© Richard Powell 2013 - updated 2020
This is just the place where I write a few words about being a British organist in Norway. There are quite a few of us here, some having been here since the late 70s. In many ways it’s a good life, the standard of living is high and the place is incredibly beautiful with mountains and fjords and islands. My work is varied, with services, concerts, andakts, piano teaching, choirs, composing and arranging so there’s little chance of being bored.
Just a bit about one of the several British organists working in Norway
Ah, yes, well I’m sure there are lots of people who wonder about this one ! It might seem like we turn up at five to eleven on a Sunday morning, play for about an hour and then have the rest of the week off. But actually my week sees me doing many things. Here are just a few of them. Well, most, actually .
Funerals take place almost every week here. On average there are about 90 each year in a municipal area with about 6000 inhabitants. Some are very straightforward, others involve rehearsing with soloists which can be demanding. I remember one lady soloist turning up literally five minutes before the funeral, presenting me with an ancient four pages of manuscript, written in very faint pencil, in Gb, which I’d never seen before and then expecting me to accompany her. When I asked how fast it should go, she said, ‘Normal tempo’. It all went okay but it’s not a situation which an organist wants to find himself (herself) in.
and just to change the subject ....
Some people have asked me why I have a picture of a haystack on the right hand side of this page. It’s simply that I’m very fond of old country customs and crafts, and this is a process which is called ‘hesjing’. Basically, instead of a machine picking up the cut grass, people do it by hand, hanging it over wires to dry. This particular picture was taken in a little village called Fiksdal, where I used to live.
Andakts happen every week. In my case there are two. An andakt is a short (three quarters of an hour) meeting with Bible readings, some prayers, hymns and a short sermon. I play the hymns and two or three piano pieces. These short ceremonies take place in residential care centres for the elderly. The priests or the deacon do the sermons and readings. I’d say that these andakts are very much appreciated by the residents, possibly not so much for the religious content, as for the fact that they give people something to look forward to.
Weddings take place throughout the year, but in this parish they are concentrated between April and October. As with funerals, they can be very straightforward but some can be very demanding on time. There are two pieces of music which are used a great deal. Mendelsohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream March is the most common entrance piece. The Norwegian ‘Bridal March from Øre’ is the most popular piece for the couple on their way out. Sometimes there are soloists and this can take quite a lot of arranging and rehearsing.
Choir practice
The Church Choir meets every week on Thursday evenings. Since this choir was founded in 1995, I have worked on the premise that spending time on liturgical music for the services is more important than trying to do performances of stuff like ‘The Messiah’, which is, to be honest, just a little bit too difficult. Doing arrangements for this choir is something which takes up quite a lot of time, but the reward is that they brighten up any service in which they take part. I used to have a children’s choir, but this is now covered by other people. These days children’s choirs repertoire consists almost exclusively of jazz-gospel songs. This is not a problem for me, but I am sad that the repertoire cannot be drawn from many different styles, not only for the congregation, but also for the sake of the children, who get to see only one side of music.
Concerts also take a good deal of time and energy to arrange. In recent years we have started a ‘Concerts Council’ in order to get a broader input regarding the types of concerts we put on. Breadth is important here so we have many different types of concerts. Naturally we have a lot of choral music, both from local choirs as well as visiting choirs. We have had organ concerts, using modern technology to transmit pictures of the performer to a screen, so all can admire the feats of the feet and hands. Accordion concerts, violin concerts, jazz concerts, cello concerts, brass group concerts have all taken place, as well as many others.
Meetings seem to take up an increasing amount of time. We have a staff meeting every Wednesday to check dates and who is doing what, and this is very useful.
Organ maintenance is also something which needs doing. Norwegian churches, unlike their British counterparts, are usually very well heated and it’s almost always a pleasure to go and practise the organ during the week. But the reeds always need tuning and that takes patience... I do a lot of organ practice each week, mostly at home on the little Peter Collins organ. In many ways I don’t need to do this, since I already have a whole pile of pieces which can be used for Preludes and Postludes. But life without challenges is dull, and I still haven’t properly mastered all the Six Sonatas which Bach wrote.
Services don’t just take place on Sundays. Throughout the year there are many other services which take place throughout the week. In Lent we have evening services on Wednesdays. In Advent there are ‘Light Masses’. In the summer we have outdoor services where I have to arrange the liturgy and hymns for brass band. There are also various gatherings for the children each year who are to be confirmed.
Well, maybe. Fewer and fewer young organists are being educated and courses are dwindling. Many organists rather miss the old Organist Trade Union, which was swallowed up in the much larger Musicians Union. We may have increased our bargaining powers for pay and conditions (although that’s debatable since we still haven’t achieved parity with teachers yet), but we have lost a lot of the sense of being ‘organists together’, which is disappointing. It seems to me that the days are numbered for organists. Increasingly, jobs which were 100% positions are being advertised as 80% positions, or less. So I really do think that organists are an endangered species, which may well be on the way out. Ask me again in 50 years time .. Now, editing this in 2020, three years after ‘retirement’, there are far fewer British organists than there were in the 80s and 90s. There seems to have been a great increase in the numbers of musicians from Eastern Europe. Many of these are excellent pianists, who just ‘adapt’ as organists. As in many countries, the concept of ‘church musician’ is gaining hold, so that holding organ diplomas is not the only ‘way in’ these days. The church has changed too. Services are no longer the stiff formal occasions they sometimes were when I started in 1985. Music in the church is much more varied, reflecting popular taste, and there are often services led by bands of varying styles. The organist is much less seen as the person who will decided how music will be in the church.
organists on the way out? Services Organ maintenance Meetings Concerts so what does an organist actually do in the course of a week..…???
this was written in 2013 and things have probably moved on a bit since then …..
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