Jeannine: Please share with our readers your background and how you made your way to the organ world of Sydney, Australia.
Mr. Ampt: I grew up in the state of Victoria in a small country town which had four churches with two manual pipe organs. Unfortunately none of these organs were found in the town’s two Lutheran churches – and I am Lutheran. At that time, church youth groups were the big social groups for many teenagers.
One night, for the entertainment section of my Luther League gathering, we visited the new, and architecturally dramatic, Presbyterian church. And so I had my first contact with an organ with pipes. Although there was nothing above 2’, I was completely bowled over, and so I started weekly practicing on that instrument. I was about fourteen years-old and taking weekly piano and violin lessons.
Even at that time, organ music was not new to me. My own church had a German-style electronic organ and, because my mother was one of the organists, I had already been playing it whenever possible. Importantly, our very working-class home was a place of almost constant music. My mother and oldest sister often entertained us with piano duets (there was no TV) while my other sister, and eventually also my father, took singing lessons. My father, a true lover of classical music, had a substantial, and much played, collection of LP recordings, and only ever had the kitchen radio tuned to the classical music station. I almost never heard, or developed a liking for, pop music. Even to this day I find most pop music of little interest - often just a succession of passacaglias with very short themes.
I had my first organ lessons during my last two years of high school, followed by Ordinary and Masters degrees at Adelaide University, two of those years with David Rumsey. Then it was off to Vienna and four and a half years with the incomparable Anton Heiller.
It was when I had been thinking of returning to Australia that I read in an Australian organ journal that the position of Sydney City Organist was to be reinstated. I applied for the position.
Jeannine: Your position as Sydney City Organist sounds most intriguing. To my knowledge, positions such as yours are rare in the organ world. What is the history of the position? What are your duties in this position?
Mr. Ampt: Unlike America where the Town or City Hall is a collection of local government offices, similarly named buildings in Australia, following the English tradition, in addition to being the seats of local government, are also actual concert halls, initially designed as places for meetings, lectures and affordable entertainment. Many of these structures were built during the second half of the nineteenth century when large choral festivals were popular. Large organs were always a normal feature of these buildings and were used, not only for organ recitals, but also commonly as the accompanying instrument for the choirs. Competition between cities for the most lavish hall and the largest organ was inevitable.
Thus when Sydney became one of the last cities worldwide to construct its Town Hall, it simply built the largest in existence and endowed it with what was then the largest organ in the world. City or Municipal Organists were always employed at the Town Halls right until the mid-twentieth century, often playing weekly programs which contained many orchestral and operatic transcriptions – the only way most could ever hope to hear this music. Needless to say, popular numbers were repeated many times throughout the year.
Between 1890, when the Sydney organ was opened, and 1935 there were three Sydney City Organists. Then with the deteriorating state of the organ and the drop in popularity of organ concerts, largely due to the dramatic rise in the number of live orchestral, chamber and opera concerts and eventually also the advent of radio and then television, there were no further incumbents until my appointment in 1977 following major restoration work in the instrument. Recreating the City Organist position rather bemused the city bureaucracy, and so I was initially assigned to the Parks Department.
There are now around eight concerts per year with 500 – 800 attending the lunchtime organ recitals (occasionally with guest artists including singers and bagpipes) and 2,000 for the annual, very traditional, Christmas concert. Original organ music now constitutes most of the repertoire. For both myself and visiting organists I have this philosophy for each program: “something they should hear and something they would like to hear”. I always find it very satisfying playing, and audiences always turn up in considerable numbers to hear, all-Bach programs.
There is a surprising amount of clerical work. Besides organizing dates, programs and payments for visiting organists, I receive a fairly constant stream of emails relating to the organ and its history. I also occasionally receive correspondence about past relatives who had "built the Sydney Town Hall organ". It is the sort of instrument that attracts this type of mythology.
Jeannine: Your extensive performance career includes solo concerts as well as those with your wife, organist Amy Johansen. Together you have developed two specialties - the playing of organ duets, and the presentation of children's 'Introduction to the Organ' programs.
What are the challenges/joy of performing duet concerts? What repertoire is included in these concerts?
Mr. Ampt: Duet playing is surprisingly different to solo playing. For a start many, particularly American, consoles are deliberately designed for the convenience of a single player on the middle of the bench. Any departure from this position makes the pedalboard, in particular, quite uncomfortable to play. For duet playing a flat/straight pedalboard is definitely the easiest. On the other hand, ample and convenient registration aids together with the presence of fanfare reeds make many American organs well suited to duet playing. Compared to solo playing registration for duets is significantly more complicated, particularly when playing transcriptions. And of course both players must agree on the choices. We find that preparation time on an unknown instrument is approximately doubled for duet programs. And there will be no point in being shy about occasional close physical contact.
We perform a mixture of original organ duets (eg Merkel, Beethoven, Hakim, Mozart, Bedard, Ampt), and transcriptions (eg William Tell Overture, Saint Saens III, 1812 Overture, Mid-Summer Night’s Dream overture).
Playing in time together raises an interesting issue. Playing metronomically accurately is the easiest was to stay together, but it also produces the most heartless and empty performances. So a definite challenge in duet playing is to be able to play together while still allowing rhythmic flexibility to colour and enliven the music, just as with the performance of chamber music.
Jeannine: Please describe your “Introduction to the Organ” programs.
Mr. Ampt: The aim of these presentations is to offer approximately 25 unbroken minutes of total fun and enjoyment in a situation where the organ is the centre-piece, followed by all children having a play. Those who have brought (usually piano) music can play their whole piece while non-players are encouraged to simply "improvise".
