Organic sounds

2009-05-10 00:00

ORGANIST Christopher Cockburn is looking forward to once again performing on an instrument he describes as the “Rolls Royce of organs”, when he joins the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra for All Time Top Classics in the city hall on July 23.

He’ll be performing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, a piece he first heard in the film 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea in the scene where Captain Nemo is playing the organ on the Nautilus.

Asked what it was like to perform on the English pipe organ in the city hall, Cockburn said: “I think it is one of the most impressive organs you will see anywhere in the world and the sound of that instrument in that building, the physical impact of it, cannot be matched by any set of loudspeakers in the world.

“It’s also a very rewarding instrument to play ... it’s not an instrument that you have to coax or fight with to get the sound you want. It’s the Rolls Royce of organs and I believe that by playing it and letting people hear it, you help to raise awareness of what a treasure it is.”

Cockburn, who lectures at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Durban, is a born and bred Maritzburger, who attended Scottsville Primary and Alexandra High, before heading off to the University of Cape Town to do his Bachelor of Music.

He has recently completed his doctorate in which he investigated the history of Handel’s Messiah in South Africa. “What interested me was how widely known Handel’s Messiah was,” he explained, “and not only among the descendants of British colonialists. I became aware that choirs from black communities also knew the piece and performed it.

“I was interested in how that came about, what the piece meant to people, and how its meaning had changed from one historical period to another and from one culture to another.”

Cockburn discovered that the earliest record of the piece was in Cape Town in 1830, that it was performed in Pietermaritzburg in 1902 to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII and that in the fifties, a choir, conducted by a man dismissed from his post at Orlando High School because of his criticism of the Bantu Education Act, sang the piece as an act of defiance.

Asked when he first started playing piano, Cockburn said: “I don’t know ... I’ve been playing for as long as I can remember. I suppose someone must have shown me, perhaps my dad [organist, David Cockburn], who was a musician. I can tell you that I started formal music lessons at the age of seven.”

His greatest influence is Gillian Weir, who once performed in Pietermaritzburg, and who taught him for three months in his fourth year at UCT.

“She was and still will be recognised as one of the greatest organists in the world. I was incredibly privileged to have had her as a lecturer,” he said.

“Her understanding of the organ as an expressive instrument really spoke to me.”


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