Maxwell Fernie, a personal tribute – Anthony Jennings
It was on a fine afternoon early in 1959,1 remember, that I stood on the pavement outside the church of St
Mary of the Angels, in Boulcott Street, Wellington, waiting for my new organ teacher of just a few weeks, Maxwell Fernie. I had dressed for the occasion, in my school suit and red tie, as this was my first visit to the organ that Maxwell had designed for this church and about which I had heard so much from my older, teenage fellow-students. The memory of that afternoon is still vivid as nothing had prepared me for the inexpressible thrill that lay ahead of me. First, ‘Mr Fernie’ took me upstairs into the organ loft, and we sat together at the organ console high up on the west gallery of this beautiful and mystical Marist church. He then demonstrated the full resources of the organ in a flowing and brilliant improvisation—I had never experienced anything like this before! Then, he insisted, it was my turn, and I played my Lutheran chorales and early Bach fugue with my teacher urging me to use the full organ where appropriate, and to live the music. All this was before Vatican II.
From that day onwards my life was changed, and for the next ten years or so I was one of those privileged to be taught by Max, to sing under him, and to watch him at work in a wide variety of circumstances. Above all else, he encouraged me to become my own musician, my own thinker. In a way this fortunate situation was simply part of what I now consider to have been a rather special period in the development of Wellington’s cultural life as I knew it. Victoria University’s music department—Max was the organ teacher here—was going through a time of tremendous enthusiasm for its teaching programme and concert life; the NZBC Symphony Orchestra was bringing us new and interesting programmes including a great deal of new music, and so were other ensembles and musicians; and, as well, the first steps towards a more authentic style of performance for earlier music were just beginning to cause controversy. For organists and church musicians, a whole new world had been opened up for us by Maxwell Fernie with his organ playing and choral direction, and such diverse musicians as Robert Oliver and Peter Walls, Brian Findlay, Denis Smalley and Geoffrey Coker, were all part of this exciting time and could recount many stories centred around Maxwell Fernie and the choir and organ of St. Mary of the Angels Church.
First some memories:
Every now and again, on Sunday evenings, St Mary’s would be packed by a silent audience for a recital of organ and choral music, given by Maxwell Fernie and his quickly famous choir. The organ music inevitably featured Bach, sometimes entirely. The second part of the programme would consist of plainchant and sixteenth century polyphony, and the recital would conclude with an organ improvisation based on something sung by the choir; my own special delight being Max’s reworking of Aichinger’s ‘Regina coeli’. We always left the church stunned.
The choir of St Mary of the Angels has a world-wide reputation and, in the period before the effects of Vatican II took hold, the church was known particularly for its superb liturgy, the full Roman rite celebrated with a care and drama rare anywhere, and in this environment Max was in his element. Friday nights choir practice was an event never to be missed – I held my own choir practice on Thursday night, therefore – and the High Mass at 1100 hrs. each Sunday, was always an occasion, especially on a feast day. In my late ‘teens I became organist at St Peter’s Church, in Willis Street, and our Sung Eucharist would usually conclude at 1115 hrs. each Sunday, which meant that I was free and could rush down the road to St Mary’s where I would arrive in the organ loft, puffing, usually just as the sermon was ending – I
could then sing from the ‘Credo’ on! Max accompanied the chant, rather in the French manner, and I always hoped to arrive in time for the ‘Credo’, as even in my more ‘authentic’ mode today, I can still experience the goosebumps that were part of the great concluding ‘Amen’ (with swell reeds) to Credo III – the same went for a festive ‘Alleluia’. The liturgy was vibrant and alive, and we were the better for it.
My organ lessons with Max followed many different paths: sometimes we would play several works, with a strong basis in the contrapuntal repertoire dominated by Sebastian Bach; on other days we would cover only a few bars, or a chorale tune, but always, always we did score reading and those other skills essential to an organist, at least in those days. At other times we would simply discuss ideas and philosophies, or organ design, vocal production, or whatever, and for hours. Such sessions as these were supplemented, as it were, by the many long hours spent in the choir room underneath St Mary’s, where Max taught singing, produced his own editions of all the music sung by his choir – there were no photocopying machines in those days – took rehearsals and, when all that was over, would be pleased to talk about any aspect of his beloved craft. In retrospect, I now feel that so much was learned at these times and I wonder if he ever grew tired of my endless questions. It was here that he also made his justly famous wines – not many of them can have reached a great age! – and my considerable embarrassment at the latest bottle which exploded on me in a Wellington red bus remains another vivid memory.
