Organ donation of the keyboard kind

Graeme Edwards is a lifelong organ player whose love of the instrument led to his generous gift of a virtual organ to the Music School.

Graeme Edwards at home.
Graeme Edwards at home.

Although at 85 Graeme Edwards listens to music at home with the volume up a few notches, his love of live performance has never left him.

Graeme’s passion is chamber music, which his dad introduced to him when he was 14, and his favourite instrument is the organ. With a mother who was a pianist and father who played the cello, he grew up with music.

“I learned piano then moved on to the organ. I was nuts on it. I’d drive around the country, going to churches to try different organs.”

The family bought a small pedal organ and, in years to come, Graeme became deputy organist at St Andrew’s Church in Epsom. “That gave me access to a very good organ,” Graeme remembers fondly.

Even as a young man, Graeme had an astute business mind. Money was tight until he realised playing the organ could change that.

“I started to play elsewhere, such as St John’s in Ponsonby. I did weddings and funerals when the chief organist wasn’t available.

“I got paid 10 bob for playing at a funeral and 10 shillings and sixpence for a wedding.

That doubled or tripled my income. The figure sounds silly now, but that was enough to fill the car with petrol and go to the movies!”

That memory informed Graeme’s thinking when he decided to fund the purchase of a virtual organ for the University’s School of Music this year. “We give a couple of dollars to quite a few different things and the School of Music seemed to be a very worthy one.

“I was talking to James Tibbles [Head of the Early Music Department] about this idea. I know there are quite a number of technically very competent pianists qualifying, which means it’s not that easy to make a living. One or two float to the top ... Stephen De Pledge [now a lecturer at the University] is starting to gain some ground now, but in general, it’s hard.

“I thought maybe the organ could give them another income stream … that they could do what I did. I also thought it’s very helpful for the school to be able to offer that facility. Quite a few people have taken to it … they want to play it.”

James Tibbles, left, with Graeme Edwards and the virtual organ he donated.
James Tibbles, left, with Graeme Edwards and the virtual organ he donated.

The organ Graeme purchased isn’t just any organ. It’s a virtual organ made by innovative Dutch company Noorlander Orgels, and although it has draw stops like a traditional pipe organ it doesn’t have pipes. Its computer is loaded with the sampled sounds of the pipes of European organs from across the ages.

Music School Head Martin Rummel says the purchase has delighted everyone, especially Associate Professor James Tibbles, a preeminent organist and historic keyboard expert.

“Now we effectively have 17 organs in our theatre,” says Martin. “So, if a lecturer is talking about French Baroque music, they can switch on the Couperin original organ from Rozay-en-Brie and say, ‘this is what it sounded like’.”

Martin says previously students had to go off-campus or to the MacLaurin Chapel.

“To integrate proper organ teaching, you need an organ on site. And this is a very special one.” The organ also captures the acoustics of the church in which each organ is found – creating further realism to the soundscape in which the music is conceived.

“It’s funny seeing an organ that brings out the same kind of sounds, but doesn’t have pipes,” says Graeme. “The sound is very true, too.”

His late brother, Emeritus Professor John Edwards, who lived in the US, also bequeathed a harpsichord to the School. The fact that Graeme’s father used to play in the orchestra as accompaniment to the silent movies is a sign of how far things have come in music technology, yet Graeme says his passion for music is primal. His favourites are still the Romantics – although it’s the Baroque of Bach that tops his list. But he listens to music in digital format through speakers embedded in the walls of his home. Couldn’t be more modern.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Ingenio

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