‘To have a letter printed in The Times is the duty of the distinguished and the ambition of the obscure.’ So wrote the late Bernard Levin. Falling decidedly into the latter category, I finally achieved my ambition with a letter about, of all things, an organist: Edwin Lemare.
A few years earlier, before the Birtian Terror at the BBC and when I was still allowed to make radio programmes for it, I had suggested a feature on Lemare. There were no takers (‘Never heard of him’, ‘An organist? No thanks’ – all the predictable reactions) and so tried another route. Someone told me that one of his daughters, Iris, was still alive and living in the North of England. Surely, someone at Radio 3 or 4 would lend me a tape recorder and let me make a radio feature about her – and her father.
I was too late. Not long afterwards, I read her obituary in The Times. Born in 1902, she died on April 23, 1997 – the first professional female conductor in Britain, the person who gave Britten his first public performance (his Sinfonietta in 1933) and the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1936). What caught my eye was the opening of the second paragraph of the obituary: ‘Iris Margaret Elsie Lemare was born in London, the daughter of an organist.’ An organist?! I put pen to paper and wrote in time-honoured fashion to the Editor:
Sir, To describe the father of Iris Lemare as ‘an organist’ is a bit like calling Dr George Carey [the then Archbishop of Canterbury] a member of the Church of England. Miss Lemare’s father, Edwin, was the greatest and most celebrated organist of his day, a composer and the perpetrator of some of the most demanding transcriptions for the instrument that have been written. Recently, his music, long out of fashion, has undergone a revival and has been much recorded; though it must be admitted that he wrote the dullest autobiography I have ever read, wondrously entitled Organs I Have Met.
A few days later, the duty Letters Editor rang. ‘We’ve just read your letter,’ she said in a drawling upmarket voice. ‘We just wanted to check. Is the title of that autobiography genuine?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I replied. ‘I have a copy not two feet from where I’m standing.’ ‘Well,’ she continued, ‘we all think it’s frightfully funny. We’ll publish the letter in a few days’ time.’
Thus it was, thanks entirely to Edwin Lemare, that I finally made it into the hallowed Letters Page – and in the much-prized bottom right hand corner.
But it was to make a serious point about an unjustly forgotten genius. In his day – that’s to say roughly the two decades either side of 1900 – Lemare was a headliner, hailed as the greatest living concert organist. As early as 1893 we find him in the Albert Hall on the same bill as Adelina Patti (the star turn), Charles Santley, Ben Davies and Madame de Pachmann (Vladimir’s wife), being reviewed by George Bernard Shaw: ‘Mr Lemare [...] revelled among the stops of the organ, which are mighty ones and millions, but who does not understand – what organist does? – how very disagreeable are those sudden pianos which are produced by stifling the organ with the swell shutters.’
This was just a year after Lemare had seen the publication of what would be his best known composition, the work by which he is remembered (if at all) today. His Andantino in D flat, written in 1888, was published by Robert Cocks of London in 1892. Lemare was paid a flat fee of three guineas. It sold in its tens of thousands and was requested at every recital he ever gave, the equivalent of Rachmaninov’s C sharp minor Prelude and Paderewski’s ubiquitous Minuet. Its famous melody is played by being ‘thumbed down’, that’s to say while the left hand plays the accompaniment on the swell manual, the fingers of the right hand play the melody on the solo manual while the right hand’s thumb simultaneously stretches down to the great manual to play the melody in parallel sixths. In 1921 two American song writers put words to the Andantino without Lemare’s permission and called it ‘Moonlight and Roses’. It had sold over a million copies by 1925. Only when Lemare threatened legal action did the songwriters reluctantly agree to give the composer a percentage and add his name to the sheet music. And it was only then that Lemare began to make more than the three guineas he had made so far from his ubiquitous composition.
