Saturday, April 26, 2008

Organists in modern literature

I took advantage of some time on a train yesterday to read The Confidential Clerk, the only remaining one of T. S. Eliot's verse dramas I hadn't read. (Interesting as they all are, Murder in the Cathedral is by far the best of them. I can't see a play like The Family Reunion, for example, holding the stage today. Pace Vagn Holmboe, some works of art are unknown for a good reason.)

The interesting thing about it, however, is the presence of an organist as protagonist. The central character, Colby Simpkins (what a name!) is a disappointed musician; at one time, he aspired to be an organist but soon realized that he was at best, a second-rate performer and would never be able to reach the apex of the profession. So, as usually happens in these sorts of dramas, he ends up working in some ill-defined position in the world of finance. Will he settle into his new life, forgetting the charms of a smoothly voiced principal chorus, or will he pursue his dream and settle down as the organist of a medium-sized parish church? You'll have to read it yourself and see.

The best literary organist is still Robertson Davies's inimitable character Humphrey Cobbler, who appears in the three volumes of the Salterton Trilogy. Cobbler is an amalgam of every eccentric, avuncular English organist you've ever met, and even has appropriately organist-like enthusiasms, such as a preference for the "private pleasure" of Purcell over the mass-marketed music of a Handel or Vivaldi. If you don't know these books, consider adding them to your summer reading list; you'll be supporting the kind of Canadian literature that isn't about growing up on the prairies in the Great Depression.

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