skills and at picking things up.  I’ve found myself running out of repertoire, playing catch-up with keyboard skills, and having to learn how to register things more quickly.

 

In terms of instruments, standard console aids like generals on swell toe pistons, great/pedal combination couplers, and separate divisional and general levels are extremely rare in the US.  More common in the US are instruments with many general levels, but where divisionals have to be set up on every level.  At that point, just because of how the consoles are designed, it can make sense to use generals more often or to set Ch 1 as 8’4’2⅔’ if that’s what that piece on that memory level calls for.  In the UK, because the divisionals are more commonly on their own levels, it can be much easier to register pieces quickly and to set up a console flexibly.

 

Please describe a typical week in your life as Organ Scholar at Westminster Abbey.

 I usually play Evensong on Mondays (Boys’ Voices or Lay Clerks), Evening Prayer on Wednesdays, sometimes Evensong on Thursdays or occasionally Tuesday, and then at the weekend as assigned –

either about 45 minutes of pre-service music on Sunday, split between the three choral services, or less pre-service music and one of the choral services.  The weekdays are punctuated by boys’ practice in the morning and in the afternoon – during morning practice, colleagues and I each take small groups or individuals for probationer training or solo coaching – and the time in the middle of the day is largely free for organ practice and admin.  Andrew Nethsingha makes a point of making sure that I have the support I need in order to grow as a musician and as an educator.  It’s exactly what an organ scholarship should be.  I’m also lucky to live on site and to work with boarders in the school, doing Monday bedtime and Tuesday morning wake-up for the older boys, and helping in school as time allows at other points throughout the week, for example, supervising instrumental practice in the mornings.  It’s wonderful to get more experience working with kids and working in a school, and to have colleagues who act as mentors in the school setting.

 

Before joining Westminster Abbey as Organ Scholar, you were Organ Scholar at Westminster Cathedral and, before that, at Truro Cathedral.  How do your experiences at these three cathedrals compare?

 Westminster Cathedral was certainly different from the other two!  Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, emphasises plainsong and polyphony in their choral music, the overwhelming majority of which is sung in Latin.  They don’t have Evensong; they have choral vespers and choral Mass.  In addition to plainsong and polyphony, their repertoire also includes more modern works, including the Britten Missa Brevis and the Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor, which were written for them, and the occasional massive Elgar motet (not “anthem”!).  It is essentially a place very itself and very good at what it does.  It was a joy to be immersed in that choral culture and to dig into plainchant and polyphony with passionate specialists.  I also had many opportunities to improvise, for example at 7.35am Morning Prayer every weekday, and at 12.30pm spoken Masses where, three times per week, I played for the beginning and ending processions of the Mass, for the offertory, and for Communion.  My score reading, improvisation, and understanding of chant and polyphony improved greatly during that year.

 

At Westminster Abbey, as at Truro Cathedral, the days culminate in Choral Evensong, which involves accompanying a psalm, Evening Canticles, and often an anthem and possibly a hymn.  Sunday mornings at the Abbey have sung Matins and sung Eucharist.  It’s an entirely different repertoire to what the Cathedral does.  Because there is more accompaniment at the Abbey and at Truro Cathedral, it can be easier to feel integrated with the choir musically as an organist, although I conducted more at Westminster Cathedral.  We also keep playing voluntaries on weekdays during Lent, unlike at Westminster Cathedral, so I’ll have to brush up on some repertoire!

 

In Truro Cathedral, we had boy choristers up to Year 8 and girl choristers up to Upper Sixth, singing in separate treble lines.  It was wonderful having both boys and girls in the Truro Cathedral Choir.

 

You are co-founder, together with Janet Yieh, of ‘Amplify Female Composers’.  Could you tell us about this project?

 Amplify Female Composers (Facebook and YouTube: Amplify Female Composers) seeks to address the gap we have in the performance of music by men and by women in the Church.  We’re very happy to be part of a wider movement!  Amplify Female Composers encourages the performance of sacred choral and organ music by women composers and archives those performances as open resources on our YouTube channel.  Our inaugural project was an Advent Calendar Project in the 2020 lockdown, featuring a different choir singing an Advent/Christmas piece by a woman composer every day from December 1st through to December 25th, drawing from choirs in the US and the UK.  We’ve also done Lenten organ meditations on the Stations of the Cross, collaborations with the Boulanger Initiative for the Jeanne Demessieux Centennial Tribute, a second Advent Calendar Project, Fall Female Composer Fridays featuring the Choir of Trinity Wall Street with repertoire from A Great Host of Composers, and one-off releases.

 

You are also involved with ‘A Great Host of Composers’.  What is that about?

 A Great Host of Composers, founded by Susan Jane Matthews, is a liturgical planning resource that provides curated recommendations of pieces by women composers for every Sunday and feast day in the 3-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle, as well as Mass settings, Evening Canticles, Responses, and Anglican chants.  The lists have been published in The Journal of The Association of Anglican Musicians, the premiere Episcopalian music journal in the US, and are also available as easy-to-digest PDFs and as live spreadsheets with more comprehensive information at greathostcomposers.org.  We hope this can be a valuable resource to the church music planners out there!  (To contact Great Host with a piece recommendation or query, email greathostcomposers@gmail.com.)

 

What’s next for you professionally?

 I’m thrilled to have been appointed Assistant Director of Music at Wells Cathedral – I will take up that post in April 2024 – and to have been appointed a Junior Fellow at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – I took up that post in January.

 

Wells is an absolute dream come true.  I cannot wait to play and conduct in that Cathedral, to work with the boy and girl choristers and back row and to teach organ at Wells Cathedral School, to lead the Wells Cathedral Chamber Choir, and to be doing what I love every day in such a beautiful place.  I’m excited to work with Alex Hamilton, Acting Director of Music, whose work with the trebles is so impressive, and with Tim Parsons, a wonderful musician and our incoming Director of Music.  Coming up in Wells, we have the St John Passion in May as part of the Sounds of Wells festival, and a celebration of 30 years of girl choristers on Saturday June 15th, 2024.

 

As a Junior Fellow of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, I’m excited to be part of such a stellar academic community, to have access to their incredible international teaching faculty, and to be a resource to their students through formal lectures as well as through less formal platforms.  The Junior Fellowship complements my work at the Abbey and at Wells Cathedral well.

 

Before I leave the Abbey and London, I’m trying to get the most out of every minute, with several upcoming concerts in London.  Then, in Wells, I won’t do any external concerts in my first term, and possibly longer during term-time.  I want to focus on getting my head down and doing my best for that community and Cathedral.  It has been a dream for such a long time, and I want to give it my all.

 

Award-winning American organist Carolyn Craig is currently the Organ Scholar at Westminster Abbey and will be the Assistant Director of Music at Wells Cathedral from April 2024.

 

Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, Carolyn Craig FRCO earned her organ performance degrees in the United States (BM Indiana University, MM Yale University, MMA Yale University), and first worked in the United Kingdom as Organ Scholar of Truro Cathedral between her undergraduate and graduate degrees. In January, she became a Junior Fellow of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

 

Recent prizes include the Limpus/Shinn/Durant and Dr F J Read Prizes in the 2022/2023 FRCO examination cycle and the 2nd Prize and the Prize for the Interpretation of Mikael Tariverdiev’s Works in the 2021 Mikael Tariverdiev International Organ Competition.

 

Carolyn co-founded Amplify Female Composers, an organisation that promotes the performance of organ and choral music by women composers (Facebook, YouTube: Amplify Female Composers), and is a contributor to the inclusive church music planning resource A Great Host of Composers (greathostcomposers.org).

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