For organists, Max was really the beginning of the Organ Revival Movement in this country. Sadly, this movement has all but stalled here, but its devotees seek to restore to the organ world the early principles of a singing, polyphonic sound, with clarity of articulation and a genuine expressive style – unfortunately we are dominated by the ‘organ as a sound machine’ mentality. Nevertheless, the new organ in the MacLaurin Chapel at Auckland University, based on seventeenth century Dutch organ building principles, represents a unique example, in this country, of the ideals espoused in the nineteen-twenties by the European Organ Revival Movement. For Max the organ was the polyphonic instrument par excellence, and capable of great beauty of expression. He showed us this, time and time again, but never more so than in his treatment of Bach’s 18 Chorale Preludes and perhaps, especially for me, in his playing of the Communion prelude ‘Schmucke dich, 0 liebe Seele’ and the Advent prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ – the heroic side of Bach’s music was revealed in masterly performances of works such as the Prelude and Fugue in B minor, or the ‘Wedge’ prelude and Fugue in E minor. On the other hand, for singers, as for his choir, his characteristic vocal sound was another revelation, a sound never before heard in New Zealand. This was a type of singing based on a supported voice of beauty and power, and a very long way from the narrowly-winded, small and heady sound that we still hear from our church choirs, a sound based on some imagined idea of what English cathedral choirs sound like, or used to sound like. This ‘hooty’ sound was itself a product of a short-lived and unimportant time in English church music when an articulate directness in musical speech and declamation was replaced by an inarticulate ‘muzak’ thought to create a religious atmosphere. The same thing happened to the organ in England, of course, and the instrument left the mainstream of organ history for ever. Max had no time for these sounds, and, of course, the characteristic ‘Fernie sound’ is still heard in St Mary’s today, and witnessed to by the large number of regular pilgrims from throughout New Zealand who make the 1100 hrs. Mass a priority in any trip to the capital city.
In reality, Maxwell Fernie has given this country a unique and original music for more than 30 years since his return here after relinquishing his post as organist at London’s Westminster Cathedral. His influence cannot be underestimated. For him, all music must ‘speak’, from the heart but through the mind, with due consideration of its purpose and context. He is a musician whose vocal style comes from the Prima Prattica and whose keyboard and instrumental style lies in the Seconda Prattica. And how easily we use labels and clever words to define – or is it limit? – the work of the musical men and women who have helped to shape our musical culture; the work of Maxwell Fernie does not need this sort of containment as the results of his craft arethere for us to hear and experience, either week by week at St Mary’s, or through his various recordings. I hope that Kiwi-Pacific will see fit to reissue Max’s Sacred Polyphony recordings, in the CD format for, as the Gramophone magazine said at the time of the release of the first volume, these recordings are ‘too good to be denied to us’.
As I think back over these times – and my mind is crowded with images – I am also forced to consider the present, and our accountable, user-pays syndrome, and to look at the enormous flexibility we offer today’s young musicians, to tailor their courses to their individual ‘needs’ and ideas, and to begin straight away with major repertoire, whether they can play it or not, and with not much time spent on the ‘basics’ as Max calls them, if they are dealt with at all. And I wonder if we really have headed down a right path, or are we too concerned with ‘image’ and ‘product and ‘our rights’ whatever they may be, especially as musicians? How would Max’s philosophical approach work today, and how can we account for those realms of experience, and at every level, from the commonplace to the ecstatic, that made up our musical training under his guidance? Times have changed, of course, and in many ways for the better, but it should give us pause to consider. Maybe we are just too busy today.
In Maxwell Fernie we have a fine New Zealand musician. He has not set out to create for himself an image, a glossy record-cover facade, or a choral world – whatever that means – but rather, he is an artist, whose absolute humility towards his music is a living example to us all. It seems today that all types of choirs and musical ensembles consider touring, even to far-off places, as essential to their activities, as if it endows both them and us with some special grace or significance upon their return. Max has never sought the limelight through this sort of external activity, and, although he travels frequently and is respected throughout the world, it seems appropriate to honour this special person at the beginning of the final decade of this century, and to acknowledge that, in him, we have a New Zealander for whom the craft and function of music are a better means to maturity than any self-proclaimed greatness.
Music in New Zealand – Autumn 1991