Playing Upon Versus Playing With the Organ: The Reception
of the Organ Recital in Victorian England
Part 2

Elizabeth Stirling certainly was not the only organist to play at the 1862 International Exhibition whose choice of music raised some eyebrows among fellow organists. A correspondent signed ‘An Organist in the North’ complained to the Musical World in August 1862 of having heard organ music quite unsuited to the character of the instrument at the International Exhibition. His list included operatic overtures and scenas, Scotch airs and ‘pieces of a similar character, which no lover of organ music could for a moment defend’. The correspondent concluded, ‘If we are to have organ performances and adaptations, let us have something compatible, and let us have at least one-half organ music in each programme.’ 13 At that time, music from opera fell within the popular tradition and was not considered appropriate organ repertoire by those of the classical music tradition.

Elizabeth Stirling (1819 – 1895)

A letter from correspondent Solidity to the Musical Standard aired a similar grievance. He asked, ‘Can you or any other readers, explain why some of our gentlemen organists misuse their opportunities at the organ in the exhibition, by selecting for performance pianoforte music (or at all events arrangements totally unfitted for the instrument.’ Solidity was ready to banish organists who performed operatic compositions and whose programmes lacked any pretension to organ music ‘to play on a no-pedal pipe, or no-pedal organ, for a month as purgatory’. 14

Yet another letter writer who signed himself A Manchester Organist responded to An Organist in the North with the horror story of a polka seen in the programme of a celebrated organist. He continued: ‘If it is a matter of public taste, and if the state of public taste is really so bad, it is high time that something should be done to improve it.’ 15

A correspondent who signed himself A Lover of Organ Music wrote to praise organists who performed the classical music for which the organ was best suited. He offered a recital programme of organist William Bexfield as the ideal, which included a Handel overture and chorus, preludes and fugues of Bach and Mendelssohn, a Mozart Andante and extemporaneous variations on ‘God Save the Queen’. 16

Clearly, correspondents did not object to all music arranged for organ, but only to arrangements of popular music. Many organists, Stirling among them, found a suitable middle ground in well-written arrangements of ‘serious’ music not originally for the organ. Best prepared his own ‘Arrangements for the Scores of the Great Masters for the Organ’, published by Novello and reviewed in the Musical World in 1856 as ‘able and appropriate’. 17 As for other arrangements, such as operatic overtures and popular tunes, played on the organ, the correspondent signed A Lover of Organ Music declared emphatically, ‘Things of this description are as bad as they can be, instead of the organ being played upon, it is played with!’ 18

The letter writer An Organist surely must have thought Stirling was playing with, not upon, Willis’s organ when, in September 1862 at the International Exhibition, she again included in a recital, by desire, ‘”All among the Barley” arranged as a waltz (!!)’. Three other works – ‘an offertoire by Wely; a Fugue of J.S. Bach’s; and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus ‘ – completed Stirling’s programme. 19

‘A WALTZ ON THE ORGAN!’ correspondent An Organist decried, prompting a spate of letters targeting the recitalist’s choice of repertoire. A letter writer who signed himself A Churchman sought to clarify the correspondent’s objection to Stirling’s waltz arrangement by evoking the music of Mendelssohn as his standard when he wrote:

‘An Organist’ refers to Miss Stirling’s ‘Waltz’ from the ‘Barley’ part song. That is to put as a question of that lady’s taste in playing such. In the Handel week, Miss Stirling played at Exeter Hall Mendelssohn’s organ accompaniment to ‘Israel in Egypt’. Think of some of Mendelssohn’s organ music; for I assume the objection is, that the waltz is too quick for the organ, not the accusation as to harmony. 20

But A Churchman obviously had missed the point. Correspondent An Organist wrote to the Musical Standard to correct the impression that ‘my objection to a Waltz on an organ arises from the tempo – that is not the fact’. His letter rekindled the controversy: I am well aware that much of Mendelssohn’s organ music is in quick time, but any one can at once perceive the suitability of the music to the instrument. This is not the case as regards a waltz, and never will be while it retains its ‘rum tum tum in the bass, and a jiggy melody in the treble.’ 21

