Wednesdays at 5.55

Wednesdays at 5.55
Organ Recitals at the Royal Festival Hall
W Harry Hoyle
Clontarf Press 2018
Hardback. 230 pages, 235x156mm, ISBN 978-1-999685706

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For many organ music lovers, the phrase Wednesdays at 5.55 will have a particular resonance. Between 1954 and 1989, London’s Royal Festival Hall held early evening organ recitals on the influential and controversial Harrison & Harrison organ, inaugurated in 1954. During those years there were a total of 545 organ recitals given by nearly 200 international organists attracting at its peak audiences of around 1500. This record of these recitals, and the music and performers involved, is very clearly a labour of love for the author, W Harry Hoyle. The publicity blurb sums up the book well – “Drawing on the Southbank Centre archive, private paper collections and the memories of many performers, in this comprehensive and engaging book he tells the story of how the series was planned, which organists performed, the repertoire they played and how the recitals were received by the press and by the public. He also reviews the social changes that led to the ending of ‘Wednesdays at 5.55’ and the search for the best way to present the highlights of the organ repertoire on this unique instrument“. And that is exactly what it does, in an absorbing and informative read.

The RFH organ was one of the first ‘eclectic’ organs in the UK, combining elements of historical organ styles ranging from the North German Baroque to the French Symphonic school, allowing, in theory, reasonably ‘authentic’ performances of music from a wide range of historical eras and geographical locations.

At the time, continental organs were a thing of mystery to many British organists and organ lovers, apart from recordings. The RFH organ was a challenge to the earlier round of British organ recitalists, remarkably few of whom had experience of continental organs. The RFH organ was about as far as you could get from the traditional English cathedral or church organ, whose organists were generally the mainstay of the UK organ recital scene. It was equally a challenge to many of the international recitalists, who were well used to developments in organ design and the restoration of important historic organs that had yet to take root in the UK. But, for me at least, it was those international recitalists that were by far the most important influence in the Wednesday at 5.55 concerts. But it was still a sad fact that organists of well-known English cathedrals would inevitably attract a much larger audience than a world-famous international recitalist, even if the former often struggled to get the best out of the RFH organ. Such is the world of English organists.

The book is well laid out, with each chapter divided into short sections introduced by pithy headlines. It covers far more than just the concerts, with fascinating insights into organ history, international relationships, internal and external politics and bureaucracy. If you like lists, tables, and statistics, you will be in your element, for the book is full of them, in every possible guise. Every recitalist and every composer is listed amongst many other statistical details. For example, tables of the most frequently performed Bach free works, and chorale preludes are followed by a table showing how many times each of the 27 pieces in Bach’s Clavierübung III were played. The totals range from 33 for the concluding ‘St Anne’ Fugue to zero for three of the four Duets. Incidentally, 90% of all the concerts included a work by Bach, leading to the apparently incorrect assumption that it was something of a requirement. 17% were all-Bach recitals, these being by far the most populated concerts. Bach also managed the distinction of having the same piece (the Passacaglia) performed in three successive weekly Wednesdays.

Although the tome is rather heavy in detail, there are lighter moments, including a passing comment that “the French telephone service was a philosophical experience”. As a student, the author, W Harry Hoyle, attended more than 50 of the Wednesday at 5.55 concerts. He could well be typical of a certain breed of amateur organ lover that are the mainstay of many local and national organist clubs and associations, and organ recitals. Their overwhelmingly male ‘plastic-mac and packed-lunch’ jaunts around instruments of interest are a thing of legend.

Although the Wednesdays at 5.55 series in its various forms ended back in 1989, Hoyle continues to nearly the present day, and the restoration of the RFH organ under the current organ curator, William McVicker. The only colour photos in the book are two delightful photos of children exploring the organ, one showing them feeling the draught from the mouths of the longest (32′) pipes of the organ.

Wednesdays at 5.55 is available here at £25 pls p&p.