History to music in Linlithgow

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In the present day climate of high salaries and bonuses for some, an annual remuneration of £60 for a professional organist to play for services in St. Michael’s Parish Church, train the choir and teach music to the Sunday school scholars reads like a pittance. Even more of a pittance was the annual fee of £15 paid to John Harvey, a shoemaker, for his part- time work as organ blower, plus supervising the lighting and heating of the church!

These were only two of many interesting facts in The Story of Music in St. Michael’s presented by the current organist and Director of Music, Andrew Sutherland, last Sunday afternoon.

Arranged in conjunction with the Society of Friends of St. Michael’s, which exists to enhance and preserve the church for future generations, the event attracted a large audience. These days there can’t be many kirks in the Church of Scotland able to provide a choir with the capacity to offer the wide range of material which Mr. Sutherland’s’ programme required. Despite a shortage of regular members of the male sections of the choir because of illness and holidays, the choir gave an excellent account of itself in a wide selection of music, from Plainchant, which would have been sung by monks in the long service of consecration of the church in May 1242, to a brand new anthem “If you love me keep my commandments”, composed by Mr. Sutherland himself for the Communion service on 29 April, which had its premiere.

Between these two landmarks, the programme covered some of the music from Reformation times – the Psalms to different styles of accompaniment ; the period of changes in the interior of the church when balconies and inner walls abounded and metrical psalms were being sung; the introduction of the first organ in the church in 1878, following a congregational vote on whether or not instrumental music should be allowed (759 voting ‘for’ 42 ‘against’ and 37 ‘neutral’ !) when the inaugural recital included Handel’s thrilling “Angels ever bright and fair, sung on this occasion by professional soprano Sarah Gillan, wife of the current minister of St. Michael’s, and the organ solo, “O sanctissima”, probably included in the programme because it illustrated what the new instrument could produce.

By 1894 St. Michael’s had gone through 7 organists and had moved on to a further renovation of the interior of the church which involved removing the balconies and the dividing wall on which the organ was placed. A harmonium provided the music during this period and the organist’s salary was reduced to £40! On 13 March 1896 the rebuilt organ was inaugurated with a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” and so the final part of Sunday’s programme included a solo and choral items from that work.

To record the installation of the current instrument, a refurbished Willis organ originally built for Queen Ethelburga’s School in Harrogate in 1912, and its inaugural recital on 3 March 2002, the event concluded with organ solos by Mozart and Widor from that programme and the new anthem.

St. Michael’s can be very proud of its current organist’s versatlity in not only being able to train a choir, play the instrument, compose music for both singers and organ, but also undertake the considerable amount of research which the event required and present the material in an interesting and lively way – an old organ pipe from one of the former instruments was blown by way of illustration at one point! – and the vote of thanks by Mr. Derek Henderson of the Council of the Friends reflected this.