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Interview: Roger Sayer, director of music, Temple Church in London

08 February 2019

‘Our job here is to try to change people for the better through the music’

Sim Canetty-Clarke

Most of us get into this business because we play the organ; but liturgical music goes hand in hand — choir and organ — and usually you have a passion for the music in general and the place of worship. You can’t separate the two.

I’d known about the tradition of Temple Church and its music since my childhood. It’s one of the most beautiful churches in London, and has its four-manual Harrison and Harrison organ. I’d spent 23 years at Rochester Cathedral, and I felt ready for the different challenge here.

The cathedral was more community-based, and about the visitors and the tourists. Here, it’s more prescriptive about supporting those who work here and pay for the church and the music; but there’s always opportunity to experiment. They’re very open-minded, and want everything to be as good as it possibly can be — which they support financially. And it’s not exclusively traditional, either.

Temple Church serves Inner and Middle Temple: two of the four Inns of Court. Most of our congregation is made up of barristers, benchers, and other staff members, but we also welcome tourists from around the world.

I have a flat in the Temple, which is lovely — it’s at the centre of one of the greatest cultural centres in the world. But I’m on call 24/7, which has its disadvantages. While the boys don’t have a morning rehearsal, there’s admin and planning to be done for the heavy schedule of concerts.

I do my organ practice: it’s very important to me to keep to a standard, so that I can give concerts and do recordings. One shouldn’t sit back and just rely on the past. I don’t feel as good as I want to be, or should be, or could be; so I’m always aiming to improve.

Every service must feel like the first or the last. Our job here is to try to change people for the better through the music; so I think it should never feel routine. If you feel you have the power to do that, it never will feel routine.

I think music can change people. People who come to the church come for various reasons — to sit quietly, and to worship, and at times of crisis — but the beauty of music in the liturgy is very powerful, and can give people a better sense of what God might be.

We have two regular sung services a week. Sunday matins is sung by the church choir of men and boys; Wednesday evensong is sung by the Temple Singers, a professional choir of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. Both choirs also sing at weddings, funerals, and memorials, and other special services. We also enjoy regular concerts at the church, including a half-hour organ recital every Wednesday during term-time.

The boy choristers begin as probationers at the age of seven or eight, and, after a year, they join the full choir. We rehearse four times a week for the Sunday service, and for several other performances a term. We recently took the boys on tour to America, and we’re currently preparing for three concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, the Temple Winter Festival, and Birmingham Symphony Hall. They sing in live broadcasts, and occasionally record CDs or film soundtracks.

The back row of choirmen is made up of some of the best singers in London. Many of them perform in other choirs, including The Sixteen, the English National Opera Chorus, and the Academy of Ancient Music, and most of our services are accompanied by Greg Morris.

My grandfather was a self-taught church organist, and I’d sit by him at the organ at a very young age. At seven, I joined my local church choir, and still remember the excitement I felt then at the sound of an organ and choir set within a fine acoustic. It was a humble parish church — I didn’t have the experience that our Temple choristers have, singing The Creation, or Mozart’s Requiem — but I enjoyed being part of a collective sound, and I loved big choir festivals. I played the piano, but began formal organ lessons at 11, and gave my first recital when I was 13.

I didn’t follow the traditional path of many of my colleagues: I didn’t attend a cathedral choir school, or take up an Oxbridge organ scholarship, but I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people. Martin How, who was then the southern commissioner for the RSCM, was an inspirational and passionate choir trainer. I sang under him as chorister and went on to work as his organist for the RSCM Cathedral Courses.

The Temple Church organ is a wonderfully large and romantic instrument, and the music on my new CD allows me opportunity to explore its myriad colours. It’s an all-German Romantic programme: the music requires drama, reflection, and vast dynamic changes.

Reger, Reubke, Mendelssohn, and Karg-Elert are organy composers: they seem to possess a natural instinct for the instrument Their compositions are very inventive and rich, which gives the music integrity. French music of the same period is very impressive, but seems to rely on gimmicks a bit — it is more showy, more flamboyant — though there are some great French pieces. Karg-Elert’s Symphonic Chorale on “Jesu Meine Freunde” and Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm have a huge musical landscape which use many of the unique sounds and characters of the Temple organ.

The instrument which anyone plays has got to be capable of a genuine performance of the repertoire, not just of historical interest. Organs are fascinating instruments, but we shouldn’t focus on that. It’s like listening to an orchestra for the quality of the trumpet but not hearing the symphony. The quality of the instrument and sound matters, but whether or not it’s got this or that stop doesn’t necessarily make it great. The music has to sail out without too much compromise, and I think the instrument and the building are inextricably part of that created sound.

Playing the score for Interstellar, which was written by Hans Zimmer, was very different from my normal work. It’s unique in the film industry, in that the organ was given a solo role within the soundtrack. The organ part was recorded independently from the other instruments; so it was vital that I was able to play with a click track while still finding a natural human ebb and flow.

The organ score was conceived in a way that it was not always physically possible to play everything at once; so it required multi-layering of up to six organ scores. It was possible, from time to time, to combine some of these, but the challenge was when I was required to perform it live at the Royal Albert Hall. I had to transcribe it a bit, and rearrange it to play as many of the layers as physically possible.

My relationship with my grown-up children is what makes me happiest. One is a teacher and one an osteopath, and I take a great interest in what they’re doing. Walking my dog is one of the greatest pleasures I have outside music.

I’m not tolerant of people who don’t give of their best, or who seem apathetic to making necessary changes to improve — I’m talking musically here. Very little makes me angry, actually, but that does.

If I was locked in a church, I’d like to be locked in with Beethoven. He was pivotal in moving music in a new direction, and a human who struggled with ailments and situations that would knock many a person. You can hear his struggle in his music, but he had courage and determination. I find these two attributes — and the fact that he often stopped composing in order to help his nephew find a better life — most inspiring. It shows me that he wasn’t self-centred, and his genius was possibly unknown to him.

Roger Sayer was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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