Friday, 13 February 2009

A story from the organ loft…

Next week I’ll be in Santiago working in the Pilgrims’ Office and visiting with friends. I’ll meet with Ivar who runs the internet based Pilgrims’ Forum I'll also see Joaquin the organist in the Cathedral.

I’m an organist myself and I must confess that I am deeply jealous of Joaquin. He has one of the prized jobs in the church organ world. When he applied for the post he was interviewed by a panel of 9 people including 3 professors of music!

Every day he plays twice. At 9.30 in the morning he plays for a Solemn Sung Mass sung by the Chapter of Canons of the Cathedral. They begin by singing the Office of the Church as they have done for centuries and then on with Mass. Whilst very few people attend the Mass is very beautiful.

Joaquin plays again at 12 noon every day. From his perch high above he has a clear view of the entire church. He also has a TV screen on which he can watch the action on the altar and there is a telephone link between the organist and the cantor – so Joaquin and the nun who is singing can talk. I’m sure they would never say things like,” I wonder when this sermon is going to finish?” Oh really?

Very few of us have the chance to play to a packed church every day but that is exactly what happens in Santiago Cathedral. From 11 am onwards the Cathedral starts to fill up. Pilgrims arrive with rucksacks just in time for the Pilgrims’ Mass, tour groups arrive and very quickly every seat is taken. People jostle for position. They sit on the floor or at the base of columns. Some days almost 2000 people. There is always an air of expectancy.

A few minutes before Mass the nun who sings rehearses the congregation in some of the short responses which will be sung during the service. Then Joaquin begins the introduction and the Mass begins. Wonderful.

On the days the botafumeiro flies it almost reaches the level of the organ loft. The effect of the incense on the more delicate parts of the organ have been a worry for 200 years – but it is still flying and the organ is still playing.

The organ in Santiago Cathedral

I invited Joaquin to visit me in London and to play at the Thanksgiving Service for the 25th Anniversary of the Confraternity of St James. He had never been here before and had a whale of a time seeing the sites.

For a long time he has been fascinated with Westminster Abbey, its organ and musical tradition. I suppose fuelled by seeing Royal events on television. At home he has a collection of CD’s of recitals on their organ. So in advance of his visit to London I wrote to the Master of the Music, James O’Donnell and told him about Joaquin’s visit. He could not have been more welcoming.

So on the appointed day we took Joaquin on what he thought was just a tour of Westminster Abbey. After seeing round like tourists I asked him if he would like to attend Evensong and hear the organ and choir. His eyes lit up. What he didn’t know is that they were going to treat us as honoured guests with special seats in the Choir and then a guided tour of the organ itself after evensong.

Westminster Cathedral Organ - Joaquin gets a shot!

Evensong in the Abbey is usually attended by 200 people. To crown it all as we sat waiting for the service to begin 1000 people processed in carrying banners to celebrate a Ukrainian memorial. The procession was replete with priests and bishops in eastern robes. Splendid.

As he watched the great procession from his seat where during a Royal Wedding he could almost touch the Royal family, I turned to him and said, “Surely you’ll let me play in Santiago now, Joaquin?”

We’ll see.


  1. Oh you write so well Johnnie you have me wishing I was over there so I could climb up and see your organ loft...not that I really want to feel the cold of your winter, mind you. I am sure that if I visited your organ loft you would let me sing a song in a quiet time there!!
    At present I am involved with Sound of Music rehearsals, the lowest of the low in the alto nuns. We stand together in a little huddle so we are not put off by the high soprano parts!

  2. Johnnie Walker7 March 2009 at 07:12

    Thanks M. Well the world needs a chorus of altos too! And...I did end up playing the organ there! I think we'll play and sing together one day in Santiago.