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Interview: James Lancelot, organist and master of the choristers, Durham Cathedral

26 October 2010

I came to Durham 25 years ago this month. Before that, I was a chorister of St Paul’s Cathedral, organ scholar of King’s College, Cambridge, and then sub-organist of Winchester Cath­edral for ten happy years.

There is a challenging mix of expec­tations here: the amazing cathedral; friendly and supportive colleagues; the fact that Durham is very much home for our two daughters; a simply fabulous cathedral organ — one of the very best. But, beyond that, the cathedral is not only a world-famous building, but also the home church to many people in this region and this city — many of them university students at a formative stage in their lives.

Our music has recently gained a new dimension: we started a new team of girl choristers last autumn. This has been a very positive and exciting move. We’ve found their enthusiasm, energy, and commitment infectious, and it’s been the most exciting year of all my years in Durham. We couldn’t have picked a nicer lot to work with.

An organ is at one level the most machine-like of all musical instru­ments. To ensure that the message of the music comes across, and not the medium, is a challenge. In ad­dition, liturgical playing has its own dis­ciplines. At its best, it can enhance worship to a great degree, becoming a ministry in its own right.

Hindemith’s First Sonata has been sitting in my organ bench at home for far too long and demands urgent study. There are also several more movements of The Art of Fugue [Bach] that I would like to master.

Maybe it has helped me that my mother’s side of my family were organists and organ-builders, and my father’s side were priests. I’m a Lay Canon — which was a recognition at a formal level of the contribution the music makes.

My day is pretty much the same as it has been for my predecessors for 450 years: rehearsal with the choristers in the morning for that day’s worship and the following weekend’s, and the rest of the day devoted to trying to ensure that the music in that worship is as polished as it can be. Byrd, Tallis, Tomkins, and Gibbons would all have recognised the pattern. They would also have had weekday matins to cope with. In exchange, we now have e-mails to answer.

I don’t see how you do it without faith. And vision and energy — to dream dreams and bring them about.

When you lead music you always have something in your head which is better than the music you are playing. It’s not good enough to ac­cept what’s going on at the moment.

One of the most exciting things we’ve done is collaborate with Stan Tracey and his orchestra on some of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. It was a very inspiring and eye-opening occasion, about 20 years ago. I was involved in the première of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem, 25 years ago. We do some modern worship music with young people when they come in, but there’s a saying among organists: “The building always wins.” The acoustic is too generous for a lot of that.

I’d like to be remembered for trying to ensure that the music here ac­hieved a daily standard which matches the building. As I say to the choir, whether or not the music ac­hieves five-star standards, the archi­tecture always will.

I could not have done this job with­out [my wife] Sylvia to support me. That said, she must sometimes have wondered whether I married her or the job. Our two daughters both share our love of music and singing, and that is a great joy.

I’d really like to have driven steam engines — the most fascinating and nearly human machines ever invented. It’s a life-saver to have something com­pletely different to be interested in.

Like Harold Macmillan, I’m very happy curled up in bed with a good Trollope — Anthony, that is. I’ve also recently been reading Walter Scott (much underestimated nowadays) and Charles Dickens. But John Buchan is a great favourite — not just the thrillers, but the historical novels and the biographies, many of which deserve much wider notice.

Iona’s probably my favourite place — scene of many happy holidays, our honeymoon, and some challenging but enriching worship.

The most reassuring sound? The choristers entering on the right note and on the beat.

What made me angry last: trying to prepare for a service and listen to the carefully prepared organ voluntary while sitting in a beautiful parish church, while the person behind me was telling his neighbour all about his computer troubles. I cannot under­stand why people need to do this. Train seats with no windows come a close second.

I’m happiest on Sunday afternoons after evensong when the weekend music has gone well, and coming down safely off a Scottish mountain with Sylvia.

I pray for the world, the cathedral community, my family, the choir — on whom a great responsibility rests. The moment when we gather round the nave altar to receive communion each week is very special to me.

If I could do anything, I’d bring about a greater understanding be­tween scientists and artists. End petty squabbles within the Church, which are so damaging in the eyes of those outside. Persuade the world that in God we find perfect freedom — not fanaticism and schism. Stop every city in the world except Venice being ruined by motor traffic. A few more boys coming forward as choristers nationwide would be good, too.

I think I’d choose to be locked in a church with my father. I was lucky to have his company for so long — he was born in 1899 — but so much has happened since his death in 1983 that I’d like to discuss with him.

James Lancelot was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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