A Cathedral Organist’s Career: June Nixon
There cannot be too many organists anywhere in the world who have continuously occupied a church post in a major city for even two decades; but on 3 February 2013 Dr June Nixon, organist and choir director of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne, will be stepping down after four decades. (Shades of Widor, appointed to his ‘temporary’ job at Saint Sulpice in 1870, and still theoretically temping when he resigned thence in 1934.)
It therefore seemed an opportune moment to interview Dr Nixon about her background, musical experiences, and plans. We arranged to meet at the distinctive1890s home which she and her husband maintain in the Melbourne suburb of Middle Park, no more than a 20-minute tram trip from the city centre – and with the line on the other side of the main street, but astonishingly quiet and sylvan.
RJS: Was there a family history of organ enthusiasm, or indeed of particular religious enthusiasm?
IN: My grandmother, whom I didn’t know, used to ride around the countryside side-saddle, teaching piano to the daughters of the farmers in the area. My grandmother, aunt and then my sister played the organ (harmonium and later a tiny electronic) in a small country church, over a period of nearly 100 years.
RJS: I believe you studied both piano and organ at Melbourne University?
IN: Yes, after attending Teachers’ College for two years I was very fortunate in having two wonderful piano teachers, both of whom had been organists: Eric Harrison, and Mack Jost. I studied the organ at All Saint’s church E. St Kilda with Bernard Clarke and it was at All Saints’ where I first heard a boys’ choir. I’d never heard that boys’ sound before, and was absolutely captivated
RJS: Do they still have a boys’ choir there?
IN: I believe so, though I haven’t been there for a while, obviously.
RJS: And I gather you got a scholarship to study in London after Melbourne.
IN: Yes, later. Because of the studentship which paid for my degree, I was bonded to the Education Department, to teach for three years. I did the peripatetic thing. I’d go around 10 different schools, and do half a day in each. These were primary school classes, which I didn’t much like. At the same time, I was having organ lessons, and I would get up very early – I had a key to All Saint’s- and I would do an hour or two of practice before and after school. I was also given the opportunity to accompany services there and take some of the boys’ rehearsals. At the same time I was singing in, and gaining experience playing for the choir of the Canterbury Fellowship. I learned a great deal from Peter Chapman-a wonderful choirtrainer.
The experience of school teaching during those years actually made me realize just what I really wanted to do, which was to travel to London and obtain Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists.
That was my grand ambition, and even marriage didn’t deter me! In 1967 I completed ARCO paperwork in Melbourne, then flew to London where I had six lessons with Douglas Hawkridge at St James Sussex Gardens. I then sat for ARCO playing. A couple of days later, the college called to say that I had passed, and that I could do FRCO playing in three days’ time! So it was very, very difficult. I had to prepare not only the two programmes, but all of the tests for each. With ARCO, the score reading was in F and G clefs, but with FRCO you had the alto and tenor clefs as well. I didn’t make any attempt at all to do FRCO paperwork then. When I returned home, I did that by correspondence. I’d work away and work away, and when I came up against a problem, I’d write away an airmail letter with a question, but of course the answer didn’t come back for a fortnight. By then I’d forgotten what the question was! Anyway, I managed to pass.
RJS:In 1968 there was an organ competition, a national one.
You won it, didn’t you?
IN:Yes. But where I was really lucky here was the fact that one of the adjudicators was Sir William McKie. That was marvellous, because he gave me some wonderful introductions to eminent organists and organ lofts, as I had hoped to return to England for some more study.
Not long after, I read in The Age one day about the first AEH Nickson Scholarship, together with another called the Lizette Bentwich Scholarship. I’m not sure who Lizette Bentwich was -but I thought, I might as well apply. And they gave me both! It wasn’t enough money to support us, I must say, and we lived in poverty for a year in London. But because of Sir William’s introductions, I sat up at the Temple Church with [Sir George] Thalben-Ball, almost every Sunday of the year.
RJS: Really? As his assistant?
IN: Page-turner and so on. But I learned an enormous amount from him. I also sat with Christopher Dearnley, when he was at St Paul’s, Douglas Guest at the Abbey, and of course, at King’s, when Sir David Willcocks was there.
RJS: You knew him?
IN: Yes, he was very kind. For a while, we were actually living in Norwich, while Neville had a job there. I would take the train across to Cambridge, and I was able to sit in on King’s College choir practices, then in the loft for evensong, which was a great privilege. Then I’d walk around for evensong at St John’s, before taking the train back to Norwich. I also took the opportunity during that year for some brief study with Marie-Claire Alain, and Lionel Rogg, I sat the Associateship of the Royal College of Music, did conducting study with Charles Proctor and Bernard Keefe at Trinity College, and gained the CHM ((choirmaster) from the Royal College of Organists. They gave me a prize for this exam, and we were so poor we ate the prize in the form a steak each for Christmas dinner!
I really should mention Dr Stanley Vann too, who had the finest choir I’d ever heard at Peterborough Cathedral in the 70’s. He was very kind to me, and we became great friends. His choir so impressed me for their sheer musicianship, and that unique balance of technique and emotion one always strives for.
What’s more, he was able to achieve this with amateur singers as well as with professionals. Hearing this choir for the first time was my “Damascene moment!”
RJS: It was, I believe, in 1973 that you obtained the organ and choir directorship in Melbourne, at St Paul’s.
IN: I began after Easter in 1973, but I was actually offered the position on Boxing Day 1972.
RJS: I was going to ask how it came about: whether there was a competition among entrants, or whether you were sounded out.
