The rewards and pitfalls involved in composing for the organ

Cecilia McDowall, composer

What instruments did you play when you were growing up?

I began learning the piano when I was seven, though as a five-year-old I always enjoyed ‘messing about' at the keyboard. The sounds entranced me. Later I studied the violin and oboe for a bit and then, more seriously, the cello. I remember being let loose on the tenor horn at one point but soon realised my incompatibility!


What was the first piece you wrote with an organ part?

I’m not entirely sure but I think my first real piece of organ writing will have been ‘Sounding heaven and earth’, the first of my George Herbert trilogy commissioned from the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, performed by Leon Charles in 2010.


If you didn’t play the organ growing up, how did you approach writing for it?

I always enjoy talking with organists about the rich array of possibilities on the instrument and usually, after writing an organ work, I consult with kind organist friends as to whether the writing is ‘organic’. I’m always keen to make sure the writing is not unrealistic. My first experience of playing the organ was for a church service in Wales when I was about 12 . . . I soon appreciated that its complexities were beyond my ability! Far better to leave to those with a real technical and musical understanding, and just enjoy the colours and the magnificence of the organ as a listener, and later, as a composer.


What do you think are the differences for a choir being accompanied by the organ, piano, or other instruments?

One of the differences – and concerns – I’ve encountered has been to do with organ pitch. On a couple of occasions I found the organ was tuned at variance with standard pitch and provided a challenge for the choirs to meld. But more usually the organ provides strength, subtlety and colour, inspiring choirs to add dynamic nuance to the tone.


How prescriptive are you with regards to registration?

I am very aware of my own limitations in understanding the great scope of the organ and prefer to leave registrations to the judgement of the performer. I will often write something descriptive which I hope might give a flavour of the desired colour. Registrations can be so different in America and in Europe and I hope by leaving options open the organist will be able to select the best available stops for the occasion.


Katherine Dienes-Williams performs an extract from Cecilia McDowall's O Antiphon Sequence


Your George Herbert trilogy for organ has proved very popular liturgically – any idea why?

The metaphysical poetry of George Herbert brings great depths and insight in a devotional context and purely as inspiration to any composer his poetic imagery strikes home. Perhaps it is significant that Herbert was a musician; there are so many references to music in his poetry.


Have you ever experienced any opposition/prejudice as a composer due to being female?

I don’t feel I have, though I haven’t been looking for it or expecting difficulties. As one who has come late to composing I have just been focused on trying to do the best I can in all I write.


Cecilia McDowall's organ works:

Celebration (2016) OUP 9780193406131

Church bells beyond the stars (2013) OUP 9780193393363

O Antiphon Sequence (2018) OUP 9780193522947

Sacred and Hallowed Fire (2013) OUP 9780193394018

Sounding heaven and earth (2011) OUP 9780193378865

Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns halt (2012) OUP 9780193386624



Born in London in 1951, Cecilia McDowall has won many awards and been eight times short-listed for the British Composer Awards. In 2014 she won the British Composer Award for Choral Music. Much of McDowall’s choral music is performed worldwide, as well as her orchestral music. Recent important commissions include one for the BBC Singers, Westminster Cathedral Choir, London Mozart Players and a joint commission from the City of London Sinfonia and the Scott Polar Research Institute to celebrate the life of the British Antarctic explorer, Captain Scott, in Seventy Degrees Below Zero. Three Latin Motets were recorded by the renowned American choir, Phoenix Chorale; this Chandos recording, Spotless Rose, won a Grammy award and was nominated for Best Classical Album. New commissions for 2016 include works for the BBC Singers, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and a new song cycle for Roderick Williams, amongst others. Earlier this year the BBC Singers premiered When time is broke, three Shakespeare settings. Oxford University Press has signed McDowall as an ‘Oxford’ composer and she is currently ‘composer-in-residence’ at Dulwich College, London. In 2013 she received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of Portsmouth.

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A woman in the organ maintenance business

Laura Johnson, tuner at Harrison and Harrison

How did you get into this business?

I used to want to be an organ builder when I was little. I would go into the workshop in Durham and play with the scraps in the metal shop or watch Alf, an ‘old hand’, at his bench, or sometimes I accompanied my father when he was fixing a fault on an organ. Aged seven, I came in handy one Saturday afternoon in Durham Cathedral when, shortly before a big service, I managed to fit into an awkward space to fix a cypher. That day the service's procession was accompanied up the nave by an organ improvisation on ‘Oh dear, what can the matter be?’. Then I became a teenager and had other ideas. I studied languages at Bristol University, before returning to plan A for what was intended to be a post-graduate ‘gap’ year. I went on to complete my organ building apprenticeship, moved into organ tuning and maintenance, and have now been working in the business for 18 years.


