Christopher Hainsworth at the organ of St Mary of the Angels

‘Last Night of the Poms: an homage to the Silver Fernie’

Church of St Mary of the Angels, Wellington, Saturday 19 April 2009

One did not know quite what to expect from Christopher Hainsworth’s humorous and cryptic title of his concert. But it certainly disclosed one of the aspects of the concert: his sense of humour with its double entendres and puns; ‘Elgar-rhythms’ for example (get it?); an arrangement of a Csardas by one Monti (‘not of the Python family’). Christopher talks about the music and how he’s handling it; it’s pitched at a somewhat unsophisticated level, not assuming, for this concert, much musical knowledge.

Hainsworth was raised and educated in Wellington, and after taking degrees in French and music from Victoria University took a doctorate at Toulouse. That led to academic posts in that region as well as in New Zealand (Waikato University) and he is now titular organist at Béziers Cathedral in the département of Hérault in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. This recital was in part to launch a CD celebrating a 1974 radio broadcast by Maxwell Fernie at his Saint Mary of the Angels organ (Radio New Zealand tapes are now lost), and he played several of those pieces. They included a Berceuse by Eduardo Torres and a Pastorale by Lefébure-Wely. This CD is referred to in the article below, by Nicola Young.

The purpose of the concert was to celebrate his teacher, Maxwell Fernie, organist for the last 40years of his life at the church of St Mary of the Angels, and who designed and supervised the building of the famous organ housed in that church. It is undoubtedly an instrument unique in New Zealand, designed according to French and Belgian taste and traditions in which Fernie was steeped. Though it is only a three-manual instrument, it is sufficient for the church, one of Wellington’s most traditionally beautiful in the neo-gothic style.

So it was not surprising that the most striking characteristic of Hainsworth’s playing was his comprehensive mastery of the individuality of the registrations of this organ which he knows intimately, and tightly executed, sometimes cheeky ornaments, neatly inflected.

Though on occasion Hainsworth could show a flair for massive couplings and multiple registrations, his playing on the whole was limited to single or very few stops at one time, though they could alternate and change kaleidoscopically. He exploited its most brilliant qualities in the most startling and colourful ways, often with keen wit but always with restraint and taste.

It is therefore inappropriate and unkind to comment on the music itself, which was light, popular in tone, avoiding altogether any of the major works in the organ repertoire. It was a mixture of English and French music from an essentially mass-audience, 19th century kind of recital: bits from Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony (in its short span showing how exquisitely he could emerge through shrouded, dark stops to full diapason splendour), a Handel organ concerto, the above mentioned pieces by Monti and Elgar and the famous Purcell tune, the Rondeau from the incidental music to Abdelazer which Britten used in his Young Person’s Guide.

Perhaps many of us were hoping for some interesting and more meaty French music, not to say even Bach. But another time perhaps.…

Re-Master: Maxwell Fernie – organist

Another view of Maxwell Fernie by Nicola M J Young

This article appeared recently in Tommy’s Lifestyle magazine and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Wellington’s musical landscape was transformed when Maxwell Fernie returned in 1959. After five years as organist at central London’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, he had been longing to get home. Max was director of music at St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott St for 41 years and organist for nearly as long; during this time he sent seismic shocks through the capital’s Roman Catholic schools and ensured St Mary’s had an organ as good as any (and better than most). His obsession with organ design and performance and choral music still reverberates through the capital, 10 years after his death at the age of 89.

Now a CD has just been launched in New Zealand and France, based on a radio broadcast made by Max in 1974: ‘Christmas Maximus’, performed by Christopher Hainsworth (a New Zealand classical organist based in Beziers, France), on the pipe organ Max designed. The CD replicates the broadcast’s programme, together with some of Max’s favourite Christmas music, a composition by Douglas Lilburn, and a number of French pieces selected by Chris Hainsworth. Max was the quintessential Wellingtonian, despite his years studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music and working abroad (with a stint in New Zealand’s Expeditionary Forces in Egypt during WWII).

His immaculate dressing (including homburg hat and floppy silk handkerchief) was a novelty to the generations of Roman Catholic school children to whom Max introduced some of Europe’s most glorious ecclesiastical music. His brilliant teaching, exuberance, panache, perfectionism and excoriating wit were eye-opening (and slightly terrifying) to Wellington children raised in the very buttoned-down 50s and 60s, as he trained school choirs, conducted recitals and concerts, taught piano and organ, and performed – often J S Bach, his favourite composer, and nearly always with the extemporisation for which he was renowned. At the end of the 11am sung Mass every Sunday, parishioners and devotees from afar would stay seated while Max played and played – many years on, my not-particularly-musical ears can recall the joys of his ‘Christus Vincit’ and, at Christmas, ‘Personent Hodie’.

Max also established the Schola Polyphonica which, for its 21 years, was generally considered the finest choir in the country; it specialized in Renaissance music (in particular 16th century polyphonic music) and performed with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on a number of occasions. Max was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in 1954, a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, awarded the OBE in 1974 for services to music and the Papal Cross pro Ecclesia et Poniface in 1989. He was Wellington’s city organist for 27 years, and supervised the brilliant restoration of the Town Hall’s organ

(considered one of the best organs in the world). Organ restoration is fraught with fashion and politics: the butchered modernisation of Auckland Town Hall’s organ in the late 1960s led to 30 years of complaints and outrage, culminating in its recent restoration – back to the original brief. His lasting legacy, however, was the organ at St Mary of the Angels built to his own specifications.

Before Max was even thinking of returning home from London, the parish priest at St Mary’s sent the details of a proposed new instrument – a modest ‘two manual’ organ. This was no use to Max; instead he designed a more complex organ, determined Wellington would have an organ suitable for all music: baroque to contemporary, with particular emphasis on the pipes’ clarity (essential for his beloved contrapuntal music). He ‘borrowed’ his favourite Westminster Cathedral pipes overnight to copy their specifications and even tracked down details of other specialized pipes from, for example, the cathedral in Lucerne, Switzerland.

The Maxwell Fernie Trust was founded by his widow, Greta, to continue Maxwell Fernie’s legacy by awarding an annual scholarship of $10,000 to promising New Zealand organists and conductors of choral polyphony. The first scholarship will be awarded next year, on the centenary of Maxwell Fernie’s birth. The Trust aims to raise $100,000 through donations, bequests and fundraising events. The Trust has produced two CDs, both $32 (including postage) and available from

Christmas Maximus: featuring French organ music played by Christopher Hainsworth. Tenebrae Responsories 1585: sung responses for Holy Week, composed in 1585 by Tomás Louis De Victoria and performed by the Schola Polyphonica. The CD has been digitally remastered from the original 1981 recording made at St Mary of the Angels.

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