Memories of Maxwell – Alan Simpson
Easter Monday, 1999, was one of those gloriously fine days that Wellington turns on to great effect.
Behind Maxwell Fernie in his wheel chair, a brilliant Wellington harbour provided a sparkling backdrop to our conversation, Despite the debilitating effects of his stroke, Max remained vibrant with music, Our conversation had not long begun before he had me pushing him to the piano where, with his good right hand, Max illustrated the unmistakable sound of the St Mary of the Angels organ’s Cor De Nuit stop, recently restored to proper speech by Thomas Kohlfs. In another room we were soon poring over the originals of some of the music he edited for the St. Mary’s Choir over several decades, and now brought together in two bound volumes, by Greta, his wife. The music of the Mass came alive as we worked through several scores. As all those who have sung from one of Max’s editions know, the score bristles with his detailed and insightful points. (An important study of Max’s editions awaits the right student).
Back in his living room were several framed awards. The OBE in 1974 acknowledged his services to music. In 1989 came the Papal honour, Cross pro Ecclesia et Pontiface for his considerable services to the music of the Catholic Church. The Vatican had wanted to make him a Papal Knight but, at the dubious urging of Church authorities in New Zealand, Max received the lesser Papal Cross. To Max’s great delight, the Holy Father himself presented it, the occasion captured on film. In pride of place was the prized Associate of the Royal Academy. It is not something for which anyone can enrol or take an exam. It is presented as, and when, the Directors of the Royal Academy, in their collective wisdom, consider there is someone of sufficient merit to receive it. There can be no greater award than that bestowed by those, eminent in the field, who judge your work to be of such merit. Max became an Associate in 1954, after having earlier completed many qualifications and won major prizes in extemporisation, in overall musicianship, and in the history of music.
From 1953 to 1958 Max was organist at Westminster Cathedral, London (not to be confused with the Abbey down the road). With George Malcolm directing the choir as Master of the Music and Max at the organ, they were a formidable duo in such a key position in the world of music. When Max left Westminster Cathedral two cardinals were there to honour someone who had already established himself as a musician of considerable stature. With the Northern Hemisphere world of music wide open to him. Max determined to return to New Zealand where he set about changing the musical landscape, particularly in the areas of organ design and performance, and in choral music. Those with ears to hear could not fail to change their thinking about organ and choral music and its performance. Max knew what he was on about and simply demanded that there be significant change. He would take no excuses for doing otherwise, and led by example, He designed the organ for St Mary of the Angels, Wellington, and had the pipes voiced to his specifications. To do that, and in the way he did it, required a considerable understanding of harmonics, organ design, organ construction, and a highly creative mind.
While there were good organs in New Zealand, the period to the late 1950’s was not a memorable one for organ design or tonal clarity. Design was conservative, and voicing generally muted. Max showed what could be done on a limited budget, with careful design, good voicing, and a rather different approach. The challenge was a significant one. Max needed to design an organ to ensure the best organ music from the Baroque to the contemporary era could be played effectively. He introduced Schultze constant scale proportions for the main diapason chorus on the Great, to magnificent effect. From the reeds he extracted the utmost. His intimate understanding of harmonics, scaling and voicing ensured the various ranks knit together, whether used in full organ, or individually with the floating mutations. An imaginative development, the floating mutations greatly extended the capacity of the organ. Max achieved great clarity in the speech of the pipes, which was essential for contrapuntal music. Max always watched with considerable interest the reactions of those who came to ‘visit’ the organ. Some grasped quickly what
the organ offered, while others, simply floundered. Then, as now, those who grasp what the organ is about find that the music simply flows in a creative way. It is as if the organ demands of the player their best, and rewards the player according to the effort made. There are now many more who understand what Max was on about, and what he achieved in the organ at St. Mary’s both in its original form and in its subsequent developments. The day of his first major recital on the new organ we all jumped as he began Bonnet’s Rapsodie Catalane with full organ. Max had anticipated, and had many chuckles over, our reactions. He enjoyed expanding our tonal horizons and musical repertoire. 0f considerable importance was his playing of Bach. His recitals invariably included at least a major Prelude and Fugue, or a major Chorale Prelude, often both. Bach’s ‘Great’ Prelude and Fugue in G Major, or the ‘Great’ Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, the Nun Komm’ trilogy, the Schmuke Dich, or the O Lamm Gottes, all took on new meaning when Max played them, His performances were comprehensive, conveying the overall architecture and depth of Bach’s music in all its complexities, from the dynamic drive of a great fugue, to the intimate ornamentations of an extended chorale prelude. Max was very aware of the responsibility he carried as a performer of Bach and could recite the direct line of performers and tutors from Johann Sebastian himself to his own tutor at the Academy, C.H. Trevor.
