A article written Spring 2010, The Organ, No 351, by John Amis in 2010 on his friend Dame Gillian Weir
1965 - the First Night of the Proms, waiting for the soloist to come on to play Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani. Thinking of previous musicians who have occupied the hot seat of that organ loft in the Royal Albert Hall, behind which lurks the local Fafner, one of the most famous and biggest of organs.
Renowned organists have sat there, and some famous composers too - Bruckner, Liszt and Saint-Saëns. And in the time of the founder of the Proms there's been Marcel Dupré, Thallben-Ball, GD Cunningham and, accompanying and pedal-pointing in the direction of the codas of the Enigma Variations, Mahler 8, Glazunov's Carnival and all, dear old Berkeley Mason: mostly gentlemen of advanced years, stately as galleons and as sexy as rowing-boats.
As Gillian Weir takes her bow we can see it's all different now; she's young, she's pretty, she's slim and those are not organist's legs whose twinkle toes are going to crash the first chord, an arresting call to arms straight out of Bach. And he will not be the last composer to the ‘laid under contribution’ (favorite old-time programme-note phrase). Poulenc hints at Buxtehude, cribs a bit of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, pops into a café chanson before remembering to finish solemnly with a bow towards Stravinsky.
In her young life, Gillian Weir had already achieved. Her first keyboard was the piano; at 19 she won The Auckland Star piano competition, playing Mozart. Soon, she came ‘overseas' studying piano at the Royal college of Music with Cyril Smith and then organ with Ralph Downes, both whom she acknowledges with gratitude: ‘they taught me how to work, how to practise, how to get behind the notes.’ She was reluctant to compete in the prestigious St Albans lnternational Organ Competition, didn't think she had a chance and had to be pushed and shoved into taking part. There she played a canny card by playing Messiaen, then practically unknown. She wowed the judges (1964) and won the prize. Clever BBC took note and booked her for this First Night of the Proms. She wowed the audience, those in the Albert and those listening at home, many millions of them, since the concert was broadcast worldwide. The critics raved and a notable career was truly underway.
Reviewing one of her concerts l wrote: ‘Dame Gillian is one of the greatest of living artists; her playing shows a perfect mixture of hand and heart, a true musician with the technique to tackle anything.’
The rest is not silence, but notes on some high spots of a long and distinguished career that shows no signs of diminishing; her playing continues to give pleasure, to show boundless energy, perception, through preparation, curiosity and a forward drive that is like an arrow on its way to the target. She tours the world and has done so many times in recitals and concertos.
Chris Bragg wrote in 2006: ‘The contribution made to the world of the organ by Gillian Weir is almost incalculable. Our instrument has hardly had such a skilled ambassador in modern times.’
The life of a concert organist such as our Weir heroine is not an easy one. By now, she knows most of the organs she plays on but getting to know them has been a major task. Getting to grips with a new one takes time; first you get the specifications, then you meet the beast itself to learn its characteristics, its strengths, it foibles; this takes hours, often the small hours when these are the only ones when the hall or church is not being used for other purposes. Every instrument is different; they can be friendly, they can be recalcitrant. Electronics have made a difference so that registrations can be set up in advance (just as fireworks can!). Sometimes the organ can seize up. A cipher rarely happens these days but I have known it to happen when Gillian plays- it seems that machines and Gillian can be at odds (particularly with her washing machines, which can flood, and her motor-cars - which can mysteriously go ‘phut!’ - I sometimes wonder if she is a poltergeist in reverse). But these are tiny details in a life of triumphs. And formal triumphs have deservedly come her way: she is a Dame Commander of the British Empire (1996) and has been ‘doctored’ - seven times at the last count.
Her devotion to the instrument that Christopher Wren once described as ‘a (damned) chest of whistles!’ did not even stop at marriage, for she was married for 26 years to that great organ-builder of talent, Lawrence Phelps- although for much of their union he lived in his native America, Gillian near Reading in the UK.
The Dame's repertoire is vast, containing almost the entire literature of the instrument, from Buxtehude, Bach and Handel onwards, from Vierne, Widor and Jongen to Messiaen, whose complete works she has recorded. Her instrumental devotion extends beyond the mighty organ back to the smaller ones of yore; she delights in the chamber organ, playing Couperin and other early composers. She also occasionally plays (and obviously loves) the harpsichord.
Also must be mentioned Gillian Weir the Administrator and the Teacher. She excels at master-classes which she is often asked to give. She was the first woman President of the Royal College of Organists and she also served as President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. She is also a good speechmaker and shows, when dealing with a question that she can think on her feet. She has a good brain and makes fine use of it. Not the least of her attributes is her speaking voice, which is well modulated and has a bubbly quality.
As a person Gillian is tremendous fun and good company. She can talk on many subjects, appreciates food and wine, can see a joke and make one, is broad-minded. She hates unnecessary noise and abhors smoking. She dresses well and always looks attractive. But don't ask her to work your washing machine!
Former music critic, presenter and friend of Benjamin Britten John Amis spoke to members of the Orpington Recorded Music Society on Monday 22 April 2013, sharing his recollections about the composer and playing some select recordings of works written by and conducted by him too.
