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Looking Back: A Woman Organist's Adventure

Published in May 1935, a tale of late trains, sticking pedals, a 'severe-looking' elder and 'temperamental' minister.



IT is no use mincing matters, the “powers that be” do not look with favour on the woman organist. Consequently I was delighted when I heard that I was to be given a trial for the post of organist and choirmaster – or should I say choir-mistress? – of the important St. Aidan’s Church, Glasgow.

I was to take choir practice on the Saturday night, to play at the morning and evening services on the Sunday, and to give a short organ recital after the evening service. Hospitality was offered from Friday night to Monday morning.

I felt decidedly upset when my train ran into dense fog at Leeds – the time of year being early January – and was delayed nearly seven hours! I never expected that my host, a Mr. Roberts, would have waited for me, and I was engaging a taxi when I was hailed by a gentleman who inquired if I were for St. Aidan’s. It was Mr. Roberts, accompanied by a Mr. MacMaster who was a leading member of St. Aidan’s choir.

Mr. Roberts lived at Giffnock, a suburb of Glasgow which eleven years ago was far more “country” than it is to-day. When we reached the house, at about 1.30 a.m., snow was falling heavily. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts did everything they possibly could for the starved and nearly frozen candidate, but it was an inauspicious beginning to my visit.

We started for St. Aidan’s Church immediately after breakfast. I was duly impressed with the large and imposing church. Unfortunately, the organ appeared small and out of date. As I practised, numerous ciphers [when a note remains down and continues sounding] developed, so I knew I was in for a decidedly uncomfortable Sunday.

Mr. Roberts specially liked my playing of Boellmann’s “Toccata” from the Suite Gothique, and begged me to play this at the morning service during the collection. I was not used to collection voluntaries, but I suggested that they should be soft and devotional. Mr. Roberts, however, said that the “best people” attended in the morning, and the “Toccata”, as the collection voluntary, would give these a chance of hearing my technique undisturbed by an outgoing congregation.

The choir practice was in the church, and at first I was delighted that there appeared to be so many tenors and basses. I soon found, however, that some of these gentlemen were non-singers, and rightly concluded that they were members of the Music Committee who were sitting in judgment on me.

I quickly forgot my position as a candidate on trial, and concentrated solely on trying to get the Sunday services sung decently. Curiously enough the sopranos and altos appeared eager to please and help me in every way, while the tenors and basses eyed me with considerable suspicion, and were inclined to argue.

The minister of St. Aidan’s had told the Music Committee that, should my trial prove satisfactory, he, personally, would have no objection to a woman organist. Mr. Roberts introduced me to him before the morning service, and my nervousness was soothed by his kindly and understanding welcome.

The morning service went without a hitch. Afterwards a severe-looking elder remarked rather acidly that the offertory voluntary was a showy affair. I told him that I had been asked to play it by Mr. Roberts, and I well remember the indescribable scorn with which the austere one said, “Ach, him!”

I found, on entering the vestry before the evening service, that one of the Assistant ministers was to be in charge. Things immediately began to go wrong. The Assistant, a very temperamental gentleman, insisted that all the hymns should be altered and the anthem omitted. This much upset Mr. Roberts, who hurriedly called some Music Committee to aid him in squashing the Assistant. Quite a little scene developed which rather flustered me, and probably had something to do with the mistake I made at the metrical psalm at the beginning of the service. I lost my place and played the “Amen” a verse too soon. The choir followed my lead, so the mistake would not have been glaring, had not the assistant proceeded to read the omitted verse in a loud, reproachful voice.

The end of the service came, and was followed by an organ recital. I had played about twelve bars when a low pedal note began to cipher; I had to stop, and after repeated efforts got the cipher off. I began again, and at the same place the same thing happened, only this time two pedal notes went down. Now while I was trying to stop the really terrible roar, the Assistant came saying it would be better to abandon the recital owing to the condition of the organ. By superhuman efforts I finally managed to silence the two notes and to proceed with the recital. The organ behaved itself for the rest of my programme, and I was encouraged more than once by Mr. MacMaster’s fervent whisper, “She’s going bonnily the noo.”

As I packed my belongings, I wondered wistfully if I should ever again by playing in a Glasgow kirk. My joy was therefore great, when a month letter I received a letter saying I had been appointed organist and choirmaster to St. Aidan’s. There I spent ten of the happiest years of my life.

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