Carlo Curley likes to think of himself as the Pavarotti of the Organ. But he's really more of a Liberace, says BRIAN BRINDLEY
in The Pipeline: Memoirs of an International Concert Organist, by Carlo Curley, HarperCollins £17.99
Ax1.1,0W ME to Come clean: before I read this book, I didn't are for Carlo Curley, although I had never attended one of his recitals; I had, of course, heard some of his recordings, though I had never owned one. Everything about his personality and his career fed a latent anti-Americanism of which I am secretly ashamed.
I know that he is a big (6 ft 4 in), fat (20 stone) man with a beard; he likes to describe himself as the Pavarotti of the Organ, and obviously aspires to imitate his model in more ways than one.
What I also know about him is that he has given great pleasure by his playing to millions of people; his fans will put me down as a hopeless musical snob, a purselipped old grouch, disapproving both of his choice of repertoire and of his influence on organ design because I am incapable of letting my hair down and enjoying
myself; but I can only write what I feel.
His photograph on the dust-jacket of In the Pipeline, (what a silly name for a book!) shows him standing in front of a lush baroque organ case, an inviting smile on his lips, his fists halfclenched in a gesture of defence, or aggression. Obviously it is his intention that, after reading his book, I shall think more generously of him and of his ideas, having warmed to his chatty, "downhome" style.
Alas for the vanity of human wishes: I have read the book, I find it gushing, bumptious, and naïf. I suppose, if somebody lured me to one of his recitals, I should get carried away by his infectious exuberance; but, if one of my friends offered to play me one of his records (other than to show off his audio equipment), I should sniffily decline. Never mind, he can still give pleasure to millions, and (presumably) weep all the way to the bank.
The maestro admits that, since he is "primarily a musician and not an author (he] knew that he needed help"; it is rather a pity that he chose as his "ghost" Mr Jonathan Ambrosino, who is similarly challenged: the whole book oozes cliche and banality like a barrel of molasses. At page 237 (of 305) it abruptly changes course: there is a long and not very amusing fantasy or skit by "one of the finest word-smiths I've ever come across... Stephen Bicknell"; then a list of organ specifications, of real interest to the organist and organ-builder, though of doubtful appeal to the sort of reader who will enjoy the rest of the book including the largest organ in the world, the 6-manual instrument in the John Wanamaker Store, Philadelphia with 729 stops and 28, 579 pipes; and finally a useful Glossary of Terms contributed by the same master word-smith, marred
only by vituperative definitions of "Neo-classical" and "Voice".
The time has come for me to attempt justify my hostility to the work of Carlo Curley the organist, which unfortunately involves me in doubts about Carlo Curley the man. It might be said that until 1850 the classical organ, large or small, was designed according to definite musical principles, based upon the interelationship between different ranks of Pipes (or "stops") including a diapason chorus, some "mixtures", and a few reed stops. From 1850 to 1950 was the era of the "Orchestral" organ, which began in the Town Halls but soon infected the churches, in which the imitation of the various instruments of the orchestra was the aim: this was for the convenience of visiting organists who in those days provided the only opportunity for ordinary people to hear great music: they would listen enraptured to transcriptions for the organ of 1812, The Ride of the Valkyries, what the half-educated called Rossini's Curious Animal (a jaunty movement from his Stabat Mater), and (at a lower aesthetic level) A Storm at Sea.
This corrupted not only the repertoire, but also the nature of the instrument itself; size became all-important: Canon Sydney Smith quipped that a church organist was like a London cab-horse, "always looking out for another stop!" Not until (roughly) 1950 were the authentic principles of organ-building rediscovered, and a beginning made on cleansing the repertoire of popular vulgarities.
Now Carlo knows all this: he has played many fine classical and neo-classical organs, and he is an undoubted master of technique; but he delights to give his millions of fans the kind of thing they like to hear and, he tells us, he actually enjoys doing so. He exemplifies the maxim
Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (Though I see and approve of the better, I follow the worse.) In truth, he is not so much the Pavarotti of the organ as the Liberace of the Organ if not, with his touring electronic instrument, the Phineas T. Barnum of the Organ.
S o what?" I ask myself: why shouldn't Carlo enjoy his comical vanities? Here's why: this kind of corruption is catching: too many church organists (not least in our Catholic churches) hanker after the wrong instruments, and the wrong choice of music: worse still, they fall for the sales-talk of the makers of electronic instruments with lengthy stop-lists, and install them in lieu of more modest and durable pipe-organs. And Carlo Curley does nothing to dissuade them. I am sorry I cannot like his opinions or his playing or his book. He has many friends and admirers; perhaps if I were to meet him face to face I too should fall victim to his charm.