At 90 years of age, Amis still commands attention. His towering presence is matched by a quick wit, measured self-deprecation and an enviable confidence when paying close attention to sartorial detail. Never before have I seen anyone carry off bright green, pastel pink and a brown check so assuredly. This combined with the very real sense that Amis remains one of only a handful of people alive who retains a palpable connection with Britten, made him an enthralling prospect.
Many of the anecdotes he shared during the evening were familiar; many appear in Carpenter’s biography about Britten. That said, it didn’t harm being reminded of some of them, especially as it helped illustrate what Amis’ view was on the Britten bubble throughout the man’s life.
First, an explanation of how Amis came to meet at Boosey & Hawkes, soon being asked to page turn at a special concert the composer had mounted at Wormwood Scrubs in 1947 where another composer, Michael Tippett, had been imprisoned for being a conscientious objector. Tippet and Amis shared page-turning duties during the concert. So the friendship between the two composers blossomed.
Historically, I’d always seen Amis as part of Britten’s ‘inner circle’ but Amis was quick to clarify early on: he considered himself ‘less of an intimate friend, more than an acquaintance’. This was borne out in his various anecdotes involving his ex-wife Olive Zorian as first violin in the Zorian String Quartet (‘Ben and me had to sit on the floor in me and my wife’s flat following the score of his second string quartet in rehearsals because me and my wife only had four chairs and the quartet had to use them) and leader of the English Opera Group (‘Olive was the only person who didn’t know she’d been dismissed from her job at the English Opera job’ – she found out two weeks later). These and a few recollections from the tail-end of Britten’s post-operation life, put Amis squarely in the ‘observers’ bracket.
In other ways, Amis didn’t beat around the bush, referring early on in the evening to Pears and Britten as ‘boyfriends’ (Amis is the first of his generation I’ve witnessed in most of my adult life use the term so comfortably in front of a room full of elderly people). From that point on though, Amis inadvertently illustrate how his contemporaries would have referred to the composer’s homosexuality, relationships or sexual proclivities. Intimacy wasn’t shied away from, although talk of sex was frame in quaint sometimes childish terms (“the boys Britten liked were always clear in stating that yes they shared a bed with Ben, but there was never any ‘hanky panky’”).
What Amis succeeded in doing effortlessly (this presumably down to his considerable radio and writing experience) was annotating Britten’s music and music-making. Amis spoke warmly about the composer’s output, describing it has having a charm and freshness which listening to the extracts selected for the evening (included below) was difficult to deny. Amis also threw light on Britten’s nerves as a pianist and a conductor, before introducing a breathtaking interpretation of Rex Tremendae and Lachrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem the latter of which can only be described as being taken at breakneck speed, disappointingly so.
This was a great primer of some of Britten’s best known and less well-known works. Ballad of Heroes was a particular surprise, so too the similarities between the early Piano Concerto (a personal favourite) and the Diversions for Left Hand. If you’re familiar with Hymn to St Cecilia then be prepared to experience heaven on earth. Balulalow from Ceremony of Carols maintains its exquisite status.
Marion Thorpe, who has died aged 87, might well have preferred a discreetly musical existence, notably as a prime mover in establishing the Leeds International Piano Competition. But the connections that she made along the way, with marriages to the Queen's cousin and opera administrator Lord Harewood, and the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe, made her a much more widely known figure, if still a very discreet one.
She was born Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Ermina Wilhelmine Stein in Vienna, though from early on answered to an eighth forename, Marion, by which she was known thereafter. Her mother, Sophie, was tall, blonde and seemed to float through life, all Viennese charm. Her father, Erwin, was a distinguished musician, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, chubby and scarcely 5ft in height; the strikingly beautiful Marion took after her mother in inches, but her father in complexion and dark hair.
He was Jewish, and the family left Austria in 1938. As a music editor with the leading Viennese publisher Universal Edition, he was equipped for similar work with Boosey & Hawkes in London. I first met Marion when she was 15: after tea on Sunday afternoons she and I would play Mahler symphonies on the Steins' upright piano, with Erwin bouncing up and down behind us, shouting instructions in German.
Marion studied at the Royal College of Music and played the piano professionally, not as a soloist but forming a duo with Catherine Shanks; they played works – many by Mozart and Schubert – for four hands at one keyboard.
Boosey & Hawkes's composing star at the time was Benjamin Britten. Stein oversaw Britten's work through the press, believing him to be the genius he turned out to be. Britten became like a member of the Stein family and Marion duly fell in love with the charismatic young – but gay – composer.
Britten had a great friend in George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, and in 1949 Marion became a member of the royal family by marriage to George; Britten composed them a wedding anthem. Since at that time the earl was 11th in line to the throne, the consent of King George VI had been necessary.
For a decade and more, Marion survived the transition from life in a flat in St John's Wood, north London, to living in Harewood House on a grand estate north of Leeds, sharing the housekeeping with George's mother, Princess Mary, who had the title Princess Royal. It cannot have been easy. Three sons were born in the 1950s: David, James and Jeremy. Marion spent much time travelling, in mainland Europe and farther east, especially India, and in doing so took in a lot of music, opera and theatre with George.