The concluding remarks of the correspondent signed ‘An Organist’ were an affront to Stirling’s musicianship: ‘That organist can have but very little love or regard for “The King of Instruments,” and must be totally oblivious of what is due to its majestic tones, who can willingly use it for the exposition of such trash, as is ‘reeled off’ from a ‘Grinder,’ or any instrument of a similar kind.’ 22

It was correspondent Pedals, not An Organist, however, who had the last word when he wrote: ‘Of “waltzes” on organs, I speak with sorrow and heartfelt regret; for indeed, I feel that it is hardly possible for organ playing to reach a lower depth than that, or for the grandest of all instruments to be prostituted to a baser use.’ 23

The complaints about Stirling having played a waltz on the organ seem somewhat unfair, given that the programs as printed in The Times specified that the piece was included by desire. Although The Times did not indicate by whose desire a part song arranged as a waltz was requested for an organ programme, one can surmise that persons who had enjoyed singing or hearing Stirling’s popular part song would have reacted favourably to hearing the familiar melody as part of her organ recital. If published accounts of performances of Stirling’s part songs are indicative, the ‘ever welcome’ ‘All among the Barley’ was her most frequently sung vocal piece. 24 To organ aficionados, however, the organ performance of the part song as a waltz would have been a travesty.

To understand why choice of organ repertoire elicited such strong reactions among readers of the Musical Standard, one must perhaps look beyond the organists themselves to the overarching purpose their recitals were intended to serve at the Crystal Palace, the International Exhibition and other large-scale exhibitions opening periodically in nineteenth-century London. Describing the use of the Gray and Davison Handel Festival organ built and installed in the Crystal Palace in 1857, Michael Musgrave explains that, like the Palace military band from which it sometimes drew its repertoire, the organ ‘both welcomed and accompanied visitors, and, as with a religious service, it could harmonize with the atmosphere – even help to create it through choice from the very wide repertory that was coming to characterize the use of the modern orchestral instrument’. 25 The organ recital became a means of articulating events.

Just as an organ performance by Frederic Archer in 1872 at London’s Alexandra Palace ‘excited but feeble interest’, because ‘the entertainment was only intended to fill up a gap between the time of the horse races’, one also must place the organ recitals at the International Exhibition in context. 26 The organs on display were located not in concert rooms but in large open spaces. Recitals would have attracted dedicated listeners and passers-by alike among their audiences. Finding music to satisfy this diverse gathering of individuals, often en route to competing events, was not easily achieved, especially given the high moral purpose to which some held the International Exhibition itself.

The Reverend Anthony Thorold, rector of Saint Giles in the Fields, spoke for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge when he advised readers to use the International Exhibition for edification and spiritual growth, not for idleness and frivolity. Liberally citing Scripture as his authority, with missionary-like fervor Thorold addressed the ultimate salvation of the visitors who, when viewing the Exhibition, should ‘feel that they are in a Christian land’. 27 Given that Thorold was speaking for others who shared his opinions, many would have expected organ recital repertoire to contribute musically to the Exhibition’s high moral purpose. Stirling’s waltz, like the polkas, Scotch airs and popular operatic tunes of her colleagues, did not meet this exalted criterion.

