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The Royal College of Organists

Sir Andrew Parmely attended the Royal Academy of Music on a Royal College of Organists’ Exhibition. He gained the College’s Fellowship in 1976, winning the Harding Prize. He holds a doctorate in seventeenth-century French opera (and two honorary doctorates) and has been organist of St James Garlickhythe in the City of London for 40 years and is a past Chairman of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the International Ambassador of the London Symphony Orchestra with whom he performed in St Paul’s Cathedral in 2017.

Sir Andrew is a Fellow of Trinity College of Music, an honorary Fellow of both the Guildhall School and the Royal Academy of Music and an honorary Bencher of Middle Temple. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year Honours list for services to music, education and civic engagement.

Since becoming Chief Executive of the College in October 2018, Sir Andrew has committed to making the organ more accessible (particularly in maintained schools) and more popular. interNational Organ Day in April 2021 will see the launch of an initiative to bring together organ-playing enthusiasts of every age and ability across the globe in a virtual celebration of the organ across the globe. He is committed to introducing as many people as possible to the wonderful world of the King of Instruments.

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The Royal College of Organists (RCO) is a unique institution. Why is that? It is the only College which was established to promote the interests of performers of just one instrument. And what an instrument? In fact, in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s words, “The King of Instruments”. If you need more hyperbole, just look at the text of Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia (1692) where the bass aria celebrates the organ as a “Wond’rous Machine”.

The College of Organists (not yet Royal) was the brainchild of Richard Limpus when he was organist of St Michael’s Cornhill in the City of London and it was formally established in March 1864. On that occasion, Limpus addressed his fellow organists explaining that he wished to lay before the assembly a proposal to elevate and advance the professional status of organists.

He went on to say:

It will be readily admitted that, as a body, we do not hold the same position in the eyes of the world as the medical and legal professions. Yet – he said – mankind generally prefers Music to either Physic or Law.

I couldn’t agree more!

The College of Organists set about raising the professional standing of the British organist through composition, competition, lectures and, from 1866, examinations; and soon thereafter the familiar Associateship and Fellowship diplomas were established bringing to potential candidates, in equal measure, joy and terror! I managed to become a Fellow of the RCO in July 1976. That is not, I must explain, a sign of prodigious ability but a reflection that the summer of ’76 was one of the hottest on record and, as sleep was out of the question, there was plenty of time for practice!

At a meeting of the Privy Council held at Windsor Castle in November 1893 the College was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria and thus became “The Royal College of Organists”. What’s more, in 1939 King George VI consented to become the College’s Patron and we continue to enjoy the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen and the support of many members of the Royal Family.

Today, the Royal College of Organists remains dedicated to the promotion and advancement of organ playing and choral directing. It also remains the only organisation in the UK, with a Royal Charter, to be dedicated to a single instrument (albeit, now in many guises) and those who play it.

“Those who play it” – therein lies our raison d-être. The RCO exists to support organists- and not just the elite superstar performers. It is inclusive and is ready to support organists at “every age and stage” or, as we like to say, it is “the first stop for every organist”. [Ho, Ho!]

Let me emphasize the pillars which underpin the RCO’s core principles – principles which have enabled it to go from strength to strength since the Trustees took the decision to embrace new technologies, become “virtual” (well before Covid-19 made this a necessity) and develop its world-class online learning and information platform “iRCO”.

The RCO is a Professional, Resourceful, Teaching and Awarding College. Most importantly it is a membership organisation offering a wide range of member benefits.

With church attendances often being in decline you might think it difficult to interest young people in learning to play. Most organists of my generation were taken to church, joined the choir, heard the organ and fancied having a go. Today that experience is not readily accessible unless the youngster attends an independent school with chapel or, perhaps, a cathedral choir school. It is not long since the organ and the organist was at the centre of British community life. The church organist probably taught in the local school, gave a few private lessons, conducted the choral society and the amateur dramatic theatre company.

Thus, the organ is increasingly marginalised as the property of the privileged or the “out of touch”.

The RCO has determined to take action to put our “Wond’ous Machine” back into the limelight. Last November it staged a concert in Westminster Cathedral featuring nine organs. One thousand people attended! This April, on 18th April at 20:00, we launch RCO TV with a week of programmes dedicated to World Heritage Sites, the British choral tradition,

young people, charity, masonic organists, cinema organs and, on Saturday 24th April 2021, “interNational Organ Day” featuring performances from every corner of the globe. We are working on a wide range of Creative and Corporate Partnerships with likeminded bodies in Europe, the United States and Africa.

For 2024, we are planning to meet our increasingly secular world head on by staging a national tour of Town Halls and Concert Halls with a stellar line-up of brilliant performers. Why stop at the UK? 2026 will see a similar project take to the road across the USA.

When Richard Limpus developed his vision in the 1860s he had no idea how successful the College of Organists would become. The RCO remains committed to keeping the organ and organists at the centre of communities across the UK and across the world. Can I recommend that you take a look at the website? I am sure you will find the content fascinating and the breadth of the activities more than a little surprising.

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