In the early 1960s, the earl was artistic director of the Edinburgh and Leeds festivals. He fell in love with Patricia Tuckwell – a onetime model and a violinist in symphony orchestras in her native Australia. They had a child, and Marion got a divorce in April 1967, being awarded custody of her children and a house in Orme Square, north of Kensington Gardens.
In 1963, she and the leading piano teacher Fanny Waterman started the Leeds International Piano Competition, which provided an early platform for such artists as Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida. Their volumes of Piano Lessons have been bestsellers. Waterman became a dame, and in 2008 Marion was appointed CBE.
The pianist Moura Lympany introduced Marion to Jeremy Thorpe, who had been leader of the Liberal party since 1967. They married in 1973, but their happiness was shattered as a result of allegations brought against him by Norman Scott, a gay man with whom Thorpe was said to have had a relationship, and by Peter Bessell, a former Liberal MP who claimed that Thorpe had planned to have Scott murdered. Thorpe was committed for trial at the Old Bailey in 1979, charged with conspiracy to murder, and was acquitted.
This brought about the end of Thorpe's political career; he had resigned as party leader in 1976 and lost his North Devon seat at the 1979 election. Throughout the trial, Marion supported Jeremy, attended every court session and even interrupted a press conference. A BBC reporter, Keith Graves, asked if Jeremy had ever had a homosexual relationship. Marion shouted: "Go on, stand up. Stand up and say that again." Three years after the trial, Jeremy started to suffer from Parkinson's disease.
What with mixed feelings about her parents having different religions and the fact that her brother fought in the second world war on the German side, it is not surprising that Marion was reserved in her opinions, inclined to sit on the fence. She liked to laugh (not difficult living with Thorpe) and was good company, but did not make jokes or lead conversations. For relaxation she liked ice skating, which she was good at; and she enjoyed a bloody mary afterwards.
Thorpe and her sons survive her, along with six granddaughters, six grandsons, two great-granddaughters and four great-grandsons.
• Marion (Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Ermina Wilhelmine) Thorpe, musician, born 18 October 1926; died 6 March 2014
A New Yorker abroad.Andrew Litton,
Principal Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Director of
the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Sommerfest and Music Director Emeritus
of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, talks toAndrew Keener.
Last meeting …Remembering John AmisMany memories ofJohn Amiswere evoked byRobert Ponsonby,Denis Moriaty and David Cairnsin person and byMichael Rose, Humphrey Burton, Piers Burton-Pageand many othersin
audio recordings. We were also treated to recordings of John himself,
talking, singing and whistling. A talented man who will be missed by
many, but after last night’s meeting still seems very present.
Items played during the meeting were:
Talking about Music: signature tune (Lincolnshire Posey, arr.
Grainger). Followed by excerpt from interview by JA with Dame Myra Hess
(latter available on BBC Legends CD).
Live presentation: Robert Ponsonby reading Michael Rose’s encomium,
given at JA’s memorial concert at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge on 8 October
3) JA talking of working at the record shop EMG Handmade Gramophones, London.
4) JA talking of the National Gallery Concerts during the Second World War.
Punkt Contrapunkt. Spoof Musicological discussion between JA and Gerard
Hoffnung (from the Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival, Royal
Festival Hall, 1958) (EMI Records and various sources)
6) JA talking of Bryanston, the Amadeus Quartet and Rawsthorne.
7) JA talking of Bryanston, Dartington and William Glock.
Live presentation: Robert Ponsonby reading from JA’s collection of
recollections, reviews and essays, My Music in London, 1945-2000
JA talking of Michael Tippett, in jail during the Second World War,
turning pages for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten in recital.
10) JA talking of early Aldeburgh Festival years.
11) JA talking of Britten ‘corpses’.
12) JA recalling Peter Pears’ description of JA’s singing voice.
Gardener’s Song, from A Lambeth Garland by Penelope Thwaites. John
Amis (tenor)/Penelope Thwaites (piano). (Nimbus Records).
Frankie Howerd singing Sir Joseph Porter’s song (When I was a lad...)
from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, followed by JA interview with
15) Piers Burton-Page remembering JA as a snappy dresser.
Opening credits by Steve Race from BBC Radio series My Music, followed
by JA reminiscing about the show and an extract from the programme.
17) Live presentation: Robert Ponsonby relating three anecdotes apropos JA.
Violin Test. Extract from JA BBC Radio programme featuring ‘blind’
test of four violins played by Manoug Parikian in front of panel
consisting of Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Charles Beer.
JA talking of the music which consoles him when he’s down: not
necessarily the ‘profound’ classics, but maybe a piece of Dowland or
20) Live presentation: David Cairns reading from his encomium of JA, given at the Memorial Concert mentioned in 2).
21) Bilbo’s Last Song by Donald Swann (words by Tolkien). Sung as a duet with Donald Swann (piano). (Nimbus Records).
22) JA singing ‘Ausgerechtnet Bananen’ (Yes, we have no bananas), arr Steve Race (piano). From BBC Radio programme, My Music.