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From Gown to Town and back again
Repertoire riches from the West Riding

Leeds City Organist Simon Lindley offers some reflections on the compositional output of friends and colleagues



Few organists can find themselves amidst such creative compositional talent as those resident in the county of broad acres. Among many delights accruing from making music in Leeds over almost a quarter of a century has been the chance to experience the first-fruits of new repertoire for the organ from the pens of distinguished composers based locally who have become friends as well as colleagues. Leaving aside the doyen of them, and us all, the ever-youthful and amazingly prolific Francis Jackson, chief claim for consideration must be shared between two men separated by twenty five years but drawn together by personal friendship and frequent professional collaboration.

As the century and the present millennium draw peacefully (or hurtle hectically) to a close, special birthdays last year and in 1999 have provided a welcome opportunity for more careful consideration of the output of two household names in Yorkshire music - James Brown (75 last year) and Philip Wilby (50 this). Both men are in the public mind linked inextricably with the vibrant music department at the University of Leeds - now headed up by fellow organist Graham Barber, nominated very recently to a Professorial chair in performance.

It was the writer's great good fortune to work with Brown and Wilby - together - in the 1976 Leeds Musical Festival - then under the directorship of the redoubtable Professor Alexander Goehr. He it was who decided that the then traditional recital by the Parish Church Choir should contain James Brown’s Variations for Organ and Strings and Philip Wilby, being the musical polymath that he is, led the professional orchestra engaged for the occasion.

The catalyst that this event proved to be has been a life-enhancing benefit for myself, and certainly for others too. No metaphorical ivory towers from Brown or Wilby! James has laboured indefatigably for local music in his adopted city outside the University precincts, and is a leading light in the thriving Leeds Music Club and other community groups while Wilby has often looked further afield, providing Canticles for John Scott at St Paul’s, a set of Canticles and a Mass for Norwich and a number of celebratory anthems for Cathedrals near and far. As someone who tries occasionally to compose but finds arranging rather more congenial (and certainly far less time-consuming), the writer regards the commitment of both men to their respective creative muses impressive and even awe-inspiring.

Both have produced substantial works for the king of instruments, several of which it has been my great good fortune to study and perform. John Birch had been the hugely persuasive soloist in 1976 for the Brown Variations, and it was the vivid memory of those which emboldened an approach to Leeds Organists’ Association to request a commission from James for 1993 - the year of the centenary of the granting of the City Charter by Queen Victoria, who managed to "do" Sheffield and Leeds on the same February day. (A continuing involvement with Brown’s output in the intervening years had been the participation by the Leeds Parish Church Choristers in his Oratorio The Baptism of Christ for Meredith Davies and Leeds Philharmonic Society. A tangible product of that happy collaboration was a short anthem for upper voices with a text from Tobit - If ye turn to Him with your whole heart - published, like much of James’s recent output, by Banks Music Publications.)

Brown responded handsomely to the invitation, producing a remarkable set of variations on a theme from Easter Vespers. Where Elgar had, in his Opus 36, captured the essence of human character, Brown - in his Centenary Variations - is similarly successful with geographical locations. After presenting the theme - a Paschal Alleluia from Kirkstall Abbey - in the tenor in meditative style with shimmering string accompaniment, the first variation portrays the Town Hall and Civic Buildings - solid, dependable music like the structures themselves. A Gavotte follows, paying homage to Temple Newsam House on the eastern perimeter of the city (the Hatfield of the North as we know it locally); much of this variation is in duo form for two upper voices, rather in the manner of a French organ mass of the l8trh century but with the material disposed in a recognisably contemporary, and English idiom. The treatment on Elland Road (home of Leeds United) incorporates, ingeniously, the fans’ chant. A more reposeful style is adopted for the "Hospitals and University" which, between them, provide the inspiration for Variation Four. The sporting imagery is taken up again in "Headingley" - a kind of free recitative which comes next - with the music illustrative of the cumulative business of bowling at the wicket. The most famous of the city's glorious parks, Roundhay, and its lake are next recalled, and the Parish Church treatment finds the composer in elegiac mood with reminiscences of Wesley’s Easter anthem Blessed be the God and Father taking up again the Easter ambience of the underpinning plainchant on which the whole is based. And lastly, comes the bustle of the Market as the finale - an environment in which JB is often to be found on purposeful perambulation doing his shopping.

The Variations comprise the latest work for organ from Brown, whose pen has been that of the "ready writer" of psalmody fame for over forty years - for he was Lecturer in Music and University Organist from 1948 until retirement. Other works from his not inconsiderable output include wedding presents for friends and pupils, a number of pieces for English virtuoso Allan Wicks - a contemporary and colleague of James’s - The Burning Bush for Gillian Weir and even a voluntary for his local Anglican parish at Kirkstall. Some works, too, clearly just written for the fun of it, vie for the attention in his portfolio with the more straightforward pieces d’occasion not least of which is the vivid Festal Toccata written for Donald Hunt to play at the 1961 Leeds Musical Festival and well worth more than the occasional airing.

If the Centenary Variations stand out in James’s output in a special and personal way, so too from Philip do two Triptychs - Roses for the Queen of Heaven and Prelude, Fugue and Toccata. Wilby’s music encompasses a very wide stylistic range - from melodically straightforward and often hypnotically beautiful writing for the Anglican liturgy to utterances of a decidedly more contemporary idiom. Of his vocal output the carol The Word made flesh (Chester Music) is a world-beater, his Advent piece for treble voices, Echo Carol (Banks Music Publications), is a hardy annual at the St Paul’s Advent Carols and his Motet for Mother Julian, Vox Dei (Chester Music) has been anthologised by the RSCM. An ecstatic Prayer of Manasseh written for the Bishop of Ripon shows what marvellous sonority can be gained from a choir singing very slowly and mostly very quietly.

The first Triptych . Roses for the Queen of Heaven - is, frankly, of formidable difficulty and exists, like the famous Reubke Sonata on Psalm 94, in an additional version for solo piano which Martin Roscoe premiered. The work is a large-scale concept, yet disposed over only a moderate timescale in performance terms. Each piece is based on a medieval rose window, and its special colours and overall design are integral to the musical layout. The general colour of each window is reflected and there are then more detailed descriptions in the music of individual panes of glass. After Reims West - the first of the three movements - is dedicated to Philip’s friend and former professional colleague, James Brown. The overall colour of the window is blue, with heraldic panels. It is dedicated to the Virgin. The music unfolds from an opening pedal theme and much organ colour is directed to be deployed during the music, which is essentially processional in concept. The tonality is so disposed so that performance can incorporate the preliminary singing of the Antiphon to Our Lady, Salve Regina.

The Prelude, Fugue and Toccata, composed as a gift for the writer, was produced in 1990. Each movement is prefaced by a scriptural text. The first deals with the Annunciation, the second with the mystery of the Incarnation (quoting the famous lines from Isaiah - The people that walked in darkness) and the brilliant finale again calls to mind Handel’s Messiah: Et incarnatus est (For unto us a child is born....)

[ written1999, submitted 2003]

see also James Brown by David Wright



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