Max was gifted with an exceptional skill in extemporisation, It was a skill recognised at the Academy and formed a major part of his organ playing throughout his lifetime. Typically employed at the conclusion of Mass to great effect as Max captured the mood of the Mass of the day, many were breathtaking in their conception and execution. Among the more exciting extemporisations, for all present, were those he played to accompany the choir. There were many, but his versions at Christmas of the Personet Hodie, and the Christus Vincit on Palm Sunday were invariably stunning. At least as significant as his contribution to organ design and musical performance was Max’s contribution to New Zealand choral music. He had begun to make his mark in this long before he headed to London after service in the Second World War. By the time he returned to New Zealand in the late 1950’s he knew what he wanted to do and, virtually from scratch, set about creating a new tradition in New Zealand’s choral music. There were many strands to his choral work: technique. voice production, interpretation, a comprehensive understanding of both theory and practice, passion, and sheer musicianship.
He sought perfection in each area and was uncompromising in his quest. By the mid l960’s he had set new standards in choral music through his choir at St. Marys which established itself as the foremost church choir in the country. At the heart of it all was the music of the church, in all its pathos, excitement, strength and simplicity. For Max, the music was there to add to the liturgy and the Word. In his hands and in the voices of his choir the music did just that, and did it abundantly. There were strong pressures in the Catholic Church, particularly in the l960’s, to use only the vernacular. This would have ended the Latin Mass and, with it, Gregorian chant, the music of Victoria, Palestrina, and much more. Fortunately, the Latin Mass continued and, under Max, Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the Renaissance repertoire remained central to the Church’s repertoire. Secular choirs enjoy singing polyphony and Renaissance music, but it takes a believer to add that deep understanding of the sacred text to rescue it from the formulaic representation of those who are drawn to the music rather than to the text. Text and music were inseparable to Max. Such was the impression he made with the St Mary’s choir that a group of non-Catholics asked Max to establish a choir for them. The result, the Schola Polyphonica, was never
established as a choir for performances but, over the years, there were few very memorable and enriching performances. The Rachmaninov Vespers was particularly notable. as was Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories, Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta Est Maria and the Haydn Masses. Max also prepared the Schola for Bach’s Mass in B Minor but did not conduct it, to the frustration of many of the Schola. Passion and excitement were integral to his music. But none of it could be unleashed unless the basics were right For soloist and choir alike it was the breathing, voice production, technique, phrasing, interpretation. The music could then speak for itself as each note of the music and each word of the text achieved its proper consideration.
In focusing on the particularly rich periods of choral and organ music Max opened our eyes and ears to the glories of what the music had to offer. It was not armchair music, for Max had no room for armchair musicians. He was too deeply involved in the music, and conveyed that involvement to others Max was quite clear: the music was for all and it was the responsibility of the performer to so involve the listener that they were transformed into participants. This contrasted sharply with those who wanted to reduce music to a lowest common denominator which all could perform and, thereby, become participants. Max sought to ensure that performers and listeners became participants. Max was a superb teacher-one of the best-always seeking to ensure the pupil understood not just what to do, but also the reason for so doing, he had a way of breaking even the most difficult matter into a series of progressive steps, readily comprehended and invariably explained with humour. His lengthy list of pupils, many of them now eminent musicians in their own right, includes those he taught privately in piano, organ and singing, and those he taught while organ tutor at Victoria University from 1963 to 1988. Many more became informal pupils as they sang under his direction and listened to his playing. Above all. Max was a gracious and warm human being. He saw himself as just about everyone’s uncle, often carrying the cares of others upon himself, and always asking after the health of all with whom there was a close connection. It is said that those without humour have no authority. On this basis. Max enjoyed considerable authority, for humour was never far from him, right up to his last days. That gloriously fine Easter Monday visit was the last time I was to see Max, I departed feeling confident I would return to see him. His goodbye was a lingering one and his reluctance to say goodbye left me a little puzzled. Yet Max knew then what I did not, that I would not be visiting him again like that.
New Zealand organ and choral music has not been the same since the late 1950’s when Max intervened to change our way of thinking about, performing and participating in music. We are so much richer for his enormous contribution – to music.
from Music in New Zealand, Issue 36, Summer 1999-2000