Concert Reviews
CD Reviews
The American Organist
January 2006
A conversation with Clive Driskill-Smith
Valerie Hall
Born in 1978, Clive Driskill-Smith was a music scholar at Eton College and then organ scholar at Winchester Cathedral and assistant organist at Winchester College for a year. He graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, where he was an organ scholar, with a first class honors degree in music in 1999 and with the MPhil degree in 2001. A pupil of David Sanger and Hans Fagius, Mr. Driskill-Smith became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists with the Limpus, Shinn and Durrant prizes in 1998 and was awarded the W. T. Best Scholarship by the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 2002. Winner of the Royal College of Organists' Performer of the Year Competition and the Concerto Gold Medal at the 2002 Calgary International Organ Competition, he is represented in North America by Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists and is currently sub-organist at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.

This interview was conducted in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in November 2004, in the course of a North American recital tour undertaken by Mr. Driskill-Smith.

VALERIE HALL: You have played organ recitals, alone and with American percussionist Joseph Gramley, around the world. On average, how many concerts do you play in a year?

CLIVE DRISKILL-SMITH: I normally tour North America twice a year, each tour comprising between five to eight concerts and lasting for two weeks. I play quite a few recitals in England (normally in the summer) and then some on the continent and some further afield, most recently in South Africa and Australia. Possibly 30 recitals a year.

What does it mean to be "sub-organist" of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford?

Sub-organist at Christ Church is the "number two" position. The person who is called the Organist never actually plays the organ. Besides myself and the organist, Stephen Darlington, we have two organ scholars every three years. [ed. The organ scholars overlap for one year when a new organ scholar is brought on and the other is in his/her third and final year.]

My duties are mainly playing the organ, but I also conduct the choir on an average of twice a week. We have eight services (three on Sunday) and I normally conduct on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. During term, I take morning practice for the boy trebles (8:00 to 9:00 A.M.) three or four times a week, either to take the practice or to take the young probationer choristers out and teach them how to sing. Apart from Monday (the day off), we have a 5:00 P.M. rehearsal followed by Evensong, and I share the playing with Elizabeth Burgess, the organ scholar.

How do you balance church work with your touring schedule?

First of all, it's a flexible position with two organ scholars, and second, it helps that Stephen Darlington is very happy for me to be away when I want. I've come to realize that if I were sub-organist anywhere else in England, it would be more difficult. I always try to do these tours during the half-term period so I don't miss anything. I try to play recitals when it's vacation time or the summer or just after Easter when the choir is not in residence.

There seem to be scores of organists touring the world under artistic management. You are one of the youngest in the field. What do you feel you are contributing to this art form?

Well, I suppose my answer is tied up with trying to change (like a lot of us are trying to do) the image of the organ as a Sunday morning machine that plays hymns. I have come to realize that I'm lucky being young, because I've heard from my agent in North America (Phillip Truckenbrod) that concert presenters like young performers.

I suppose every musician brings his or her own insight into the music, but I'm also very keen not to play programs that people will find boring. I would never play a whole program of Sweelinck, Frescobaldi, or Reger, for example. And if I were going to include a big 20-minute chorale fantasia by Reger (which I love), I would make sure that before and after there was some lighter, more popular music. I do think it's important that audiences are introduced to these bigger works, particularly when they are good music, and also to more contemporary music.

I'm very aware of the audience and I do spent a lot of time thinking about my programs. It sometimes takes two months to come up with something that I'm happy with. Also, finding a program that allows every stop on the organ to be heard. And I like talking in between pieces, because I've gathered in the last eight years that that's what audiences like.

When I'm thinking about the program, there are several layers. There's the timing of each piece. Then there's the country - so that it's not all German in one place and all French in another. Long-short-long-short would be ideal. The other thing I like to do with programs is to start with something pretty short. I think the first piece is quite important. I have started with Fiat Lux by Dubois, which is three minutes long and goes from ppp to fff, and that's quite a good bang to grab the audience's attention!

I would hope that as the next 30 years go on, people will really enjoy going to organ recitals and not just see it as something not very interesting. I think the video screen helps enormously.

You will likely have played the repertoire we heard last night many times. How do you stay interested?

Actually, I haven't played it that often. Basically, I like to come up with a new program every trip I make to North America (although there are one or two pieces I know audiences like, so I often repeat these in a program). If I put down the same program every time, I would want to move on to something else. I sometimes say that I've spent my whole life worrying about the next recital, in terms of not being ready for the next one. Which is one of the reasons that I don't play by memory; I prefer not to spend time memorizing when I could be learning new music. There's so much organ repertoire that I just want to keep learning. In 20 years, I will have played these pieces hundreds of times, but I think you can't get bored with really good music.