In the same year, 1892, Lemare eloped with Marian Colton-Fox the daughter of a wealthy Sheffield solicitor, and married her at St Michael’s, Pimlico. He had been at Sheffield for six years and had been offered a post at St Peter’s, Belsize Park. That lasted a few weeks (supposedly because of Lemare’s presumptuous attitude) but he was soon installed at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square with a new Walker organ at his disposal. When the priest, the Rev Robert Eyton, was appointed to St Margaret’s, Westminster, in 1895, Lemare went with him. This was and remains a prestigious post (St Margaret’s is known as ‘the parish church of the House of Commons’) and within a year of his arrival Lemare had designed and installed a brand-new three-manual Walker with a full range of Wagnerian orchestral effects. It was first heard on June 20, 1897 for the House of Commons Thanksgiving Service for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Within three years of his arrival, St Margaret’s had been dubbed ‘A Mecca for Musicians’, with programmes that included the first act of Parsifal (Lemare had obtained special permission from Cosima Wagner herself) with the church’s 60-strong choir of 20 men and 40 boys. The audiences for the concerts there were so great that the police had to clear a way for Lemare’s carriage. The church could seat 950 people and the building was regularly packed to capacity. ‘The way Lemare manipulated Walker’s glorious organ,’ wrote one seasoned observer, ‘was almost uncanny. I have rarely heard a more convincing performance of these works [Dvorák’s Carnival Overture and ‘Waldweben’ from Siegfried] even by our greatest orchestras. I am conversant with these scores, and realise the gravity of this statement. It is no exaggeration.’
So how did Edwin Henry Lemare rise to this eminence and achieve the effects he did? He was born in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight on September 7, 1864. His grandfather, father and all five of his uncles were organists. At the age of 12, his precocious talent made him the youngest ever recipient of the Goss Scholarship which won him three years at the Royal Academy of Music. Here he studied piano with Walter Macfarren and organ with Charles Steggall, then later with Dr Turpin, the secretary of the RAM, who groomed him for a career as a recitalist.
It so happened that Lemare’s career coincided with the advent of the symphonic organ, electric motors, and electro-pneumatic action and all manner of other aids and improvements. City and town halls up and down the land crowned their sumptuous Victorian buildings with instruments by Willis, Walker, Hill and other builders. The orchestral range of sounds and the expressive power of this new breed of organ made recitals hugely popular – and the acknowledged king of concert recitalists was W(illiam) T(homas) Best (1826-97). Lemare took over where Best left off with a technique that was unrivalled. Nelson Barden, to whose invaluable study of Lemare’s life and music this article is indebted for much biographical information, explained how Lemare developed from Best the art of ‘thumbing’ as used in the Andantino, accompanying legato melodies played by the thumb on one manual while playing rapid trills and figurations with the remaining fingers of the same hand on a higher manual. ‘The effect was of Lemare playing duets with himself.’
He practiced registration changes in the same way that others might practice scales or arpeggios. ‘There never ought to be the slightest delay when changing stops,’ wrote Lemare. ‘The audience should never be aware that there are any stops at all.’ Barden reveals that ‘he played thumb pistons as freely as he did the notes, producing striking dynamic changes by sliding across the buttons.’ Wherever possible he pedalled all naturals with the heels (a novel technique) while one of his specialities was the reproduction of orchestral accents and sforzandi by snapping the swell pedal shut just before the beat.
In 1899, the Rev Eyton resigned suddenly from St Margaret’s, Westminster. The reasons are unclear but it seems some personal scandal was afoot. Eyton’s successor was a very different character and after Lemare had improvised a particularly dramatic storm scene between the last two stanzas of ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’ during the first Sunday service taken by the new priest, it was clear that he would be moving on again. But not before he had completed his four-movement organ Symphony in G minor and made his first trip to America where, after his New York recital debut, one critic put him above Guilmant and another declared him to be ‘the greatest master of the instrument the American public has heard’.
Lemare’s eight year marriage was quietly annulled the same year (1901). It had been unconsummated. A year later he married Elsie Reith, the pretty daughter of a Watford clergyman, and was offered the post of organist and director of music at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. His salary of $4000 a year was five times more than what St Margaret’s paid. From now on, Lemare’s career was international. By the end of his life he had crossed the Atlantic 55 times and played as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
The range of music he offered was quite extraordinary: much Bach, of course, Bossi, Liszt, Reubke, Guilmant, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Rheinberger, Widor - and transcriptions. He would eventually produce over 200 of these including works by Rossini, Dvorák, Brahms, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven overtures, and more than 20 excerpts from Wagner operas. In addition there were his own compositions. Many of these now sound decidedly dated (Summer Sketches, for example, his Op 73) while his various Pastorales and Romances are uneven in inspiration and melodic invention. The best, though, are striking and individual. These include the two Concertstück, Opp 80 and 90, Marche héroïque, Op 74, the Bell Scherzo, Op 89, Fantasia & Fugue in E, Op 99, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Op 98, Toccata di Concerto, Op 59 and, perhaps his most-performed piece after the Andantino in D flat, Rondo capriccio (‘A study in accents’), Op 64. Almost all of these, and a few more besides, have been recorded by Christopher Herrick on his multi-volume series ‘Organ Fireworks’ for Hyperion. (Lamare works begin on volume 2 - Amazon)
Lemare’s second marriage collapsed in 1909. Elsie, the mother of Iris, suffered from increasingly poor health and this, he felt, was seriously impeding his career. To avoid unwelcome press attention caused by the scandal of his divorce, Lemare escaped to America. Here, just two weeks later, he married Charlotte Bauersmith, an attractive young organist he had met in Pittsburgh four years earlier. He was 43 and nearing the height of his fame; she was almost 20 years younger and would remain with him for the rest of his life with their two children, Betty and Edwin Jnr.
