Seeing is Believing – Sunday 3rd October 2010

Posted on October 3, 2010

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Louis Vierne at the Notre Dame Cathedral Organ

There will be plenty to feast your eyes on at Christ Church this month! On 3rd October, Bishop Peter will preside at a special Evensong to give thanks for the restoration of the Lady Chapel and bless an icon that has been written in memory of two former parishioners. The restored wall paintings in the Chapel look even more delightful under the new lighting. The practice of icon ‘writing’ is fascinating and its history within the Anglican Church equally intriguing. Both topics, I am sure, will be covered elsewhere in this edition of The Spire by much more learned contributors!

The icon is the latest beautiful sight to appear in our church – but what is church like for people who rely on other senses? I have been reading the autobiography of the organist Louis Vierne, who was born nearly blind. His first experience of walking into a church (Saint-Maurice in Lille) had a life-changing impact;

“I thought it must be sorcery; the variety of timbres, the sustained sound, the magical effects of softness, crescendo, and power filled me with a mysterious terror, and also with the desire to play that miraculous instrument myself.”

Vierne was encouraged and supported by his family and sent to the National Institute for the Young Blind which, through the chance friendship between its Director and a number of Parisian priests, had become a music conservatoire that sent graduates to several churches and cathedrals across France. Vierne’s memoirs are a fascinating insight into the struggle for dominance between improvisation and performance technique that was raging in the school during the time of Franck and later Widor’s tutelage. But, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who was born blind, the book contains few references to help the reader understand how he mastered the king of instruments; Vierne eventually became the organist at Notre Dame. (Our three manual Walker organ looks intimidating to me – and I can see all of its 43 stops – about one third of the number at Notre Dame, which has 7,800 pipes!). It falls to his contemporaries to give us some clues. Louis P. Hoyt, the organist of St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, visited Paris in the early 1920’s:

“He knows where every stop is and makes his own combinations by running his hands over the rows of knobs rapidly.”

G. Huntington Byles, a British organist who became Director of Music at a church in Connecticut, noticed how Vierne’s blindness, caused by congenital cataracts, enabled him to distinguish bewteen light and dark – a fact he used to help him navigate the organ:

“The console at Notre-Dame was fixed with special lights. Of course, he always counted the stops from end to end…But he could see because of the bright lights, and could see these tiers of stops a little bit.”

Jean Langlais (1907-1991)

Vierne suffered crippling stage fright throughout his career (which seems unusual, considering that a well-known coping strategy is not to look at the audience, or to imagine them as something else). Some believe that be became addicted to tranquilizers and sleeping pills, which began to affect his heart.

He was a judge for Les Amis de l’Orgue’s Concours biannuel de haute exécution et improvisation in 1931, where a 24 year old Jean Langlais, who was also a pupil at the National Institute for the Young Blind, won first prize. After the competition, Vierne gave Langlais some final advice, which we now know to have been a portent of his last hours;

“Mon chéri, you will see that you can give up everything in life: health, happiness, money; but, believe me, there is one that you will never give up: music.”

Vierne died at the console of the Notre Dame organ on 2nd June 1937, despite the attempts of his pupil, Maurice Durufle to revive him;  a slip of his foot sounding a final low E, which people below assumed was the first note of the improvisation which was the next piece in the programme.

John Stanley (1712-1786)

Blind organists were not peculiar to France; composer and organist John Stanley lived at a time when London was still being transformed in the aftermath of the Great Fire. Born in 1712 and a contemporary of Handel, Stanleywas blind from the age of two after he slipped on a marble hearth while carrying a china basin. A child prodigy, Stanley came to be as well known as Handel; at least in London, for his playing of the voluntary after services. He became an assistant organist of All Hallows, Bread Streetat the age of nine, and organist of St Andrew’s Holborn by twelve. He moved to the TempleChurchwhen he was twenty two, where he remained for the rest of his career. John Stanley was the youngest person ever to receive a Bachelor of Music degree from OxfordUniversity. He had a brilliant musical memory, although this capacity understandably influenced his own compositions – his voluntaries for organ and string concertos are shorter works; Louis Braille not inventing his system of notation for another hundred years. It is rumoured that Stanleydevised a similar method himself, using pin pricks on cards to help him play Whist (both he and his wife were renowned players amongst the lawyers and clerks of the InnerTemple). It was his experience of adapting to life without sight in Georgian England that eventually persuaded the proud Handel to seek Stanley’s counsel as he began to suffer sight-loss in his later years, having previously declared “when the blind lead the blind they both fall into a ditch.”

Handel’s sentiments would, I am sure, be challenged by David Liddle, who has been the organist at St Barnabas Pimlico since 1986 and is widely respected as a recording artist and recitalist. Blessed with the musical memory of Stanley and Vierne, David admits in his blog that he finds memorising words more difficult – an obstacle he overcomes with the use of braille transcriptions and some impressive gymnastics, which mean – at least for hymns and psalms – that he uses the right hand and pedals to play, leaving his left hand free for the braille.

Vierne, Langlais, Stanley and David Liddle each show us that a lack of sight is no barrier to achievement. However, there are some people in the world who suffer from ‘avoidable’ blindness – conditions which can be treated with improved access to medicine and uncontaiminated water. World Sight Day on October 14th aims to raise awareness of avoidable sight loss, which affects 314 million people in the world, 90% of whom live in low income countries. Even today, one child in the world goes blind every minute, although though 80% of blindness is avoidable. The World Health Organisation has a target of eliminating avoidable blindness by 2020 and the campaign in the UK is led by the RNIB. You can find out more about the campaign at www.vision2020uk.org.uk . Take a look.

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