Liverpool – City of Culture and Organ Day

 by Christopher Clemence

 Rosemary and I enjoyed a six-day excursion to Liverpool last year arriving at the end of April for what proved to be an exhilarating experience. Our reasons for planning a visit there at this time were: 1) to experience something of its status as European City of Culture 2008; 2) we’ve never previously attended the Organ Day held on the first Bank Holiday in May and; 3) particularly, to meet up with our old friend David Poulter (assistant organist at Rochester Cathedral in the mid 1970s), who was appointed Director of Music at the Anglican Cathedral in the preceding January.

David Poulter at the Anglican console

   We packed our bags and pointed the car in the direction of Liverpool, thankfully arriving safely at our B & B conveniently situated some five miles from the City Centre.  The following day, we travelled into the City by rail and began to explore on foot. Of particular note were the Walker Art Gallery, Merseyside Maritime Museum and International Slavery Museum and they were all FREE! Each venue could have warranted a whole day’s browsing, but we had to press on. We also walked past the ‘Three Graces’ looking resplendent in their cleaned condition. Did you know that the clock faces on the Royal Liver building are the largest in Britain? (Not many people know that!) That evening we attended the Northern Charity Premiere of Paul McCartney’s Oratorio ‘Ecce cor meum’ in the presence of the composer.  Sir Paul was only three rows in front of us and it took all my strength to restrain Rosemary from screaming and swooning at the sight of one of the Fab 4!  The work has a certain tuneful charm but I understand that he had a host of arrangers for the orchestration etc.

   Paul McCartney apparently failed his audition to join the choir there as a boy chorister. My association with the Cathedral began in 1961, when as a treble, I was chosen from an RSCM course the previous year at Addington Palace to attend the Cathedral Choir Course at Liverpool. We were tutored by Gerald Knight and sang the services for a fortnight in the summer. On one of the Wednesdays, Choral Evensong was broadcast live, but  the Lady Chapel was used, as I believe, for technical reasons, the BBC was unable to cope with the reverberation period in the main cathedral.

   Friday dawned clear and bright and a good day to take the lift up the Cathedral tower.  What wonderful vistas we experienced over the city and beyond!  We certainly gained an impression of the vast amount of regeneration work in progress and a bird’s eye view of the elegant Georgian terraces close by. After meeting David Poulter for lunch and catching up on all the news, we donned headphones and took a wonderful audio/interactive tour of the building. The afternoon was rounded off by a visit to Mr Hardman’s Photographic Studio, owned by the National Trust. This proved to be an absorbing conducted tour, viewing footage from yesteryear.

   As the weather the following day was at least dry, we decided to travel via the very long Birkenhead Tunnel and explore the Wirral, immortalised by Cliff Richard’s “Wirral going on a summer holiday!”  Our first port of call was a port, Port Sunlight and the Lady Lever Art Gallery - another freebie. Rather like Bournville, the village was beautifully laid out for its workers at the soap factory and has some architectural delights.

   Over late Saturday/Sunday morning the dreaded Liverpool ‘Lurgy’ struck – fortunately no more than a 24 hour sickness/diarrhoea bug. We couldn’t blame the President’s Dinner this time! It left us rather weak, but we dragged ourselves to the Cathedral Morning Eucharist. The choir sang parts from the Missa Sancti Nicolai by Haydn, a demanding sing but well directed by David. The concluding voluntary, played by Ian Tracey was Vom Himmel Hoch by Edmundson – absolutely stunning with a fistful of tubas and the trompette militaire, both on 50 inch wind, for the final chords. Incidentally, since the installation last year of a six stop Central Organ, which really makes a difference in leading the congregation, the organ has regained its position as the largest in the UK, with 10,268 pipes and 152 speaking stops, pushing the RAH back into 2nd position with 9,997 and 147 respectively.

   Monday brought with it the eagerly awaited Organ Day. First off was the recital given at the Anglican Cathedral by their Sub-Organist, Daniel Bishop at 11.15 a.m. His programme was:- 

Fanfare COOK;

Psalm Prelude Set 2 No 1 HOWELLS;

Toccata & Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) J.S.BACH;

Retrospection  DARKE;

Passacaglia in D minor BUXTEHUDE;

Hymn to the Fallen WILLIAMS/BISHOP;

Plymouth Suite WHITLOCK.  

There were many hundreds drawn to this gathering and I would just single out for comment the piece ‘Hymn to the Fallen’  from ‘Saving Private Ryan’.  Daniel had arranged this for organ and a side-drummer, who appeared from a side chapel resplendent in military regalia, marching and crescendoing to the front of the nave and then continuing and fading up to the high altar – very moving.

   Next came the recital at the Metropolitan Cathedral (Paddy’s Wigwam), where at 3.30p.m. the Director of Music, Timothy Noon gave the following:-

Allegro (Symphonie VI) WIDOR; 3 pieces from Messe des Couvents   COUPERIN;

2 pieces from Expressions  HAKIM; Benedictus REGER;

Concerto in A minor VIVALDI/BACH;

Carillon de Westminster VIERNE; Psalm Prelude Set 2 No 1 HOWELLS;

Carillon on Orientis Partibus     WILLS.


Another excellent recital with very much a French theme; we were able to give him greetings from Kent, as Tim had formerly been organ scholar and then later assistant organist at Canterbury Cathedral, leaving there in 2001. Incidentally, in 1967 when Walker’s installed the organ, my parents and I attended one of the inaugural series of recitals given by Noel Rawsthorne, then organist of the Anglican Cathedral.  Included in his programme was a piece by William Mathias, in the presence of the composer.

   To round off the day, Ian Tracey gave a recital at St George’s Hall at 7.30 p.m. This was the first time the organ had been heard in public for at least three years, while the hall underwent a 23 million restoration.  This was the order:-

 Overture, Poet and Peasant


5 pieces from Suite No 2 BACH/TRACEY;

Prelude & Fugue in E flat ‘St Anne’ BACH; Choral No 2  FRANK;

3 dances from Nutcracker Suite TCHAIKOWSKY;

2 pieces  DUBOIS;

Symphonie No 4 WIDOR.  

  This was a musical kaleidoscope and brought forth two encores. One of the magical moments was the use of the Harmonic Gongs of the Choir organ in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

   This was a very full day and an unforgettable experience, not just for us but for David Wells, the organ builder, who was at all three recitals and kept fully occupied at St George’s, where the organ developed a cypher towards the end. In speaking to him, he mentioned that he has had over 50 years uninterrupted service looking after the Anglican Cathedral organ, right through his Willis and Harrison employment to now when he has the contract in his own right. He maintains all three organs.

   We left Liverpool the following morning with some wonderful memories of sights and sounds and if any members haven’t been before, then I would urge you to put it on your must-see list.  Whether able to do so or not, may I commend the combined CD and DVD of The Grand Organ of Liverpool Cathedral on the Priory label PRDVD 1, which includes a demonstration tour of the organ.



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