The rest of Lemare’s career is based in America, one reason why his name became so quickly forgotten in his home country. From 1917-20 he was San Francisco’s city organist. Here, at the age of 55, he became the highest paid organist in the world, where his salary from this post alone was $7500 a year. For 100 concerts at the 1915 World Fair in San Francisco he was paid an unprecedented $10,000. When the city fathers halved his salary in 1920, Lemare left for a less prestigious post in Portland, Maine and thence, from 1924-29, to Chattanooga in Tennessee where he was civic organist. That was his last official appointment and his career began to rapidly unravel.
A portent of this can be heard in one of Lemare’s few organ discs. Although he made a disc recording as early as 1897 (an improvisation on ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’) it was exactly 30 years later before he made another. He was contracted by the Victor label to record 24 sides. The organ was a small three-manual instrument in poor condition. After ten sessions, the disillusioned Lemare opted out of the contract. Only two discs were ever issued: one has Aloha Oe (a popular sentimental Hawaiian song) and Lemare’s own Chant de bonheur; the other has his Andantino on one side with Schumann’s Träumerei on the other. They make dismal listening. With the stock market crash of 1929, Lemare lost everything.
Musical tastes changed rapidly in the 1920s and the fashion for symphonic organs faded. Times had changed and Lemare did not move with them. The five years left to him witnessed a sad mental and physical decline. By 1932, a survey in The American Organist of America’s top 58 organists did not even mention Lemare. After a series of heart attacks, he died on 24 September 1934. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
As I said in my letter to The Times, Lemare, though quickly forgotten after his death, has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years along with a resurgence in popularity of the mixed organ recital, whether in church or town hall. Where Lemare’s transcriptions of the William Tell or Rienzi Overtures might have been the only means by which his audience could hear them, now they are valued in their own right for their ingenuity and effectiveness as organ works.
The likes of Herrick, Thomas Trotter (the present organist of St Margaret’s, Westminster) Carlo Curley, Gerard Brooks, Frederick Hohmann, Cameron Carpenter, Oliver Latry and the late Virgil Fox are but a few who play Lemare’s music and have taken his advice to heart: ‘To play a programme of strictly classical music is as bad as giving a dinner party with a menu consisting only of roast joint, potatoes and Guinness stout. There must be sufficient contrast in the numbers to suit all tastes and even to give a little relief to the serious musician.’ There are still some benighted souls who offer nothing but fugues and passacaglias while their audiences freeze to death on bum-numbing wooden seats. Those with a little savvy, mix and match. And for a church or cathedral recital – if the organisers are on the ball – cameras and TV monitors get round the age old problem of the invisible organist.
In 1912, the young Malcolm Sargent, already an accomplished organist, liked nothing better than making the nave of Peterborough Cathedral (where he was articled) ‘reverberate grandly’ to the Ride of the Valkyries and the Meistersinger Overture in Edwin Lemare’s transcriptions. According to his biographer, Charles Reid, Sargent ‘admired the transcriber’s astuteness and imagination alike. Lemare was billed for a recital in Nottingham. This was not to be missed. Malcolm came back from it in full effervescence. “That man,” he said to his friend Tom Armstrong, “did something I wouldn’t have believed possible. He made the organ dance.”’
Despite his boastful, self-serving autobiography, Lemare deserves to be remembered not only for his compositions and transcriptions, but as the man who, with WT Best, emancipated the organ, dragged it from the dusty organ loft into the concert hall and, for nearly four decades, had the public queuing round the block to hear him. What organist can say that today?
For a more detailed analysis of Lemare’s contribution to organ building, playing technique and repertoire, see for an informative essay by Sverker Jullander. You can also read online Part One of Nelson Barden’s account of Lemare’s life.