Re-master – an article by Nicola Young
Wellington’s musical landscape was transformed when Maxwell Fernie returned in 1959. After five years as organist at central London’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, he had been longing to get home.
Max was director of music at St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott St for 41 years and organist for nearly as long; during this time he sent seismic shocks through the capital’s Roman Catholic schools and ensured St Mary’s had an organ as good as any (and better than most). His obsession with organ design and performance and choral music still reverberates through the capital, 10 years after his death at the age of 89.
Now a CD has just been launched in New Zealand and France, based on a radio broadcast made by Max in 1974: ‘Christmas Maximus’, performed by Christopher Hainsworth (a New Zealand classical organist based in Beziers, France), on the pipe organ Max designed. The CD replicates the broadcast’s programme, together with some of Max’s favourite Christmas music, a composition by Douglas Lilburn, and a number of French pieces selected by Chris Hainsworth.
Max was the quintessential Wellingtonian, despite his years studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music and working abroad (with a stint in New Zealand’s Expeditionary Forces in
Egypt during WWII). His immaculate dressing (including homburg hat and floppy silk handkerchief) was a novelty to the generations of Roman Catholic school children to whom Max
introduced some of Europe’s most glorious ecclesiastical music. His brilliant teaching, exuberance, panache, perfectionism and excoriating wit were eye-opening (and slightly terrifying) to Wellington children raised in the very buttoned- down 50s and 60s, as he trained
school choirs, conducted recitals and concerts, taught piano and organ, and performed – often J S Bach, his favourite composer, and nearly always with the extemporisation for which he was
renowned. At the end of the 11am sung Mass every Sunday, parishioners and devotees from afar would stay seated while Max played and played – many years on, my not-particularly-musical ears can recall the joys of his ‘Christus Vincit’ and, at Christmas, ‘Personent Hodie’.
Max also established the Schola Polyphonica which, for its 21 years, was generally considered the finest choir in the country; it specialised in Renaissance music (in particular 16th century polyphonic music) and performed with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on a number
of occasions. Max was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in 1954, a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, awarded the OBE in 1974 for services to music and the Papal Cross pro Ecclesia et Poniface in 1989. He was Wellington’s city organist for 27 years, and supervised the brilliant restoration of the Town Hall’s organ (considered one of the best organs
in the world). Organ restoration is fraught with fashion and politics: the butchered modernisation of Auckland Town Hall’s organ in the late 1960s led to 30 years of complaints and outrage, culminating in its recent restoration – back to the original brief. His lasting legacy, however, was the organ at St Mary of the Angels built to his own specifications. Before Max was even thinking ofreturning home from London, the parish priest at St Mary’s sent the details of a proposed new instrument – a modest ‘two manual’ organ. This was no use to Max; instead he designed a more complex organ, determined Wellington would have an organ suitable for all music: baroque to contemporary, with particular emphasis on the pipes’ clarity (essential for his beloved contrapuntal music). He ‘borrowed’ his favourite Westminster Cathedral pipes overnight to copy their specifications and even tracked down details of other specialised pipes from, for example, the cathedral in Lucerne, Switzerland.
The Maxwell Fernie Trust was founded by his widow, Greta, to continue Maxwell Fernie’s legacy by awarding an annual scholarship of $10,000 to promising New Zealand organists and conductors of choral polyphony. The first scholarship will be awarded next year, on the centenary of Maxwell Fernie’s birth. The Trust aims to raise $100,000 through donations,
bequests and fundraising events. The Trust has produced two CDs:
• Christmas Maximus: featuring French organ music played by Christopher Hainsworth.
• Tenebrae Responsories 1585: sung responses for Holy Week, composed in 1585 by Tomás
Louis De Victoria and performed by the Schola Polyphonica. The CD has been digitally re-mastered from the original 1981 recording made at St Mary of the Angels.