Do you play as well as tune?

My skills as a tuner are better than my skills as a player, but I do play the organ sometimes. I’m more of a pianist than an organist.


How many instruments are you responsible for?

The London tuning round is shared between three of us. I work part-time, and have a couple of dozen organs on my list, but we also swap about depending on availability, so I get to visit many more organs than that.


How many other women organ technicians/tuners do you know?

More now than when I started out. At the beginning I used to find that the organists would often talk to my assistant (usually older than me and male) rather than to me, but now it’s quite normal to be a woman in the trade. As part of my apprenticeship, I went to organ building school in Germany where 10 out of 60 of us were women.


Did you find it difficult being accepted?

Not really. When I started out colleagues were sometimes a bit polite around me, but that didn’t last!


What is the hardest thing about what you do?

Nowadays the main issue is getting the timing right so that the children aren’t left at the school gate at the end of the school day. I am over-reliant on London transport behaving itself.


What is the most rewarding thing about tuning?

I get to see some wonderful places – some of the really big London cathedrals, of course, but I also enjoy going to the smaller churches (and the biscuits are sometimes better there). I enjoy doing site-work, as it makes a nice change to work as part of a team, but I don’t do that so often these days. However, our take on the London tuning round can be fairly generous geographically-speaking, (for example stretching as far as Portsmouth amongst other places), so I do still get to travel a bit. Fixing faults keeps things interesting, as no two organs are the same, though some faults are definitely more satisfying than others to fix, and some can of course be downright infuriating. I like the work because, even on a tough day, I still find it immensely rewarding to be involved in the upkeep of such beautiful instruments. I also feel part of a continuous history of the organ: often inside an instrument one will come across a signature or bit of graffiti from a previous tuner, builder or chorister, or perhaps an idiosyncratic way of fixing a fault that was obviously only meant to be temporary but is still there and doing its job (or not) years later. Over the years I have had some organs to look after which have very much been on their last legs, meaning that every visit involves choosing to concentrate on either tuning or fault-fixing as there is no time for both. Seeing these organs going back to the workshop for restoration and then getting to know them again in full working order and sounding their best feels like a new lease of life for the tuner too.


What do you do in your spare time?

I am training as an upholsterer, and I also do some translating work. I enjoy playing the piano and spending time outdoors with my family. We have a house in Kent, where I tinker with various bits of minor DIY.


What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into organ maintenance?

Start out as a note-holder to get the flavour of it – we always have trouble in finding enough assistants, so you’d be doing us a great favour! Our boss at H&H started out as one of our note-holders.



Laura Johnson (née Venning) works as a London tuner for Harrison & Harrison. She started out at H&H, then spent several years working with Manders in London. As part of her three-year apprenticeship with them, she attended the Oscar-Walcker Organ building School in Ludwigsburg, Germany, for which she first had to learn German in a great hurry. She has also worked for organ builders in Strasbourg and Latvia. Major projects that she has been involved in include The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, and Stockholm City Hall. She graduated with a double first in French and Italian from Bristol University, and speaks five languages. Laura is married to Simon, whom she met when she was working at St Albans Abbey, and they have two children, aged 8 and 6.

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Raising a family and juggling a busy recital career

Catherine Ennis, recitalist, Director of Music, St Lawrence Jewry, former President of the Royal College of Organists

How much help raising your family have you had over the years from your husband, nannies and other people?

Most women recitalists I have known who have children chose to take a career break during their children’s infancies. This is fine if you have made the statutory “2.5 children and a mortgage” lifestyle choice, and indeed admirable. For me, I arrived in our family when three small children were already here, with their lives already supported by a nanny, and so my career continued as normal until the birth of my first (our no. 4). Returning to work after maternity leave seemed an obvious choice. With the arrival of the two subsequent babies, further domestic help was essential if I was to be enabled to continue working – even if it was just to limp along as an exhausted automaton!


I was Director of Music at St. Marylebone Church, loved working with the professional singers there, and loved the Rieger organ I had helped the church to commission with the Royal Academy of Music. However, after baby no. 5, it became apparent that Sundays were desperately unfair on everyone. This is what used to happen. I would leave early; the baby came with me, met my mother at the church who walked him around Regent’s park until I had a break to feed him between rehearsal and service. Father would dress, feed and bring all the others to church having first prepared lunch and switched on the oven-timer. Inevitably the older children began to have parties to go to and homework to do, which filled the rest of Sunday as we all piled into the car again to ferry everyone around. The Sundays when I had an evening service as well were a nightmare for domestic arrangements, especially if my husband was away working. Enough! It was sad to leave a job I loved and an organ I adored, but it was the right decision for our family life.


