Organ scholars – a fundamental part of Oxford life, you might say. In all likelihood, there is one, probably two, pottering around your college (chapel) as you read, in raptures over their latest voluntary. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, perhaps. Their right to be here is protected in College Constitutions; they are a necessary cog in the endless, timeless cycle of evensongs, May Day madrigals and Communion services. No one questions them; they are simply accepted as part of the Oxford experience. You might, in fact, spend a whole three years here only glimpsing, during Evensong, the back of your college organ scholar’s head, sequestered from the lowly pews in their lonely loft. Unless you are at Jesus, that is, in which case the highlight of Sunday evening is the resident organist’s quick bow over the parapet to end the service.
Where else are they to be found? Practising, attending classical concerts, and, I have it on good authority, packing out the King’s Arms post-Sunday Evensong – check it out next time you’re there (they’ll be the immaculately-dressed ones, gossiping about chaplains and putting their respective services through a post-mortem).
You could, on the other hand, stalk them on Facebook, where they are easily identifiable by their generic profile pictures, which largely centre around an organ, or at a push, a piano. (This was true for six out of ten profiles examined). Indeed, the senior Jesus organ scholar was apparently unable to relinquish this beloved position even for a Fit College photo last term. A wall-post on one organ scholar’s profile, simply stating ‘sacrilege’ and containing a link, provided a further glimpse into their unfathomable lives.
The sacrilege in question, was the use of the setting for Thomas Tallis’ ‘If Ye Love Me’ for – shock, horror (evidently) – a completely different Latin text. This had caused serious bewilderment and pain to all scholars involved. The bonds between scholar and instrument clearly run deep. Their attachment to their music – you have to be dedicated when, outside of Oxford, the organ has become rather an obscure instrument – has led to unkind, and, I argue, unfounded comments concerning the existence of their social lives, and in fact, their characters as a whole.
Everyone knows the classic line,
‘What do organ scholars use for birth control?’
Yet, is this fair? One need only go as far as looking at the outcome of last year’s Organ Scholars’ Dinner to be assured that this subculture is full of fun-loving, free-wheeling spirits. The smart four-course dinner, held at Brasenose College, became rather derailed after certain scholars indulged in the delights of food-fighting.
This did not go down well, as we can see from this e-mail of disapproval, which arrived the next morning (7th November 2009) and asserted that ‘whilst the majority of those who attended the dinner proved to be absolutely delightful company, a few scholars demonstrated a magnificent display of immaturity. I am very saddened to report that some people find ‘food fights’, and general silliness amusing. It is particularly disappointing (and embarrassing) when this is done in front of senior members, including, of course, Dame Gillian Weir.’
According to reports on the night, Dame Gillian narrowly escaped receiving a pomegranate to the face, courtesy of a rather sauced member of this musical Bullingdon Club. Terrified culprits were later summoned to a meeting with the fearsome dragon of Oxford’s ecclesiastical empire, the notorious Edward Higginbottom, New College’s Director of Music. I’m yet to ascertain whether they’ve been seen since.
Organ scholars’ general behaviour when drunk really does sound amusing, and from these anecdotes, I would recommend you spend a night with a few organists for baroque/classical/romantic decadence.
One organ scholar, for example, describes a life dogged by complaints concerning his drunken behaviour, as it often involves complying with requests for loud music on either the chapel organ or his bedroom’s piano.
Choir dinner is another frequently sordid affair, ‘notorious from a few years ago when a drunken orgy took place under the dinner table’. This event was swiftly followed by a ‘rave’ back at college, ‘in which clothing was swapped between debauched scholars and singers, and in which drunken blondes romped on my bed (the springs have never been the same since)’.
Indeed, choirs appear to provide happy hunting grounds for all organ scholars, and not just for one-night romps: a notable example is the Jesus scholar, who, upon learning of a fresher’s singing credentials as early as 0th week in Michaelmas, promptly ensnared her into the choir, and consequently made her his girlfriend.
It seems that our male organ scholars, surrounding themselves with choral groupies and exerting their musical egos, are certainly living the rock star life. The few female organ scholars will surely find this draining experience of a male-dominated society invaluable preparation for such careers as stockbroking or investment banking in the masculine world of the City.
From all of this, I conclude that organ scholars may be an institution, but they’re an institution that deserves exploring. Seek them out in the KA or chapel, watch them escape to London or Cambridge for a night at the opera or King’s College respectively. Moreover, take a look at the instruments they’re actually playing – the huge, daunting and earplug-warranting organ at New College, or the beautifully decorated affair at Exeter, check out the guy/girl in the loft: there might be more to them than you think.