Clare Stevens, classical music and organ specialist
Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of members of the Society of Women Organists are....organists! So who is this member who doesn't play?!
I’m a freelance writer, editor and publicist, currently living in the Welsh Marches after 30 years in London. I specialise in writing about classical music, particularly choral and church music and contemporary classical music, and music education. I’ve been an amateur choral singer all my life and I love organ music, though I’m not a player.
What was your musical involvement as you were growing up? Do you come from a musical family?
My father loved music, listened to 78s and reel-to-reel tapes of classical music all the time and played the piano reasonably well; my mother was a good amateur choral singer who was also heavily involved with the semi-professional opera scene in Northern Ireland, singing in the chorus and then as properties mistress and eventually stage manager. I grew up in a suburb of Belfast in the 1970s, and musical involvement was severely curtailed by the Troubles, but we did go to occasional concerts, especially on the rare occasions when well-known artists from elsewhere were performing. A concert by the King’s Singers, then at the height of their fame, in St Anne’s Cathedral and a violin recital by Yehudi Menuhin in a cinema are stand-out memories. I sang in the choir of my girls’ grammar school but, whereas in the past it had collaborated with a boys’ grammar school for performances of things like the Fauré Requiem, this didn’t happen while I was a member because of the difficulties of crossing town or staying late for after-school rehearsals.
We attended a Presbyterian church where I enjoyed singing hymns from a very early age; but the church didn’t have a particularly strong choral tradition and although I was interested in the organ there was no opportunity for me to learn to play it . I was intrigued enough by the instrument for my dad to take me to a couple of recitals in other churches with better organs by Desmond Hunter, still an eminent member of the Northern Ireland organ scene; and my enthusiasm was fired even more by a sixth form general studies class visit to the Whitla Hall at Queen’s University, for a demonstration recital/introduction to the organ by Philip Hammond, now better known as a composer. I still remember that one of the pieces I particularly enjoyed on that occasion was by Flor Peeters, a completely unknown name to me at the time.
After school, how did this enthusiasm develop?
At St Andrew’s University I often attended organ recitals by the university organist John Kitchen. I was studying English and Medieval History, not music, and most of my friends thought that going to organ recitals was a very odd thing to do. When my husband and I got married in St Salvator’s Chapel, St Andrew’s, a few years after I graduated it was a real thrill to be able to choose some organ showstoppers for John to play for us, which –as anyone who knows him will be able to imagine – he did brilliantly (Bach’s Dorian Prelude & Fugue during the signing of the registers was the highlight)!
What really turned me from an occasional attender of organ recitals to a knowledgeable enthusiast was joining the Choir of St Barnabas, Dulwich, in 1990. This was my first opportunity to discover Anglican liturgy and music and to hear a pipe organ played by experts on a regular basis. I had only been in the choir for a year when the church burned down and its Victorian Henry Speechley organ was destroyed. The parish commissioned a three-manual instrument from Kenneth Tickell of Northampton for the brand new church and I was enthralled by the whole process of designing and installing it, which was led by William McVicker, then Director of Music at St Barnabas. I was one of the congregation members who offered hospitality to Kenneth Tickell and some of his team during the installation, and extended conversations over evening meals fired my enthusiasm still further.
When the new church was finished and the lovely organ had been completed and dedicated I did have the opportunity to start learning to play it, but work commitments soon meant that I was rarely free to practise when the church was open and I wasn’t able to develop my skills very far. However I did discover some of the possibilities offered by a pipe organ, and how relatively simple pieces can be so effective if carefully registered and played in an appropriate style for their period.
Having an opportunity to tell the story of how the choir of St Barnabas was both a focal point for worship in the parish hall and elsewhere, and also an inspiration to the congregation while the new church was under construction, led me from writing about fruit and vegetables for a fresh produce trade magazine to classical music journalism. I wrote an article about the fire and its impact on the choir, particularly the young choristers, for the Church Music Quarterly, which then commissioned me to write about a Saturday music project for youngsters from inner-city estates run by a neighbouring parish in Camberwell. Just before the fire, the head chorister of St Barnabas, Gavin Moralee, had won the last ever Royal School of Church Music Chorister of the Year competition, and I interviewed him for our parish magazine, so suddenly I had a small portfolio of music-related articles to support job applications. As a result I spent six years as deputy editor of Classical Music magazine, followed by four years editing Music Teacher magazine, and I’ve been a regular contributor to Choir & Organ.
Helping to promote the activities of the St Barnabas Choir both locally and nationally, for example running a press campaign for its very successful millennium lottery-funded community production of Noye’s Fludde in 2000, gave me my first experience of PR management. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the experience of being part of that community at that very significant time changed my life as well as consolidating my interest in organ music.
And over the last 30 years ……..?
Over the past couple of decades I’ve been lucky enough to write about new instruments and restorations in iconic buildings such as Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, the Royal Festival Hall, London, Bridlington Priory and St John’s, Upper Norwood (where the T C Lewis organ in a church designed by John Loughborough Pearson is to me the perfect marriage of architecture and instrument). I’ve had tours of the organ-building workshops of Kenneth Tickell, Harrison & Harrison and Mander Organs, sat in on choir practices, attended services and organ recitals, interviewed the Directors of Music at many UK cathedrals and collegiate chapels, and learned an immense amount about matching repertoire and playing style to instruments, often through the fascinating study days run by the British Institute of Organ Studies, of which I’m also a member.
Attending Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral every Saturday and Sunday for six years while our son was a chorister there was another formative experience that expanded my knowledge of organ repertoire – I loved hearing the organ scholars and assistants playing before the services, and afterwards there would be spectacular voluntaries by the likes of Vierne, Langlais, Dupré and Duruflé, played brilliantly by the sub-organist Andrew Lucas or by the legendary John Scott.
More recently I spent three years in the full-time role of marketing manager for the Three Choirs Festival, based in Gloucester but also involving work in Hereford and Worcester as the festival rotates annually between the three cities, with the cathedrals as the main performance venues. I loved the opportunity this gave me to attend services regularly in these wonderful buildings, hear their choirs, get to know the music staff and familiarise myself with the very different characters of their magnificent organs. An extended stay back home in Northern Ireland for family reasons happened to coincide with the launch of the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition (NIIOC) for players under the age of 21, and I was very pleased to be invited to join the board of what is now a very influential event.
And what made you join SWO?
I joined the Society of Women Organists in order to support a worthwhile venture and show solidarity with its founders; I’m very aware of how difficult it has been in the past for girls to develop an interest in organ-playing and for gifted female players to progress up the career ladder. It is great that the situation has changed for the better in the 21st century, but I still think there is much more to be done to ensure that women are accepted without a single raised eyebrow in organ lofts and concert hall consoles around the world. While the past couple of years have seen a few more women being appointed to cathedral posts, and major venues such as the Royal Festival Hall are including high-profile female players like Catherine Ennis and Isabelle Demers in their recital series, the lists for recitals in other venues still tend to be dominated by men and only one of the nine NIIOC winners so far has been female. Catherine Ennis tells stories of being mistaken for the page-turner when she emerged from the organ loft to receive the enthusiastic applause after a challenging recital, and I’m afraid that would still be a common assumption by many people.
Finally, what advice would you give to a girl who hopes to make a career for herself as a professional organist?
Have confidence in yourself and don’t be afraid to express an interest in the instrument and ask for lessons; and don’t limit yourself to your local church and its organ but go to as many recitals as you can in other places. Look out for pre-concert talks, study days and holiday courses run by organisations like the RCO and RCM – you don’t always have to participate as a player but can learn an immense amount as an observer.