Looking outwards 01 March

A personal perspective


I am David Wakefield and Martin has kindly invited me to write a monthly column, so I thought I should introduce myself to you. I was born in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, in December 1946. My parents attended a rather undistinguished 1930’s church (now thankfully demolished) where an ancient harmonium (played by an even more ancient lady) was its sole offering to the musical liturgy. Despite this, I was intrigued by the sound of this puffing and panting machine; and even more delighted on occasional visits to my grandmother’s church in Brentford where a majestic pipe organ commanded the music. At the end of the service, I would rush to the organ and was thrilled when the kindly organist allowed me to sit on the bench during the final voluntary; and eventually encouraged me to play, manuals only, a hymn or one of my piano pieces, after the congregation had departed.

Another treat was Sunday tea at a great aunt’s; she had a piano on which I picked out tunes and generally made a nuisance of myself until, at the age of 11, my long suffering family bought me a piano and arranged for me to have lessons. My teacher was my father’s old choirmaster who had an impressive series of framed diplomas on his piano. I didn’t get on well and, after 3 years of poor progress, bothered to read these diplomas and found they were all for singing. I left him and found myself a decent teacher, who probably over-indulged my liking for repertoire and my dislike of scales, arpeggios and exams; and my practice time was frequently curtailed in favour of a growing interest in rugby and the Royal Navy.

Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth was, perhaps surprisingly, the next stage in my musical education. The College chapel had a fine 3 manual organ by Hele and Company of Saltash, boldly voiced to accompany 300 young men singing at the tops of their voices, and on which I had my first organ lessons. Sadly, warships tend not to be equipped with pipe organs (a regrettable omission on the part of the MOD) and we had to make do with a standard issue “organ, portable, small” as it was designated in the Stores Manual. This was a 4 octave harmonium which collapsed into a small rectangular box; in playing mode the hinged legs were held in place by a bracing spar, but “collapsible” was the operative word, as it frequently did in rough weather and the hapless organist would find the organ on his lap during the lusty singing of “Eternal Father”. Apart from these outings, my organ playing ceased except for the occasional chance to play at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich and the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook.

My naval career encompassed service in frigates, destroyers, submarines and assault ships, including a year as a Field Gun Officer at the Royal Tournament, 2 years as the senior watchkeeper in HMS Repulse, a Polaris submarine, 21/2  years as the assistant private secretary to the Second Sea Lord in the MOD and a final appointment as the Commander (logistics) in HMS Antrim during the Falkland’s war, during which we were one of several recipients of unexploded British WWII bombs, sold to Argentina some years previously.

I resigned from the Navy in 1982 to join the Priory Hospitals Group, (in)famous for its treatment of addicted and depressed film stars, footballers and celebrities of dubious distinction although, in truth, that represented a minor part of what we did. Most of our work was the routine treatment of acute psychiatric illness for private patients and the NHS, renal dialysis and care for children with behavioural problems. I became the CEO of the Group in 1988 and Executive Chairman in 1991, remaining until 1996 when the company was sold by its American owners to a UK private equity house.

After the Priory, I held various non-executive appointments including Vice Chairman of Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth Health Authority, Chairman of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the HIV charity and chairman of the Care Management Group, a private healthcare company. This was also the opportunity to rekindle my interest in the organ and I signed up with the St Giles International Organ School, principally being taught by Ann Elise Smoot, but with help from Anne Marsden Thomas and Daniel Moult also. I found the quality of teaching at St Giles and the opportunity to take part in masterclasses, workshops and student recitals truly stimulating and rewarding, notwithstanding my slow progress, which I put down to advancing years and grey cells possibly over-nourished by the ready availability of interesting duty-free concoctions while serving in the Royal Navy.

With a little more time available, I started some voluntary work at the Department of Organ Studies at the Royal Academy of Music, helping with the administration of the student overseas tours each summer and some minor fundraising. The tours took me to some wonderful organs in Holland, Spain, France, Germany, Hungary, Romania and Switzerland and it is always such a pleasure to witness talented youngsters developing their skills with the encouragement of world-class tutors playing on some of the world’s finest instruments. I was surprised, delighted and hugely honoured when the Academy awarded me the Honorary ARAM diploma in 2003.

Inevitably, perhaps, news of my work at the RAM reached Anne Marsden Thomas’s ears and she invited me to chair the St Giles Organ Project at St Giles Cripplegate Church in the Barbican. St Giles, a busy City parish church, home of much music-making including regular BBC broadcasts and the base of the International Organ School, needed to refurbish the 40 year old main organ and decided also to enhance its capacity by providing a modest organ at the east end of the church and a practice organ for the students in a sound-proofed vestry. The new 15 stop east organ was opened by Thomas Trotter on 1 April 2008, the practice organ by Kenneth Tickell was delivered in January 2009 and the restoration of the main organ was completed in February 2009. I subsequently chaired the Organ Appeal at the Royal Academy of Music, and Academy colleagues having secured the support of Sir Elton John and Ray Cooper, almost all of the funds required came from 2 concerts they put on exclusively for the RAM.

I was the President of the Organ Club of great Britain from 2009 to 2012 and I currently chair the Eric Thompson Trust, which provides bursaries for specific educational projects for young professional organists and the Larkin Trust with similar aims but associated with St Giles and the Royal College of Organists, of which I became a Trustee and Council Member in 2013. And I have been the honorary auditor of the SSLSO since 2011.

I’m not really a performing organist – I too easily succumb to nerves; and my lack of a sure technique largely due to poor early teaching and my teenage disinclination to practice tell against me. I do occasionally deputise at churches for simple services, but psalms, anthems and choirs are beyond my remit. Essentially I play for my own pleasure, relaxation and stimulation.

My interest in all things “organ” has gone from being an occasional hobby to something of an unpaid profession through which I have developed a range of contacts and informants. I will try and find relevant items from the world of organs, organists and organ music to entertain and inform you each month.

David Wakefield