A Society Formed
Photo copyright D. Hunter.
Professor Desmond Hunter FRCO
President of the Ulster Society of Organists & Choirmasters 2017-2018
It gives me great pleasure to provide the Foreword to this book. I write as someone who has gained a perspective of the work of the Society largely from the outside looking in. Whilst I had the privilege of having Honorary Membership of the USOC conferred on me in 2003, my association with the Society has been limited to providing contributions to USOC Events Programme (recitals, illustrated talks, workshops) over the years. Nevertheless, I am very well aware of the valuable work that has been progressed and the initiatives that have been undertaken over the past 50 years. And, this book covers this and so much more; indeed, this account of the Society’s first 100 years is richly informative and provides a lively and engaging read.
Part I Developing Decades, provides a fascinating journey from the creation of the Society, through years of growth and periods of difficulty and change, to a consideration of the challenges that face the Society now and in the future. We are introduced to key figures, including Billy Adair, a great servant of the Society over many years, whose reflections ‘An Octogenarian Organist Looks Back’, form the content of a later chapter, and Captain C J Brennan, who served as President from 1929 until 1967. C J Brennan is probably little more than a name to most current members of the Society; his encouraging and inspirational voice emerges through memories recorded. It is interesting to note the ambition of the Society in engaging some of the major figures in English church music to lead events even in the early years, including Edward Bairstow (then at York Minster), Sydney Nicholson (founder of the RSCM) and Harvey Grace (sometime organist of Chichester Cathedral and author of what Ernest Newman described as ‘the first systematic and comprehensive English book on the organ works of Bach’).
The exhaustive chronological survey of activities that opens Part II focuses on the individuals who have provided leadership, direction and inspiration. The content underlines the value of the Society to its membership and the energy and commitment of successive office-bearers in imaginative programme-planning. This is followed by a detailed account of the meetings with the Leinster Society of Organists and Choirmasters over a period of over 30 years. Mention of Michael Van Dessel, a significant figure in the organ scene in Ireland, is a reminder of the contribution that Belgian organists have made to USOC and Ireland through much of the twentieth century. In the remainder of Part II, the net is cast further to embrace Dr Joe McKee’s survey of organ builders active in Northern Ireland throughout the period covered by this book, Billy Adair’s address to the Society in 2003, reflecting, with wit and wisdom, on his long association with the Society, and the May Trips, which have become an important feature of the Society’s annual programmes.
The comprehensive treatment provides valuable commentary on a wide range of activities. Inevitably, there are events and developments that are not covered, simply because they did not have a USOC dimension. This is an observation rather than a criticism but explains why, for instance, important series of recitals presented under the auspices of other organisations may not be mentioned. What is offered is a rich narrative of the progress and achievements of a provincial organists’ society that punches well above its weight, with vivid portraits of personalities, places, encounters and experiences.
This book contains a wealth of material that will be of interest to a wide readership. Whilst it represents a huge undertaking, clearly it was a labour of love. What comes across, above all else, is a sense of deep affection and gratitude for the contribution that the Society has made to musical life in the province. This is an important history, documenting a century of activity that has provided educational opportunities, enrichment and enjoyment. The fact that the Society continues to flourish is a tribute to the foresight and sustained endeavour of many individuals, including the author of this volume.