IN: No, they didn’t have a competition. It was just on the strength of references, interviews and experience I guess, and I was lucky to have some nice references from what I’d done in England.
RJS: You also, I gather, joined the teaching faculty of music at Melbourne University. How did that teaching position come your way? Was it advertised?
IN: I can’t really remember. I must have been talking to somebody, and said, “I’ve come back, would there be a place for me?’ The Ormond Professor of Music at the time was George Loughlin, who was also an organist. He was very encouraging.
RJS: I see that in 1995 you received the Percy Jones award from the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. How much, if at all, was Dr Jones (Rev Dr Percy Jones, Music Director of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, 1942-73) a conscious influence on your own musical activity?
IN: Only a little. He taught music history to first-year students at Melbourne University. I heard his choir a few times also. He was very encouraging and kind to me.
RJS: What changes in church music have you noticed – in church attendance, in general official attitudes – in the decades since you joined St Paul’s?
IN: All sorts of subtle changes, I suppose. It’s mixed. In actual fact, congregations at the Cathedral seem to be increasing, especially for services when the choir is involved. Numbers at weekday evensong are I’m told, greater than any time in the Cathedral’s history. As for the carol services, the Cathedral was becoming so jam packed that you could barely move, and they are now turning people away for security reasons. I’m enjoying the choir more than ever these days, which makes it difficult, in a way, to leave when things are going well. But people always say it’s best to go when things are going well. I have a wonderful lot of boys and men. They are just wonderful and very committed people. At the moment there are about 20 boys. It varies between 19 and 24, with 23 men.
But there certainly have been changes. I think it was 1975 that the Australian Prayer Book appeared. Twenty years ago, of course, came women’s ordination.
RJS: And then – in 1999, was it? – your award of the DMus Cantuar!
What’s the procedure by which one is awarded this particular honour?
IN: I don’t know!. One day this letter arrived in the mail, and I said to Neville, ‘Oh by the way, I’ve had this letter.’ He said, Who from?’. And I said, ‘It’s from George.’ He said, ‘George, who do you mean, George? George Guest (of St John’s College, Cambridge)?’ ‘No, not George Guest, George Carey.’ ‘George Carey?’ I said, ‘You can have a look if you like; it’s in the other room.’ Then I heard this scream from the other end of the house!
RJS: And it was he?
Dr Nixon with Dr George (now Baron) Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002
IN:Yes. It’s addressed: ‘Dear June (if I may).’ …….’Yours ever, George.’
In accordance with a papal edict of 1533, the Archbishop of Canterbury was empowered to award degrees on his own initiative; and this power continued to exist even after the Henrician break with Rome. Dr Nixon showed me the extraordinarily thick, huge double-parchment certificate (‘apparently the parchment lasts for several hundred years’), complete with the Queen’s Seal, which she had been awarded at Lambeth Palace. The service of bestowing the doctorate was wholly in Latin. Dr Nixon is the first woman ever to receive this particular doctorate.
RJS: Over the years, which organists have influenced your playing most, and which composers have influenced your writing most?
IN: Well, I suppose Thalben-Ball with organ accompaniment, but it’s difficult to say who influenced me any more than others. As far as composition goes, well, that just happened. I didn’t study composition at university. And I’m very grateful now that I didn’t, because it would have been so time-consuming that I wouldn’t have been able to do what I wanted to do then anyway.
RJS: How did the composing start, if you hadn’t studied it at university?
IN: It came about with the Australian Prayer Book in 1975. I was told by the Dean at the Cathedral that they were introducing this new prayer book, and they needed music for it. ‘Here are the words I want you to set.’ It was all typed out. ‘I want you to do this.’ So I went home and had a bit of a go at it, and taught it to the choir. The morning after we sang it, the Dean said: ‘That’s wonderful!’ (I’m sure that was because it is very short, as he always wanted the music to be kept short!) I then thought, ‘Well we can’t keep doing this over and over again.’ So I came back with another one, and eventually another one. Fortunately, we were later given permission to use conventional repertoire as well for AAPB services. From time to time a certain set of words was asked for, and there either wasn’t any music, or wasn’t anything that was quite suitable for our choir, so I would write something. It’s amazing what encouragement can do for a musician- we just don’t need it, we thrive on it!
What I have striven for at St Paul’s is a beauty of choral sound, to match the beauty of the organ, and the building. I wanted to create a sound that was unique to St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, and I wanted people who came to the Cathedral to hear a sound and repertoire that was distinctively ours, for an Australian Cathedral, and never a copy of any other Cathedral in any other country or for any other culture.
I mentioned earlier Stanley Vann, and his choir at Peterborough. He was also a very fine composer- (and he wrote as many settings of the canticles as did Herbert Howells!) Stanley had been “bitten” by the “chant bug”-once he started writing chants he couldn’t stop, and I think I caught that bug from him, hence my ambition to have our own psalter at St Paul’s.
I have been so lucky to have inherited our fine musical tradition of a choir of men and boys, singing weekday evensong in addition to the Sunday services, with its unique musical education. I have always been acutely aware of how much this is valued, and indeed envied, in so many parts of the world, and that it has been a life changing experience for so many.
RJS: What are your immediate plans after next February, musical and otherwise?
IN: Well, I think I’ll probably have to take stock for a bit. Forty years is a long time. I hope to go to Exeter Cathedral, for a Cathedral organists’ conference, and there are a few other projects on the go. It’ll be nice not to have the routine of six or seven services per week, with eight choir practices and all the organisation. You get used to it, because they’re such nice people in the choir. But I will have a lot more flexibility for other things.
RJS: Thanks very much, Dr Nixon.