On Wednesday 2nd November 2022 we welcome John Hosking from Southport for the next of this season’s organ recitals. Here we find out more about his musical journey, his time on BBC Radio 4 and his passion about making the organ communicate with people.
Could you introduce yourself, how you got into music / become an organist and your musical journey to where you are today?
My first encounter with the pipe organ dates back to when I was around 8 years old and regularly accompanied my grandfather, a Methodist lay preacher, when he took services. I’d always ask if I could have a look at the organ following the service and one day, a brave organist invited me to have a go. From that day onwards I was hooked and after much waiting to be tall enough to reach the pedals, began lessons when I was 12; I took my first organist post at St. Peter’s, Newlyn in Cornwall at the age of 14!
I was awarded the Organ Scholarship at St. Martin-in-the-Fields at the age of 18 where I remained for two years, beginning studies at the Royal College of Music during the second year. Those two years were spent practising extremely hard to improve my technique and learn as much repertoire as possible. I was then appointed Organ Scholar at Westminster Abbey – the only person to ever hold this post for three years! During my final 18 months, I played for the majority of choral services including many Royal and State occasions and gave 20 solo recitals in the Abbey. An unparalleled learning experience for someone of that age.
After several temporary jobs covering interregnums and a bit of freelancing, I became Assistant Director of Music at St. Asaph Cathedral for 14 years. I was amazed at the amount of musical talent in that small part of Wales as well as an extremely appreciative and musically cultured congregation who enjoyed anything from Bach to Messiaen and wild improvisations! I then became Director of Music at Holy Trinity, Southport for four years.
I took up my current post as Organist in Residence at Blackburn Cathedral in September this year, where I preside over the iconic Walker/Wood organ designed initially by John Bertalot and Francis Jackson, with later additions influenced by my former improvisation teacher, David Briggs. The highlight of my career to date was giving a solo recital at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris in 2015.
What can people expect from your recital at Bradford Cathedral?
Hopefully there will be something for everyone, but it’s very unlikely that many people will have come across some of the pieces in my programme before. Alec Rowley’s ‘The Sixty Fifth Psalm’ is quite simply a tone poem; it vividly depicts selected verses from Psalm 65 and demonstrates many different colours on the organ. Mendelssohn’s Sonata no. 2 in C minor opens loudly, leading into a gorgeous quite movement and culminates in good Germanic tradition with a fugue.
The final work in the programme is my own Advent Fantasy, composed last year and commissioned by Sebastian Thomson as part of his ‘Angels of Creation’ series. This is the second work I have written for Sebastian’s series and is based on four Advent themes – Veni Emmanuel (O come, o come Emmanuel), Helmsley (Lo he comes with clouds descending), Rorate Coeli (Drop down, ye heavens from above) and Wachet Auf (Sleepers Wake). It has many moods – it sounds French in places, has a jazz-like movement, is contemplative in the centre and has a very fiery conclusion.
Why do you enjoy playing the organ?
I love the tonal variety of the organ as well as its immense power. The organ can set a reflective mood, it can be rather angry in tone or be celebratory. It’s the only instrument that can accompany a solo voice or a congregation of over 1000 singing. I am passionate about making the organ communicate with people and enabling it to sound like a musical instrument, rather than a sterile, mechanical machine for which it has had a bad reputation in the past. The organ needs to breathe just as a singer or wind player does and I constantly reflect upon my performances to communicate this as effectively but musically as possible.
Do you have a particular favourite piece out of those you are playing?
I tend to only programme pieces I really enjoy playing, but would point out the Buxtehude Ciaconna which I’d forgotten I had learned almost 20 years ago and had never played in public until this year. It’s full of intricate detail and will demonstrate some of the more delicate colours of the organ.
Each recital this season includes a piece from The Orgelbüchlein Project – what was it like learning this piece / why did you pick that particular piece?
If I’m completely honest, I am still trying to discover the point of The Orgelbüchlein project. I see within it a collection of very different works in different styles, some well written and others which leave plenty to be desired; all are based around the chorales that Bach planned to write preludes on, but are mainly miles away from what he would have produced. I feel that it would have been a much more interesting and consistent project to ask for the missing chorale preludes to be written as a Bach pastiche, which would have also taken much more skill!
The piece I’ve chosen to play by Christian von Blohn is extremely well written, in the style of Brahms. It works well on the organ and is clearly influenced by Brahms’ setting of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. It isn’t difficult and so only took a couple of play throughs to play satisfactorily. My favourite piece from the collection, by Stephen Hough, was chosen by several other organists to play, so you won’t be hearing it in my programme – but a little disappointing for me, as I recently played at the ceremony where Stephen was given an honourary doctorate by the University of Chester.
You are one of the organists for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Daily Service’ – what has that been like to be involved in?
To quote the chief conductor of the Daily Service, Andrew Earis ‘what better way to spend a day than recording a wide variety of music with a great bunch of singers’. I always looked forward to the recording sessions with the Daily Service Singers, never quite knowing what music choices would be made and having to provide anything from standard anthem accompaniments by Stanford to improvising jazz piano accompaniments. Currently, the Daily Service is relying on archive BBC recordings as a result of Lockdown, but I certainly hope the recording sessions are started again!
You’ve also composed many pieces of music; for you, what is the backbone of a great composition?
It’s so difficult to provide a short answer to this question, but more than anything, it’s important to be moved by a composition. Music is all about expressing or creating emotions and needs to feel alive and breathing – whether loud, quiet, fast or slow. Everyone is moved by different things. I was moved by Colin Walsh playing the Gigout Grand Choeur Dialogue at Chester Cathedral recently – not an obvious piece to conjour emotion as it’s so bombastic, but Colin’s immense command of the instrument gave it a sense of grandeur and excitement all at once that I’d never experienced with that piece before.
Finally, how would you sum up your upcoming recital at Bradford Cathedral?
Variety is the best way to sum up my programme – along with plenty of use of the large solo reeds! (I should point out that the Bradford Cathedral organ is one of my favourites in the UK!)
You can join us on Wednesday 2nd November October at 1pm for John Hosking’s organ recital, with an optional £4 buffet lunch beforehand at 12:30pm. You can find out more about John on his website and Twitter.
You can discover more about our organ recital season on our dedicated page.