Organist reflects on a decade of free performances

Published on April 30, 2013
David Drinkell hosts an organ concert each Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s.
— Photo by Jean Snook/Special to The Telegram

David Drinkell arrived in St. John’s on Feb. 12, 2003, the day after a fierce blizzard. Unlike many who are put off by the weather, he and his wife Elspeth like it here and plan to stay. In the 10 years since his appointment as organist and choir director at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Drinkell has given a free organ concert every Wednesday: Lunch-Time Music Featuring The Great Casavant Organ.

In giving a weekly concert, Drinkell is following in the footsteps of his teacher’s teacher, Harold Darke, who was the cathedral organist at St. Michael’s Cornhill in London, England, for more than 60 years. The organists at Westminster Abbey and at St. Paul’s Cathedral also give weekly concerts. Drinkell is the only organist in Canada who performs so frequently for the public. It takes many, many hours of practice, but he also enjoys doing it. In his words, “I like to play and it makes me practise.”

Each concert is carefully planned to last exactly half an hour, beginning at 1:15 p.m.. Admission is free and all are welcome. The side door entrance on Gower Street leads directly into the transept. At midday the cathedral is bathed in light that shines through the tall windows, many of them of stained glass.

On Wednesday, April 24, Drinkell performed his 478th concert here, consisting of five contrasting pieces. He opened with the most difficult, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in B minor” BWV 544. In organ music, “Bach represents the consummate peak of baroque music and, for that matter, the entire literature. Here as elsewhere, his achievement was principally artistic perfection” (Willi Apel,  Harvard Dictionary of Music).

Drinkell then moved on to a short, charming, evocative piece by Henri Mulet (1878-1967), his “Petit Lied” in 5/4 time, a piece Drinkell discovered online just last week.

Then came another substantial work, the “Sarabande (For the morning of Easter)” by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), a stately work with narrative quality. Howells’ music, with its bittersweet quality, is regarded as the epitome of the English cathedral sound.

That was followed by a playful “Humoresque — L’organo primitivo” by Pietro Yon (1886-1943), a miniature toccata played on a single flute stop. Drinkell’s detailed program notes explained that the piece was inspired by the street organs of Yon’s native Bologna.

The closing piece, “Carillon,” by Louis Vierne (1870-1937) had Drinkell performing a perpetuum mobile with his feet that created a splendid buildup of sound.

Drinkell is an accurate and inspired performer with a clear mental overview of the composition of each piece. His infectious sense of rhythm and wise choice of tempi make every piece come alive. Years of practice and performance have made him a most reassuring organist to listen to. Drinkell is not going to stumble over any technical difficulties. His expert technique serves him well as he concentrates on interpreting the music, bringing forth countless different voices from the organ.

By including at least one new piece in each weekly concert, Drinkell has built up an impressive repertoire. He is happy to discuss the music with members of the audience after the concert, and to take requests for subsequent concerts. Several years ago, when asked to play something by the great French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Drinkell held back because he didn’t feel French music was his strong point. Now it is. Rather than tackling Messiaen directly, he worked first on other French composers, and familiarity with their compositions made Messiaen more accessible to him. He played some Messiaen just last week.

Organ music took a blow in the 1960s when church reforms threw out the music with the liturgy. Since then, Drinkell explains, there have been a lot of competent but uninspired compositions for the church. There is not much happening on a big scale. There is no really big name since Messiaen died, but in these lean times, Drinkell singles out the French composer Olivier Latry as the one to watch, the one who remains most creative.


Each organ has its own character and its own strengths. Cochrane Street United Church has the Casavant organ with the most stops, but the Anglican Cathedral has the Casavant organ with the most pipes — 3,564 to be exact. When comparing the organs, Drinkell points out, for example, that the tuba stop on the organ he plays is fairly feeble, whereas the tuba stop on the Cochrane Street organ is very bright. The Basilica also has a large organ that is not played as often. Drinkell describes its sound as “dark grandeur.”

The organ in the Anglican Cathedral was built in 1904, then rebuilt in 1927 by Casavant using some of the old parts. The annual cost of its upkeep is about $6,000. Casavant sends a representative here twice a year from Quebec. It takes two days to tune the organ. Drinkell can touch up the tuning on his own, and he and a member of his choir are replacing the leather on the bellows, a task he likens to painting the Forth Bridge in Edinburgh; by the time you get to the end of it, it’s time to start over again.

Drinkell likes this organ and feels it likes him. He calls it a “quirky old beast,” but says it’s amazing what you can do with it. “This organ is good at taking on different accents. You can make it sound like a French organ. Close your eyes, use your imagination a bit, and you can be standing in a church in Paris.”

At that, he begins playing by heart. When I ask what he is playing he kindly gets out the score from the overflowing open shelves behind him: the “Toccata” from the “Suite Gothique” by Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897).

“Certain pieces suit this organ,” he says, carrying on with another favourite.

Drinkell can play most of his vast repertoire without looking at the score. In some cases, he just needs to read through a piece once, and it’s as if he has always known it. He doesn’t know why this is so, but cites as an example Jehan Alain’s “Litanies” in 5 flats, marked vivo, the third of “Trois Pièces.” Alain (1911-1940) was killed in the Second World War. The Harvard Dictionary of Music refers to his “mysticism and sonorous visions.”

Drinkell, from Essex, started playing at a local church when he was 12, and he hasn’t missed a Sunday service since. In 1988 he became Organist and Master of the Choristers at St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. He is the only organist to have played in all 31 cathedrals in Ireland (one has since been closed), and has also performed in Norway, Germany, the USA, Northern Ireland (where he was the organist at St. Anne’s Cathedral) and Paris — not to forget St.-Pierre, where he spent a whole day playing the organ for schoolchildren.

Drinkell made a couple of recordings in Belfast, but tends “to concentrate on the moment rather than on posterity.” He says the organ here emits the sound of escaping air, although the radio station VOWR was recently satisfied with a series of half-hour programs recorded through the cathedral’s PA system. Drinkell would like to do a better quality recording, but the organ needs some restoration.

Choir director

To speak of Drinkell only as an organist would be to turn a blind eye to the other, equally important and related part of his profession. He is also the choir director, and says there is even more work involved in the overall administration of the choir, which is one of only four choirs in all of Canada that sings two services every week. In this context, he points out that people who are not “churchy” would also enjoy the choral evensong every Sunday evening at 6:30, a beautiful piece of liturgy with beautiful pieces of music to accompany it.

Also, on Friday, June 21, the cathedral musicians will perform their annual Last Night at the Proms concert, as in the Royal Albert, an evening of light-hearted music and sea shanties.

It is a pleasure to talk with Drinkell, to meet a world-class organist so unassuming, yet so very active in his position. He is articulate and approachable, and he is happy here.

As he says, his “Wednesday organ concerts are always there, always free.” They are a delightful contribution to the classical music scene in the City of St. John’s.