“Every organist has been locked in a church and unable to get out”

Internationally acclaimed musician D’Arcy Trinkwon has been the University of Sussex’s organist since 2015, performing every month in the Meeting House.

D’Arcy Trinkwon, organist at The Meeting House

People often think of organs as instruments that just thump and drone on at weddings and funerals. But if the person who is playing it feels the emotion of the music, then it is a hugely emotional instrument. It’s all about the music. Like the piano, the organ has endless beauty and colour. When you go into one of these great cathedrals and hear the instrument being played well, the sound is simply overwhelming. It can make the building — and the spirit — shake.

As a child, I used to sing all the time. I loved Freddie Mercury and Queen — one of my heroes of the time. I auditioned for Canterbury Cathedral as chorister because that’s where we lived. I thought the building was amazing, and often I used to wander around it. Allan Wicks — then one of the country’s foremost cathedral musicians — was the organist, and his playing was quite stunning.

When I heard an organ piece by Liszt, the Fantasia and Fugue Ad nos, ad salutarum undam, I fell under the spell for the sounds and the music. It lasts half an hour and has every conceivable emotion, colour, texture and feeling. I knew then that the organ was what I was going to do.

Like any art, the more you know, the less you know. I was 15 when I started organ lessons. I’d been learning piano since I was four. I went to the Royal Northern College of Music, then to Switzerland and Paris to study. As a child I had tried the violin but I was useless at it, to the point that the teacher got angry with me and thrashed me with it: I deserved it! But I have always had an innate physical connection with the keyboards of the piano and the organ.

All musicians will know that without the support of your parents, you don’t get anywhere. My mother drove me up to London every week for lessons. She is 93 and she’s still ‘with it’. She’s a formidable character; a kind of modern-day of Margaret Rutherford.

Favourite organs? It depends entirely on the repertoire you are going to play on them. Among my favourites are St Paul’s Cathedral and the Madeleine (in Paris). But you can’t necessarily play everything on all of them. I am sent the details of the organ on paper before I choose the programme. When I arrive, I have to start from scratch and colour in the music at each organ. The process can take six to eight hours. If the organ is bigger, or the music more complicated, it can take longer. There are no short cuts to this process.

Étude Symphonique, from Enrico Bossi, played by D’Arcy Trinkwon at Selby Abbey

The Meeting House’s organ is neo-classical by design so is particularly suited to early music and some modern music; it is least effective in romantic and symphonic music because the colours aren’t right. It works well with baroque and the modern repertoire. I am also the organist for Worth Abbey. I can play anything there; the instrument is large and has amazing versatility.

Every organist has been locked in a church and unable to get out — probably numerous times! This is because we mostly practise in the evenings and at night when all the visitors have gone. On one occasion I was practising in a cathedral in France when the floodlights were on, and when they had gone off I realised I had been locked in. I was throwing myself against the west end doors — these were 13th century doors that were 15 ft high — in attempt to raise help. I heard people scream and run off, probably believing I was a spirit trying to get out. When that didn’t work I phoned the police. But they must have misunderstood my explanation because I soon heard sirens. They thought someone was trying to break into the cathedral.

There are always funny stories around organs. The one in the Meeting House stopped working once because the wifi went wrong. They can be temperamental because there’s a lot going on with them. Like cars, the more complicated they are, the more there is that can go wrong.

I have an organ at home, which doesn’t disturb our neighbours as the nearest is half a mile away. Mine is digital, but some friends have real pipe organs. Practise is like reading a text before you go out to perform a play or a poem: you are seeking to understand what’s going on between the words and the letters. You can’t necessarily do that at full tilt, so you have to do ‘close work’ quietly in order to think and consider the ‘what, when and how’. The process of polishing something up is different to performing. At a performance you have one opportunity to present all your findings and thoughts.

D’Arcy will be playing a selection of European music on 30 January in the Meeting House. The free 45-minute recital starts at 12 Noon.

Interview by Jacqui Bealing

This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.
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