Because of its association with the church, the organ was held to a high standard of repertoire. As a one-person band, it could serve as a musical missionary, much like Louis-Antoine Juliien’s popular Promenade Concerts of the 1840s and 1850s, to bring ‘Music to the People’, the catchphrase of what George Bernard Shaw considered a rather smug Victorian ideal that sought to expose individuals of the usually middle and upper-lower classes to the edifying and uplifting moral effects that music was thought to provide. 28

But unlike Julien’s concerts, in which dance music, especially the quadrille, was ‘a spoonful of sugar’ to sweeten doses of Beethoven and other classical composers, organ recitalists were expected to lure their listeners with music that evoked only the sanctuary, not the street. To do otherwise conjured up the pipe organ’s distant cousins, the barrel organ of the organ grinder and the hurdy gurdy player, whose renditions of popular songs, dances, hymns, marches, and excerpts from opera and oratorio ranged from ‘the tolerable to the unbearable’, to use Richard Middleton’s description. 29

The counterpoint of two of Stirling’s recitals, both of which received criticism – one in 1857 for music too serious, and one in 1862 for music not serious enough – highlights the existence of two distinct factions within the organ world, as within the larger concert society. Each had its own views of what constituted good musical taste. Best may have had a winning formula for his organ recitals at Saint George’s Hall, but the recitals at the exhibitions served a particular purpose that set them at odds with recitals in churches or even in town halls.

That purpose may have been acknowledged eventually, but it did little to end the controversy over the appropriate organ music for the different locations. Organists still were choosing sides long after the International Exhibition had closed. Writing for the Musical Standard in 1885, for example, organist Edward Turpin extolled the virtues of the ‘compact selection of classical and better-class popular music’ heard at the weekly Bow and Bromley organ recitals compared with ‘the rubbish so extensively played’ by organists at the International Exhibition in South Kensington. 30

Just who should be the arbiter in matters of musical taste concerning organ recitals was not addressed directly by contributors to the music journals of Victorian England, but the assumption was that this was not a decision to be left ‘by desire’ to uninformed listeners.


For Part 1, see the Blog posted on 1 May 2021. For more about Elizabeth Stirling, see Elizabeth Stirling and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth-Century England (Ashgate 2007). The book currently is out of print but may be found in libraries and purchased from used book sellers.


13  An Organist in the North, ‘Sir, As a contrast’ [correspondence], Musical World 40 (30 Aug 1862): 553.
14  Solidity, ‘Organ Music versus Piano: International Exhibition’ [correspondence], Musical World 40 (6 Sep 1862): 30.
15  A Manchester Organist, ‘Sir, I was much pleased’ [correspondence], Musical World 40 (6 Sep 1862): 569–70.
16  A Lover of Organ Music, ‘Organ Music v. Operatic’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (1 Oct 1862): 57.
17  Review of W.T. Best ‘Arrangements for the Scores of the Great Masters for the Organ’, Musical World 29 (13 Sep 1851): 586–87.
18  A Lover of Organ Music, ‘Organ Music v. Operatic’, 57.
19  An Organist, ‘Sir, A Waltz on the Organ!’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (1 Oct 1862): 58; and ‘Miss E. Stirling’, The Times (London), 25 Sep 1862, 1d.
20  An Organist, ‘Sir, A Waltz on the Organ!’, 58; and A Churchman, ‘Sir, I am surprised’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (15 Oct 1862): 73.
21  An Organist, ‘Sir, I am sure’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (15 Nov 1862): 105.
22  Ibid.
23  Pedals, ‘Sir, The Lovers of organs’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (1 Nov 1862): 88.
24  ‘Brighton’, Tonic Sol-fa Reporter, July 1859, 105.
25  Michael Musgrave, The Musical Life of the Crystal Palace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 147.
26  ‘On Saturday last’, Musical Standard n.s. 3 (28 Sep 1872): 203.
27  Anthony W. Thorold, The International Exhibition of 1862 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, n.d.), 17–18.
28  George Bernard Shaw, Shaw on Music; A Selection from the Music Criticism of Bernard Shaw made by Eric Bentley (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1955), 305–307.
29  Richard Middleton, ‘Popular Music of the Lower Classes’, in The Romantic Age, 1800 – 1904, ed. Nicholas Temperley, The Blackwell History of Music, vol. 5 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 79.
30  Edmund H. Turpin, ‘The Bow and Bromley Institute’, Musical Standard 4th ser. 29 (26 Sep 1885): 198.


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