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Spotlight on Composition

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

The rewards and pitfalls involved in composing for the organ

Cecilia McDowall, composer

What instruments did you play when you were growing up?

I began learning the piano when I was seven, though as a five-year-old I always enjoyed ‘messing about' at the keyboard. The sounds entranced me. Later I studied the violin and oboe for a bit and then, more seriously, the cello. I remember being let loose on the tenor horn at one point but soon realised my incompatibility!

What was the first piece you wrote with an organ part?

I’m not entirely sure but I think my first real piece of organ writing will have been ‘Sounding heaven and earth’, the first of my George Herbert trilogy commissioned from the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, performed by Leon Charles in 2010.

If you didn’t play the organ growing up, how did you approach writing for it?

I always enjoy talking with organists about the rich array of possibilities on the instrument and usually, after writing an organ work, I consult with kind organist friends as to whether the writing is ‘organic’. I’m always keen to make sure the writing is not unrealistic. My first experience of playing the organ was for a church service in Wales when I was about 12 . . . I soon appreciated that its complexities were beyond my ability! Far better to leave to those with a real technical and musical understanding, and just enjoy the colours and the magnificence of the organ as a listener, and later, as a composer.

What do you think are the differences for a choir being accompanied by the organ, piano, or other instruments?

One of the differences – and concerns – I’ve encountered has been to do with organ pitch. On a couple of occasions I found the organ was tuned at variance with standard pitch and provided a challenge for the choirs to meld. But more usually the organ provides strength, subtlety and colour, inspiring choirs to add dynamic nuance to the tone.

How prescriptive are you with regards to registration?

I am very aware of my own limitations in understanding the great scope of the organ and prefer to leave registrations to the judgement of the performer. I will often write something descriptive which I hope might give a flavour of the desired colour. Registrations can be so different in America and in Europe and I hope by leaving options open the organist will be able to select the best available stops for the occasion.

Katherine Dienes-Williams performs an extract from Cecilia McDowall's O Antiphon Sequence

Your George Herbert trilogy for organ has proved very popular liturgically – any idea why?

The metaphysical poetry of George Herbert brings great depths and insight in a devotional context and purely as inspiration to any composer his poetic imagery strikes home. Perhaps it is significant that Herbert was a musician; there are so many references to music in his poetry.

Have you ever experienced any opposition/prejudice as a composer due to being female?

I don’t feel I have, though I haven’t been looking for it or expecting difficulties. As one who has come late to composing I have just been focused on trying to do the best I can in all I write.

Cecilia McDowall's organ works:

Celebration (2016) OUP 9780193406131

Church bells beyond the stars (2013) OUP 9780193393363

O Antiphon Sequence (2018) OUP 9780193522947

Sacred and Hallowed Fire (2013) OUP 9780193394018

Sounding heaven and earth (2011) OUP 9780193378865

Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns halt (2012) OUP 9780193386624

Based in London, Cecilia McDowall is perhaps best known for her choral works, though her output extends far beyond this and into the realm of organ music. She has won many awards including the British Composer Award Choral category in 2014 for her haunting work, Night Flight. McDowall’s distinctive style fuses fluent melodic lines with occasional dissonant harmonies and rhythmic exuberance. Her music has been commissioned and performed by leading choirs and artists, including the BBC Singers, The Sixteen, Oxford and Cambridge choirs, ensembles, and at festivals worldwide. One of her most recent CDs has been recorded by William Fox on Naxos of her entire organ catalogue published by OUP. Hyperion has released a CD of her choral and organ music performed by The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conductor, Stephen Layton. In December 2020 McDowall was presented with the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for ‘outstanding works collection’ for a ‘consistently excellent body of work’. This was a ‘gift’ from The Ivors Academy.


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