On Wednesday 31st January we welcome Christopher Rathbone from Ilkley for our fourth organ recital of the 2024 season. In this edition of ‘Notes from an Organist’ we discover more about them, and what to expect from their recital, including being the first Assistant Organist at Carlisle Cathedral; playing one of his own compositions for the first time; and the joys of gardening!

Could you introduce yourself, how you got into music / become an organist and your musical journey to where you are today?
I got excited by church music as a 14-year-old tenor on a Cathedral Course in Durham Cathedral under Martin How (late-lamented) in, I think, 1961! He suggested I join Croydon Parish Church Choir (now Minster) under Roy Massey (later of Birmingham and Hereford cathedrals). When I went up to Cambridge I continued the organ studies I had followed with Arthur Milnes of St Paul’s Presbyterian Church at the bottom of our road in South Croydon, and was encouraged by Peter Le Huray, Director of Music Studies at St Catharine’s College. As a 4th year I did a MusB in Composition (under Alan Ridout) and Organ Performance (PLeH sent me to Arthur Wills, Christopher Dearnley and Francis Jackson for Consultation lessons in their respective Cathedrals!).

My first Job, in 1970, was as the first ever Assistant Organist at Carlisle Cathedral under Andrew Seivewright (I was also Tenor Layclerk). I also fitted in an FRCO. From there I went to be Organist and Assistant DoM at Marlborough, where I stayed for 23 years, including a year as Acting Director of Music, in charge of six full-time colleagues and about 25 visiting instrumental teachers.

Fed up with playing for my colleagues, I eventually left Wiltshire for the exciting Yorkshire city of Leeds, where I lived a busy freelance life for about 11 years as organist and choirmaster at Meanwood PC, Layclerk and frequent Organ recitalist at Leeds Parish Church under Simon Lindley, Music Director of Morley Musical Society Choir and the Bradford Chorale, and Organist/Harpsichordist/Composer/Tenor Soloist for hire around the West Riding.

After two years away on the South Coast as someone else’s organist for two years I was tempted back to Yorkshire by the job of Director of Music at Ilkley which still, after 14 years and more, keeps me gainfully employed, with a keen choir of 15 – 20 most weeks (Sung Eucharist and Choral Evensong every week) and a superb 4-manual Hill organ of 1901 at my command, and giving a monthly organ recital (12:30 pm of the first Friday of each month) to a loyal band of organ music enthusiasts. This Friday’s, on the Feast of Candlemas, will be no 130.

What can people expect from your recital at Bradford Cathedral?
The recital on January 31st is varied, including the first Bach Trio Sonata – I first played the six sonatas over six weeks as voluntaries at Carlisle Cathedral in the 70’s – followed by a grand Introduction and Passacaglia by Sir Walter Alcock, who was Organist at Westminster Abbey and then at Salisbury Cathedral, and died the year I was born (1947). It makes good use of the huge dynamic range of the grand cathedral organ.

An equally wide-ranging and exciting piece is the fantasia by Kenneth Leighton (who I knew well before his early death at 58 in 1988) on the Advent Hymn ‘Veni Redemptor’ (hymn 19 in the New English Hymnal), with its thrilling concluding pages – not bad for a brilliant pianist/composer who never learnt to play the organ – though he had been a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. My final offering is a cheeky little suite that I wrote in September/October last year – this will be its first performance.

Why do you enjoy playing the organ?
My enjoyment in playing the organ is the feeling that there is so much wonderful music for the instrument that is so little known by the general public, even the music-loving public, and it’s such a privilege to be able to offer it to at least my audience in Ilkley. I rarely repeat repertoire! I also get a kick out of accompanying the choir, who are so keen and gifted!

Do you have a particular favourite piece out of those you are playing?
I like all of these pieces, but Leighton always has a moment of ecstacy in his pieces, which is thrilling!

This season’s theme is ‘Trios and Trio Sonatas’ which features JS Bach’s six trio sonatas in full. Are you playing one and, if so, which one is it, why did you choose this one, and why are you looking forward to playing it?
I have played all the sonatas many times, but no 1 has always been a regular part of my repertoire for ever. My favourite is no 5 in C.

What are your hopes or plans musically for 2024?
I Just hope I can keep up with the present regime of a recital a month, and two or three services a Sunday. We also have Festal services on various feast days, such as Candlemas on Friday.

You are the Director of Music at St. Margaret’s Ilkley. How has that role been?
I think I’ve covered the importance of my job in Ilkley fairly well above. I don’t think I thought when I started in the role in 2009, when I was 62, that I would still be there in 14 year’s time!

You are a keen composer. For you, what makes a great composition?
I don’t know – I wonder what anyone else would say to this question? One just does one’s best to write something interesting and enjoyable.

You are the former president of the Leeds Organists Association. Did you enjoy your time there?
Simon Lindley suggested I join the committee of the LOA, and within a couple of years I had been elected President. I don’t think I was a very exciting President! I’ve kept very much a back seat in the Bradford Association, of which my young friend Anthony Gray is now President.

What hobbies do you enjoy outside of music?
I like walking, gardening (keeping us in vegetables most of the year round is very worthwhile!), and reading. My wife (a retired priest) and I say and sing morning prayer together most days. We also enjoy visiting our grandchildren in Bath – 3 – and Glasgow – 2 – when we can (Brisbane – 3 – is a bit far these days!).

Finally, how would you sum up your upcoming recital at Bradford Cathedral?
Fairly typical – I usually do at least one all-Bach recital every year, and British and French 20th century music are otherwise my favourite stamping ground – obviously British in this programme – so it’s fairly typical!

You can join us on Wednesday 31st January at 1pm to hear Christopher’s organ recital, with an optional £4 buffet lunch beforehand at 12:30pm. You can find out more about Christopher on his website.

You can discover more about our organ recital season on our dedicated page.

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