Spotlight on Composition

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

Born in London in 1951, Cecilia McDowall has won many awards and been eight times short-listed for the British Composer Awards. In 2014 she won the British Composer Award for Choral Music. Much of McDowall’s choral music is performed worldwide, as well as her orchestral music. Recent important commissions include one for the BBC Singers, Westminster Cathedral Choir, London Mozart Players and a joint commission from the City of London Sinfonia and the Scott Polar Research Institute to celebrate the life of the British Antarctic explorer, Captain Scott, in Seventy Degrees Below Zero. Three Latin Motets were recorded by the renowned American choir, Phoenix Chorale; this Chandos recording, Spotless Rose, won a Grammy award and was nominated for Best Classical Album. New commissions for 2016 include works for the BBC Singers, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and a new song cycle for Roderick Williams, amongst others. Earlier this year the BBC Singers premiered When time is broke, three Shakespeare settings. Oxford University Press has signed McDowall as an ‘Oxford’ composer and she is currently ‘composer-in-residence’ at Dulwich College, London. In 2013 she received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of Portsmouth.