A year in the making: Andrew Prior takes up the invitation to play at Bradford Cathedral

Andrew Prior

Andrew Prior of Islington is the ninth organist to play in this season of Wednesday@One organ recitals. We spoke to him about his upcoming organ recital to find out what we can expect from his programme as well as finding out more about his career.

Could you give us an introduction to how you got into music?
I was a chorister in the local village choir when I was a boy and started learning the piano at around the age of five at school. Whilst singing in the choir I was rather captivated by the organ. My piano teacher was an organist in a neighbouring village. I wasn’t very good at practicing diligently, so he said that if I could get a piece I was learning ready by the following week, he’d let me play it on the church organ. That was when I was aged about eight and it just stuck, as I really enjoyed the experience. I soon was able to play hymns at church services and then voluntaries, and it went from there.

My parents, very kindly, bought me an organ for the house. We had a small sun lounge at the back and they bought a three manual and pedal reed organ, which is quite unusual, but it fitted into the space and it became my practice instrument.

At fourteen, I became the organist at my local church, which was great fun, and at the same age I was asked to play for my sister’s wedding at St. Bride’s, Fleet Street, which is one of the big churches in London. I was terrified at the prospect, but I played for her wedding and conducting that service was the Director of Music at HM Chapels Royal at Hampton Court. Afterwards he wrote to my father and said that he had been very taken by my playing and invited me to be the first organ scholar at HM Chapels Royal! I started that at the age of fifteen-and-a-half.

You were a solicitor by profession; did you find music was a good balance with that?
It was an excellent balance. We sold the reed organ we had to a solicitor /organist with whom we became good friends. My parents had come across a wonderful organ builder called George Sixsmith, whose organ company in Ashton-under-Lyne is still going. They built a very small two-rank extension pipe organ for our sun lounge. There were two ranks of pipes contained in a swell box with a glass front, and attached was a two manual and pedal organ. Our solicitor friend told me that if I ever wanted to go into the profession to let him know. My organ scholarship at Hampton Court helped my CV greatly in applying for an organ scholarship to Cambridge, which I was awarded in 1976. But an alternative career in the law remained an option.

When I went up to Cambridge I soon realised that I was up against people like John Scott, Thomas Trotter and David Hill, all wonderfully talented people, and I thought to myself that I couldn’t compete with them as they were so much better than me, so I took that solicitor up on his offer.

As an aside, in 1977, in my first term I went to stay with my senior organ scholar in Bingley and he took me to Bradford Cathedral as John Scott was playing the opening recital on the newly restored organ by Walker. So it’s wonderful to be coming back.

I took up the legal profession with the aim of playing the organ, keeping music as an informal hobby. I kept it going, but drifted a bit for ten years until I found myself deputising for a church in Surrey which had the most amazing organ made by Frobenius, a Danish organ builder, and I had a new lease of life there, being the organist for eleven years.

I had the most wonderful time doing that until I was around the age of forty, by which time my job moved me from being local to London, so I didn’t have time to practice and so I let it slip again.

I carried on playing for for friends and families at funerals and weddings but when I reached sixty, almost two years ago, there was a restructuring at work and I was made an offer for early retirement, and the figures worked out. My wife, at the time, was working at All Saints, Margaret Street, where Dame Gillian Weir, the wonderful organist who taught me at Cambridge, was in the office. She asked what I planned to do with my retirement and she told me to get back onto the organ bench and get playing!

At this same time a professional organist friend had just bought a Hauptwerk organ, and given his enthusiasm for the way technology had moved on, I was inspired to purchase a system for our home which was installed in the attic of our house in North London. Alex Berry, your Director of Music then paid us a visit through a mutual friend, and we played on the instrument and chatted about my return to playing, which led to him to set me a target to give a recital in Bradford in a year’s time, and so here we are!

With your music, travelling and photography you’re enjoying your retirement?
I’m loving it! It’s so fulfilling as my day will start with some organ practice and then I take photographs for people who need profile shots for their website, and I have just worked on photographs for the front cover of Organists Review. Those two hobbies are keeping me more than busy, not to mention travelling as well. Life couldn’t be better!

For you, what makes a good lunchtime organ recital?
I think the objective is to ensure that everyone who goes home after recital has liked something. They might have been informed by a piece or a composer they don’t know; they may have been wowed by something that was exciting; or they may just carry a tune away with them. One of the pieces I’m playing is Elegy by George Thalben-Ball, who was remarkably famous in his day, and was organist at Temple Church in London. I went to the City of London School and all the choristers would come from the school and I got to know Thalben-Ball very well indeed. He was a wonderful and inspirational man. He advised that when you give a recital, you should make sure that you have given pleasure to those who’ve come along to hear you. You may have a musician there, an academic, or a shopkeeper, or someone who has just popped in for forty minutes in their lunch break. You can’t be too esoteric or too academic; you have to give a good variety.

How did you pick your pieces for your recital?
J.S. Bach is always going to be key in my view. Of all the composers who wrote for the organ, Bach is really supreme, and so it’s always a good thing to include some of his music. And his great mentor was Buxtehude, so that gave me the shape for the start of the recital. In between these composers, I have some chorale preludes from composers from Norway, England and France, all written for the Orgelbuchlein Project of which I’m a trustee and patron. That project came about because Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, or ‘Little Organ Book’ was intended to contain around 164 choral preludes based on the hymn tunes of the day, but Bach only completed 46, leaving blank pages, some with just the title, or the title and the tune.

My very good friend William Whitehead started the project to complete the book but with composers from the modern day, composing short chorale preludes to fill the gaps. This project was completed last year and to celebrate the achievement I decded that whenever I give an organ recital I should play some of the pieces, to get them out there to make people aware of this great work that my friend did over these years in encouraging composers to come forward and compose!

So, from Germany to England, and alongside my tribute to George Thalben Ball with his Elegy, another wonderful piece, the Canzona by Percy Whitlock.

Then we finish with France. Thalben-Ball often played Fiat Lux by Theodore Dubois, and so I thought I’d end with that, and precede it with a beautiful and quiet piece from the same volume of twelve pieces, In Paradisum.

I therefore hope that there’s something for everyone in my organ recital!

I imagine that variety keeps things interesting for you as the player?
It does, because each piece has its own challenges. The three pieces from the Orgelbuchlein Project are so different: one is very slow, one is very delicate, and one is quite bonkers! They’re three representative pieces from the project and they give me a challenge in registering them to bring out their character, which of course applies to all the pieces I’ll be playing. I’m looking forward very much to acquainting myself with the instrument so as to produce the colours to show them all off well.

Finally, do you have any big plans for the rest of 2020?
More recitals! I’m grateful to Alex Berry for inviting me to give this recital, as I’d not really intended to give organ recitals on an on-going basis. I’ve really loved this challenge as its renewed my enthusiasm for communicating music to wider audiences, so on the strength on this I have another recital to give in South London in October and before then a recital in a Stately Home in Wiltshire.

Join us for our weekly Wednesday@One Organ Recitals at 1pm, with a lunch buffet available from 12:30pm. Andrew Prior will be playing on Wednesday 11th March 2020. More information on this recital, all others and this season’s coffee concerts can be found in the programme available to buy from the recitals and concerts.

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