Concurrently I held the post of Director of Music at St Lawrence Jewry, where I still work. As it’s a Guild Church there are no Sunday services and so my working life there is pretty much office hours only. Special services for Civic occasions and City Livery Companies and a weekly lunchtime recital comprise my workload. Generally, this and practice time could be managed between the morning school run and the afternoon collection times. With the vagaries of London traffic, I had to be firm about rushing away at 3pm in order to zigzag around North London to collect from the various schools, sport activities, music lessons etc., and would arrive home any time between 5pm and 6pm with a carload of grumpy children ravenously hungry and laden with homework.


Did your children all have music lessons? Are any of them professional musicians?

All of our children had some music lessons and all enjoyed the experience, some more than others, some with more success than others. None has chosen to make music their career. Perhaps they saw how little my salary seemed to contribute to their upkeep! There was no way I could be diva-ish about how wonderful and important it is to play the organ (which it obviously is) when my major role in the family was (is) to support everyone else, especially my husband, the main provider, who had a particularly stressful and high-profile job. Perhaps I was guilty of underselling music – but it would have been a hard sell. One Christmas I announced I would arrange a few carols for all the instruments they were being taught, plus bassoon, their father’s instrument. I was informed by our oldest, then 12, that it would be “in your dreams, Mum”! It was so not cool, alas. No Von Trapp family music-making for us.


Did you ever have time to practise?

Music practice did happen, but how could it be prioritised with so much else going on? When a higher-profile recital was in my diary, I could prepare the domestic arrangements in advance. Parents of the children’s friends were very kind, and my mother was always an absolute star. We had numerous excellent babysitters. However, the unexpected often threw a spoke in the wheels. One rehearsal for a recital was agonisingly interrupted by a phone call from a tearful son who’d just suffered repeated wasp stings in the outfield during cricket. The day before another recital, my husband (a lawyer) was suddenly required to fly off to the British Virgin Islands for a case, meaning extra school runs adding to the crammed schedule. There were times when I felt I did not do myself justice because my head was so much in the family rather than in the music! It was often easier to play better during a few days’ concert tour, though missing everybody and juggling domestic arrangements from afar by telephone was a negative counter-balance.


Did you give up playing temporarily at any point?

Though arrangements become less frenetic as the children progress through school, the emotional energy required to be a parent when only you can deal with whatever the problem is (and you can’t delegate to anyone else) seems just as demanding and time-consuming. I did have an enforced career break for a year of cancer treatment in 2007, and returned to a much reduced schedule for the first few years thereafter, because I realised how important to everyone in the family it was that I was just there at home and not dashing about.


Do you think your organ playing career would have been easier if you’d been a man?

For me there were disadvantages both of gender and denomination: as a woman Roman Catholic I wasn’t eligible for the best apprenticeships, i.e., C of E chorister/organ scholarships. I also did experience occasional misogynist attitudes, for example, when conducting choir in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where I was briefly Assistant Organist in the mid-80s, from men in the choir and in the congregation. On the other hand, perhaps some positive discrimination (standing out because of being a rarity) mean that everything balances out? So I can’t say definitively if my career would have been better if I’d been a man!


Final thoughts?

In the past few years there has been more time to focus on playing again and to return to teaching which I had missed. We have just had our first granddaughter, with another one due imminently. I am fortunate indeed to be still playing and loving making music at the organ.




Catherine Ennis is an organ recitalist, teacher, and advisor. She is Director of Music at St Lawrence Jewry next Guildhall, Vice-President of the Royal College of Organists, Director of the John Hill Young Artists recitals, Trustee of the Nicholas Danby Trust for young organists, founder-editor of the London Organ Concerts Guide, and Past President of the Incorporated Association of Organists. In 2018 she was awarded the Medal of the RCO. Recitals and recordings have taken her to many international venues. She has given master classes throughout the UK and abroad, both as organist and choir director, and is frequently examiner and adjudicator for colleges and festivals.

Catherine Ennis has helped create four major new London organs (the Rieger at St Marylebone, shared with the Royal Academy of Music, the Klais at St Lawrence Jewry, the William Drake at Trinity College of Music, and the Queen’s Organ in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, built by Mander).