Also, every organ is different and the music sounds different on every organ. You have to explore and find what works on each organ and that fact, more than with any other instrument, prevents [the music] from sounding the same.

You began studying the organ at an age (15) that many would consider advanced. Would you say that this has been a handicap for you, or do you feel that your musical experiences prior to this point assisted your development as an organist?

I played the piano from an early age (possibly six or seven) and did that for a long time, along with bassoon and recorder. Then, when I went to school at Eton at age 12, every morning I would hear the organ in the main chapel - a pretty impressive organ, not just to hear, but also to look at because all the pipes are painted and it looks remarkable. I think, funnily enough, it was the visual thing just as much as the aural that made me think I wanted to start learning the organ. I wasn't a chorister anywhere at a cathedral, but I did sing in the choir at Eton, so I was constantly singing with organ accompaniment.

At 14, I asked Ralph Allwood, the director of music, if I could start learning the organ and he said no, which rather took me aback. He wouldn't allow me to start the organ until I'd passed grade 8 piano (grade 8 Associated Board exams). I had grade 7, so I got grade 8 next term and then I started the organ. It slightly annoyed me at the time that I couldn't start the organ immediately, but in retrospect, I'm very glad that I was forced to do that. When I started the organ at that age, I did one term of pedal exercises only. After that, I felt pretty much the same feeling of assurance in the feet as in the hands.

Did you have aspirations towards a concert career early in your studies?

I didn't have those kind of aspirations very early on. Until I entered competitions in 1999, I hadn't really thought about a concert career, although I did want to have a musical career of some sort. When I left Eton and went to Christ Church, Oxford, to read music, music was going to be my life from then on. I certainly thought for quite a long time that my ideal life would be playing piano concertos around the world with the best symphony orchestras. Then I decided to stay with the organ, and only realized that this concert career was possible when I was successful in some competitions.

You have been successful at a number of organ competitions during your musical career. Do you feel that competition is a necessary, or at least healthy, stimulus for musical development?

Obviously, it's been beneficial to me, because if you're lucky enough to be successful in a competition it can help the formation of your career greatly, simply in terms of getting concerts. My first was a Bach competition in Freiberg, Germany. My teacher (David Sanger) suggested I enter, although I didnÕt really want to because it was all Bach and I didn't feel that that was the best area of my playing at that point. He was absolutely right because, while I didn't get to the finals, it was an amazing experience. First, I met new people (other organists, people my own age); second, I heard others play, which is crucial; and third, I saw the amazing Silbermann organs in Freiberg. You can't play the repertoire without experiencing the organs for which the composers wrote - just to hear the sounds and how it feels. My teacher knew I would experience these things. Every competition builds contacts and a listening and playing experience; if you happen to be successful on top of that, then that's great. I've also found it useful because it has focused me on what I'm going to learn next.

It's not necessary to do well in competitions to have a successful concert career. However, the only reason I'm doing concerts now is because of my experience in competitions, so it's obviously been invaluable for me. If you don't enter competitions, how is anyone going to have heard of you? The competition organizers promote you and get concerts for you. I've been hugely encouraged by doing well in these competitions.

These are challenging times for organists of all stripes. Professional organists sometime wonder whether to encourage a young person to pursue playing the organ as their vocation. Do you believe that it's possible to have a fulfilling career as an organist?

Yes, it's possible, but it's difficult. And I think it is fulfilling. So long as you've been grabbed by the organ and love it, and love it's music, then spending a whole life playing the organ is wonderful. There are, I suppose, different ways of doing it. You're either a full-time church organist or you tour around doing concerts. Personally, my main love is giving recitals, but I also enjoy the church work that I do. I imagine that my life will always be a combination of these two rather than just doing one or the other.

We do need to encourage young people, because there aren't that many organists around. We need to get young organists in to play recitals and talk to them about the instrument and encourage them. And we need to try to get young people to come to recitals, so long as they can see what's going on. A few people will be grabbed by the sound and color of an organ, but when a child sees what's going on, he or she is probably going to be amazed. It's the kind of thing that will grab people more than just someone playing a hymn on Sunday morning.

What advice do you have for young people already studying the organ?

First of all, get as good a teacher as you can. That is extremely important, not just so that you play with the right kind of technique, but so that you continue to be inspired. Keep learning as much repertoire as you can and have a goal. Consider exams as a goal to work towards and maybe your first competition in sight in a few years time, if you want to do competitions.

I think it's very important to experience as many different organs as you can, wherever they are. If you want to study abroad, that's great because you can learn so much from different people and from different organs. If someone in his or her teens can travel to France and Germany, it will be amazing. That is essential actually, because you will be inspired when you see and hear and play those organs. Keep playing and don't give up is my advice.

Valerie Hall is organist at Holy Rosary Cathedral, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada and Second Vice President of the Royal Canadian College of Organists.