Updated: Jul 1
Can you tell us what made you want to learn the organ and become a professional organist?
Hymns sung in my local parish church were also sung in my junior and grammar schools. Pupils accompanied hymns in senior school assemblies on the piano, and on the organ in the school chapel. Thinking ‘anything you can do I can do better’, I asked the music teacher if I could join the rota. She was surprised that playing ‘Amen’ in standard keys did not need to be taught to me – it just seemed very easy. Word reached the vicar that a parishioner’s daughter had become one of the assembly piano and organ team. Unexpectedly, he called at our home, inviting me to learn the organ. Aged 13, I learned to play a simple congregational Evensong on a harmonium, later graduating to a small pipe organ. Being taken to the parish church in Westhoughton, Lancashire, one Saturday afternoon, the heavens seemed to open when I played Old Hundredth as the vicar pulled the stops out. This organ was an untouched Hill, sadly lost in a fire. Quickly hooked by the organ’s fabulous sound, I spent hours playing ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ on the Hammond organ in school. At first I was self-taught; lessons came later, primarily with the organist of Bolton Parish Church, William Morgan. Aged 15, I joined his choir, loving Anglican choral repertoire, including music by Byrd, Tallis, Howells, Leighton, Bairstow, S.S. Wesley and many more. An initial spark before the organ was the sound of an accordion, heard on Uncle Mac’s Nursery Rhymes on the BBC Home Service. My father bought a 78 rpm record of Mantovani’s Swedish Rhapsody by Dag Wiren in the arrangement by Percy Faith. That sound was also magical, played often at home until the record was broken.
Full time organ studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music with Eric Chadwick were followed by a postgraduate teacher training course in Liverpool, continuing organ lessons with Noel Rawsthorne. Girton College, Cambridge, offered me their Organ Scholarship; a total surprise! No-one in my family had even had a Sixth Form Education, so this was a real shock to everyone. John Rutter and Gillian Weir were two of my inspirational teachers. My first lesson with Gillian focused entirely on the playing of one note! I was mystified by this and only began to understand why this was necessary several decades later. There being few, if any, opportunities for professional women organists in the 1970s, my career settled firmly in the educational world.
Who are, or were, your greatest influences, musically?
I grew up listening to light popular music, including Motown and Rock ‘n’ Roll, as well as light classical music. Later in life, I even had a spell as a pop singer, singing Dusty Springfield and Abba songs in the staff band at school; this enjoyable brief episode brought out my flamboyant side! Real classical musical influences came during O-level music classes at school. Schubert’s Fifth Symphony was a joy – his, Beethoven’s and Mozart’s later symphonies, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were all purchased and played relentlessly. I also bought a recording of BWV 565, played by Fernando Germani at St Laurence Church, Alkmaar. The sound of that organ was very influential. I finally played on that glorious instrument in 2020, just before the first lockdown. My love of early music dates from hearing David Munrow’s recordings the late 1960s.
Please describe a typical week.
Weekends are busy, with two services on Sundays and piano teaching on Saturdays. On weekdays I
intersperse organ lessons at James Allen’s Girls’ School with RCO Academy students and yoga classes. My enthusiasm for yoga informs my approach to organ teaching, especially in correcting posture and understanding the need for flowing, neat movements.
During your career as an organist, have you been treated differently, do you think, because you
are a woman?
Apart from Gillian Weir and Anne Marsden Thomas, my organ teachers were men. In my teens, my organ teacher gave all organ accompaniment roles to his male students. This I did not question, being too absorbed in the singing, loving being in the choir. It did not occur to me that there was a possibility of being treated differently because I was female. Looking back, there was definite encouragement, even a command to become a music teacher.
It has been noticeable in some organist gatherings where one is in a minority, that men are very polite, friendly and encouraging. Others, perhaps shy, seem to huddle in groups, possibly suggesting that females are treading on traditional male territory. I have come to the conclusion that sticking to such traditions is not necessarily intentional. It perhaps just seems to some that including women is a bit odd. Perhaps we are feared more than we think. When we met American SWO members at the AGM (on Zoom) last year, I was amazed that there are similar issues in the States, despite the success of Diane Bish, Kimberley Marshall and others.
Domestic responsibility – marriage and childcare – can limit women’s careers, much more so in the past, but it can still be hard today to raise a family alongside a career. Class has also been an issue; lower middle class people were expected to wait for an invitation to join in something, instead of confidently pushing themselves forward. My husband Norman experienced the same style of ‘do not push yourself’ 1950s upbringing. Things have changed but I do remember such attitudes. Education has helped to equalise opportunity. If I have any regrets, it’s that I was never pushed to develop the performing side of my career. Lack of confidence was probably observed by those who can sense where one’s strengths and weaknesses lie.
Have male colleagues been a help or a hindrance?
Aged 56+, I became the accompanist for a choir which visited cathedrals, providing much needed experience of such work. Male colleagues in such circumstances have always given good support and advice; in fact, my husband Norman and younger son Tim both inspire and occasionally instruct!
Do you have any advice for girls who are learning the organ?
Unless a family can afford a home organ, it is much harder for any young person to get regular
access to an organ, as locked churches now require trusted adult escorts. One kind of barrier has been replaced by another. When a non-church going family presents a young person interested in the organ, the best way of getting started is encourage them to have a home instrument. I show photos of our electronic organ and quite a few are surprised that such instruments are available with good rental terms.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I have been unexpectedly invited to give more organ recitals now than at any other time in my life; odd for a person in her 70s. At least one feels recognised up to a point; this is relished. I try to include music by women composers in my programming, and to play music I like, rather than worry about what others are doing. There is no longer a need to prove oneself. Emphasis is on enjoying what one does, feeling gratitude for any invitations that come my way. This includes being accepted as an RCO Teacher aged 61 in 2013. Anne has been, and remains one of the most supportive musicians I have ever met.
Marilyn Harper MA(Cantab), FRCO, GRSM, ARMCM, Cert.Ed (Liverpool)
Originally from Lancashire, Marilyn began serious organ studies with the late William Morgan at Bolton Parish Church, subsequently becoming Organ Scholar at Girton College Cambridge. She embarked on a life-long teaching career in 1978. In 2000, she became the first woman Organist at Christ’s Chapel, Dulwich, and teaches organ, piano, theory and back-up studies at James Allen’s Girls’ School.
At Christ’s Chapel she established a popular Sunday night recital series following the restoration of the 1760 George England organ by the late William Drake. Post pandemic, the series has begun again.
Marilyn is an RCO Accredited Teacher, and as a recitalist used to specialise in the music of Buxtehude and Sweelinck. Her repertoire has become more wide ranging since becoming drawn to the music of Percy Whitlock in lockdown. She also assists Dulwich Picture Gallery with their concert organisation. Past roles include being Chairman of the Southwark and South London Society of Organists and being Secretary to the London Organ Concerts Guide.