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Change of gear from the Kirk

Top right: Gordon Stewart at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.
Bottom left: Dr.Donald Webster

Change of gear from the Kirk

Borough organist Gordon Stewart, a son of the manse, chronicles his progress from chapel to Cathedral.

THE very first LP record I ever brought was of Handel's Messiah sung by the Huddersfield Choral Society, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent with Eric Chadwick at the organ.

Little did I realise then how important that organist was to be to me in a few year's time, and how well I would get to know that organ! But I am rushing ahead. This article is about how a son of the manse found his way to the North West and to two cathedral lofts and an appointment as Borough Organist.

I was born in Dundee in 1952, the son of a Presbyterian Divinity student father and an Anglican mother. My first piano lesson was with the piano teacher at my primary school. She became very ill after my first lesson and died soon after.

From then on things improved, however, and I was sent to wonderful teachers who encouraged me greatly, although my parents were convinced I had no talent and would make nothing of it.

My first organ lesson (5 for ten lessons) were with the Head of Music at my school, the organist of the Parish Church, Eoin Bennet, using The Organ by John Stainer as my first tutor book and Interludes for Beginners by Eric Thiman.

He was a strict master and by the age of fourteen I was considered ready to take my first post, organist of Dundee Methodist Church.

The minister had a fine tenor voice and directed the choir, never telling me what was to be rehearsed at choir practice and expecting me to sight-read everything.

It was a good training and we sang most of the Church Anthem Book and gems by Simper and Maunder, Olivet to Calvary being a favourite. Before I left Dundee I spent a year as organist at St James's Church, which was situated between the football pitches of Dundee FC and Dundee United. Weddings were always punctuated by roars as goals were scored, often coming in bang on time after 'I do'!

And so to the Royal Manchester College of Music and Eric Chadwick, a change of gear from Church of Scotland to C of E and a whole world of Anglican music I did not know existed!

Organ posts in Salford, Fallowfield and Flixton over the next five years gave me a wide experience, and when I was lucky enough to win scholarships to study in Geneva I felt ready to take on the choir of the American Church there and spend two happy years working with them.

If I had found Eric Chadwick and Gillian Weir strict teachers in Manchester, their demands were as nought compared with those of Lionel Rogg who expected his advanced students to practise six hours at least every day and to attend all the concerts they possibly could in the Victoria Hall and the Conservatoire.

It was a great life and the American and English Churches were very generous to me in allowing me endless practice time.

The Americans also broadened my views of what was suitable in worship - at one baptism service we took communion in sultana cake and champagne, something I had never experienced in the C of E.

So it was that with a Premier Prix I returned to the UK and to the organ post at Bowdon Parish Church for four years before moving to Manchester Cathedral in 1981.

Kirklees Borough Organist came along in 1989 and Blackburn Cathedral in 1994. All a long way from Dundee Methodist Church...... or is it? I have just agreed to the boys of the cathedral choir singing with Leeds Parish Church Choir in Leeds Town Hall next Holy Week. The piece? Olivet to Calvary!