The actual presentations give the impression that Amy (on the organ) and I (writer, arranger and narrator) are just having a good time imparting lots of information. But in reality the presentations are tightly organized and fully scripted, with most of the narrations delivered by memory to give the impression of spontaneity. We have often performed Daniel Burton's Rex, The King of Instruments (with changes appropriate to the local instrument and culture), and frequently use 5 - 10 minute segments using TV, film and football club themes presented in appropriately varied ways, for which I have write narratives. There may also be an "I spy..." segment and a quiz Yell-a-thon.
Jeannine: I recently learned your delightful yet challenging organ composition, Concert Etude on an Australian Folk-Tune. Do you often use indigenous Australian melodies in your composition?
Mr. Ampt: My first published music - Australian Christmas Suite for Organ - treats, somewhat as chorale preludes, five of the Australian Christmas Carols (Wheeler/James) which were published in the 1940s. The texts of these delightful carols mention the heat, dust and fires of Christmas time and allude to Australian flora and fauna. Definitely no snow in the paddocks. In addition to the Concert Etude you mentioned (based on "Pub with no Beer"), there is also a set of concert variations for four feet on Waltzing Matilda. Audiences seem to find this piece quite entertaining, with several American organ duet teams having it in their repertoires.
Many seem to think that my most successful solo organ work is "Elijah on the Mountain", inspired by the passage in Kings II where Elijah recognizes his god in the "still, small voice". The first in a recently published set of Three Trumpet Pieces is also proving popular. Besides the organ music, there is also music for oboe/organ and piano/organ.
I have also arranged and written a considerable quantity of Christmas music for choir. Some of this is a capella, but most is with organ accompaniment. All of this music was originally prepared for the annual Christmas at the Sydney Town Hall concert - a very traditional Christmas celebration based on the Nine Lessons and Carols which always sells out. For this event I have also arranged several of the well-known carols with organ/brass fanfares and accompaniments which can be used with large choir and congregation. I would classify the style as traditional and harmonic. All of this music is published.
Although I have never had formal composition lessons, I do consider my learning in this area to have come from three sources. The first was the playing, in my early years, of countless high quality hymns harmonized by properly trained musicians. A natural feeling for good and correct harmonisations is now normal for me. The second was/is the music of the great composers; those whose music exhibits both form and passion. These composers extend from Bach to Hakim. The third will be mentioned below in regard to my church-playing requirements.
Jeannine: Where can one find your compositions, recordings, other publications?
Mr. Ampt: The website "Birralee Publishing" has a sadly incomplete list of my works. Best to email direct to firstname.lastname@example.org Most of the CD recordings can be found on the Move Records site, including "Joy to the World", which contains much of the Christmas music already referred to, and "Organ at the Opera" which includes the Waltzing Matilda duet.
Jeannine: Please share anything else from your life story that would be of interest to our readers.
Mr. Ampt: Three things come to mind:
1. American organist and carillonist Amy Johansen (who in now my wife) came into my life around thirty years ago following our initial meeting in the bar of Kings College, Cambridge. Amy was, and still is, a startlingly brilliant organist who was soon to make her first CD - the music of Naji Hakim, with whom she had been studying, and who recommended her for the CD. Amy has an impeccable sense of rhythm and some splendid practice techniques which were passed on to her from Naji. I have benefited from both of these aspects.
2. For around three decades I have been the organist/choirmaster of Sydney's German Lutheran Church.
The church is very small, has zero acoustic and houses a very fine seventeen-stop mechanical action organ from Schuke of what used to be West Berlin. All hymns are played and harmonized from just the melody, and each hymn is introduced by an improvised prelude. This process has been a marvelous and rigorous teacher. Before each prelude, decisions need to be made so that not only the music, but also the text, is introduced. Decisions to be made include volume (loud/soft), form (duo, melody in which voice, melody in pedal on 16', 8' or 4', fugal, melody ornamented or unadorned, chorale prelude with interludes, melody in octaves, harmonic language (tradition/modern), one or more keyboards ... An important aspect is that these preludes are always performed with a listening audience, so that every note played (even the surprises!) must be considered correct and part of the music.
Improvising these thousands of preludes has had a direct influence on the forms and styles of my composing. Some movements are quite short and could be considered similar to "chorale prelude" styles, including sets of variations. Overall I have learnt both fluency and consistency of style/language within pieces from my service playing.
3. Finally, it is impossible to be playing one of the world's great organs without being influenced by it.
The magnificent Hill organ in the Sydney Town, the largest in the world at the time of its opening in 1890 (5 mans/ped, 126 speaking stops with no borrowing or extension and a true 64' pedal stop), has taught me that great organs can convincingly play all music from all periods. At a "toccata" concert last year, for example, the music ranged from Frescobaldi (elevation toccata) to Messiaen (Dieu parmi nous) with Bach (T & F in F major) and Widor in between. If I fail to play this range of music, many, even if they attend a church regularly, will be totally unaware of its existence.
Although the organ dates from 1890 and is obviously ideally suited for the music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the splendid 16' Principal Chorus on the Great, which includes almost a dozen ranks of mixtures, is the thrilling heart and soul of the instrument, and splendidly suitable for the great northern repertoire of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This organ has taught me about the spaciousness and majesty of this music - which, in its turn, is the heart and soul of our instrument's repertoire.
This organ has also taught me how a great organ should look. Too many large organs, including in civic situations, have uninspiring facades often designed by architects. The case of the Sydney organ was designed by an organbuilder who was also the foremost authority on historic organ cases - Dr Arthur Hill. Based on some of the greatest organs of his time - St Bavo in Haarlem and St Jakobi in Stralsund - the Sydney case is simply breathtaking with its size, its perfect balance of towers and flats, and its beautiful detail.
Jeannine: Thank you for sharing the intriguing story of your life as an organist.