Was it fate?  by Dennis Mathew

Was it fate or just a series of lucky breaks?

My mother declared that she’d had no more than six months piano tuition. But I recall, in my childhood, hearing her playing “Ballads” (so-called, I suppose, as this was before the Fox-trot was invented, with its steady four-in-a-bar) in the “spread-fingers” style that those pre-1914 pieces seem, now, to have required. Looking back, I am impressed with what a teenager could achieve. But another surprise was once hearing my mother’s mother (Nana) sit at the piano and play “Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?” This was one of the beginner’s pieces that came in Smallwood’s Piano Tutor; it was a very popular book, but I never asked how she learnt it.

So, did I show any signs of talent or even the ability to finger a version of “Little Grey Home in the West”? I don’t think so. But I did start piano lessons with a local teacher in 1929 at nine years of age and achieved the not very impressive pass in Grade Two of the Victoria School of Music!

I became a member as a boy in the choir of the local C of E church of St. Andrew’s New Kent Road in South London. I benefited from a seat very near the three-manual Bishop organ. This was interesting!  And it was reinforced by seeing the great Quentin Maclean — at the other end of the road — playing on the Mighty Wurlitzer (largest in Europe with four keyboards!) at the Trocadero Cinema, Elephant & Castle.

It didn’t take long before I persuaded my parents to pay the church organist to give me lessons on the church organ — at the expense of the local lady teacher. She had raised me to the level of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. (Fast movements a bit tricky!)

Mr. Coles, now my teacher for both piano and organ, didn’t have a very large repertoire, although he did have the first volume of Augener’s Edition of Bach’s Organ Works “The Great Preludes and Fugues”, though I was attracted by his performance of Wolstenholme’s Allegretto in E flat. After more than sixty-five years of humming it, I’ve bought my own copy. I note that it was originally written for Viola. But it transforms itself very smoothly into an attractive “lollipop”  (thank you, Sir Thomas!).

I did manage to get my own two-volume collection of Bach’s Chorale Preludes and my musical education was improved by a couple of visits to the Chapel of King’s College, in the Strand, where the organ had just been re-built by Willis. One evening there was a talk about John Bull’s music with a performance by Miss Glyn, the acknowledged expert on Bull’s music. She wore high-buttoned boots, but as the music was for manuals only, I don’t suppose it made much difference. Another memorable occasion — about 1935/6 — was a recital by Susi Hock, a Young Austrian musician. She had just been married to Sir James Jeans, the well-known scientist and music-lover. I found his book on Science and Music fascinating. Members with RSCM connections will of course know that Lady Jeans left her home, Cleveland Lodge, Dorking, to the RSCM.

My organ-playing studies at this time — I was still only about fifteen years of age — led me to enter for the Talent contest set up by the Manager of the Trocadero Cinema — remember that four-manual console? It wasn’t a success. I was told that the show was running late, so I decided to help by abandoning my chosen solo “Evensong” by Easthope Martin and, instead, play a jazzy quickstep. This was total rubbish, I virtually committed suicide at the console!

Once at Oxford, in 1939, I found the College organ-scholar, also a humorist and Major Mathematics Scholar, a great help in playing Bach. He was having lessons from William McKie, then Organist of Magdalen College, but soon to move to Westminster Abbey.

Still, I couldn’t stay away from Jazz. I’d done lots of “gigging” whilst still at school and now had the opportunity of becoming pianist to the University Dance Band, but with ready access to the college two-manual Father Willis I think I did improve my performance of organ music, particularly Bach.

Then I had more than five years War Service in the Royal Navy. Not much organ playing, but I did have permission to play the organ in Gibraltar C of E Cathedral. The only music available was a volume of Hymns A&M, still, better than nothing.

After I’d taken my degree, I had to find a job. At the same time I asked the Organist of the Trocadero — at that time Rudy Lewis — if he would give me lessons in theatre organ playing. I was lucky that he agreed to do so. I discovered that whilst a student at the Royal Academy of Music he had studied under York Bowen, and the legendary G.D. Cunningham. He’d left after four years’ study with a teacher’s diploma, and a certificate for the highest award of the Academy!

Shortly after taking a job in London, and moving into “digs” at Herne Hill, I looked up an old friend, whom I’d first become acquainted with as our piano tuner. He was also a church organist and I was invited to his church, St. Andrew’s, Stockwell Green. I tried his three-manual Norman and Beard organ, met the vicar and found that I’d been appointed Organist and Choirmaster, to start in a couple of weeks time! My friend reckoned he needed a break.

The Church was “very high”, so a good introduction to church music; we — including congregation — sang the Psalms to plainsong! As time progressed I had some marvellous instruction in playing from Arnold Grier and achieved a life-time ambition, to be organist at St. Giles, Camberwell, with its three-manual Bishop, built in 1844, and designed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, who gave the opening recital. By the time I arrived there was an electric blower, but appallingly noisy, one could barely hear the service proceed above the noise of the blower!

By now I’d become a very enthusiastic member of the newly inaugurated Cinema Organ Society, in addition to membership of the respective County Organists’ Association. Living with my parents, I’d started with the Surrey Organists; then moved to the Kent County Association, in the days of Kenneth Turner as Secretary. Once I’d married a wonderful girl on 9th June 1951, and started married life in Bromley, I joined the Bromley Organists’ Association, led by the late Jack Coxwell.

I was fortunate to have some lessons from another brilliant organist, Gerald Shaw. He told me his tutor thought that three lessons were sufficient if one showed a satisfactory response, so three was all I was going to get!

One final excitement. I went to visit the man who played the organ at the Trocadero for the children’s Saturday morning film shows. He was organist at St. George’s, Southwark and, to my surprise, he mentioned that he was thinking of resigning his appointment at the “Troc” in favour of having more free time to conduct an orchestra he had formed. Was I interested? It was a matter of being third time lucky. I’d made a hash of the Talent Contest, I’d had lessons on the instrument from Rudy and learnt a lot more about the way to handle these really very versatile instruments, and now I actually had a chance to play it myself!

The Manager was agreeable, so I was “Uncle Dennis” to about 850 children every Saturday morning. This was in 1952 and I had eight very wonderful years. Quite honestly, not many of us had such an opportunity. Even the tuners came every three weeks — honest! It continued until the cinema closed and the Cinema Organ Society was able to buy the organ.

As a church organist I’d developed a great interest in the RSCM and the teaching it could offer to amateurs like myself. This also coincided with a move to the Black Country to start a new job, so I found the RSCM a great organisation to belong to as a stranger to that part of the country. One could soon find friends, not only through the RSCM but also through the Midland branch of the Cinema Organ Society. You’re never alone, once you’ve joined.




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