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08th December 2023 Ana Bradley (2023, English)

Exeter College holds all-female organ recital series

Oxford, as a city and as a university, has no shortage of surreal experiences. However, one of the most powerful is that of walking into Exeter College’s neo-Gothic style chapel during organ practice. The building itself arches above you with all the grace of Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle, and the organ’s deep notes reverberate around the space. The listener must focus entirely on the instrument. 

However, female organists have historically been overlooked in this country. Anna Lapwood, a celebrated organist and director of music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, was once told that she should play the organ “more like a man,” meaning, according to Lapwood, that she should play with more “power and authority.” However, this Michaelmas, Exeter’s weekly recitals have been performed entirely by female organists, and the power of their performances has been impossible to miss. 

The programme was masterminded by Exeter’s Graduate Organist, Michael Koenig. As far as Koenig can tell, it was the first ever all-female series at either Oxford or Cambridge Universities. He writes that “until recently, women have been actively discouraged from becoming professional organists” and that organ recitals “tend to be mainly given by men.” This trend can also be seen across Oxford colleges.

Professor Marguerite Dupree, the patron of the series, puts Exeter’s leading role in promoting female musicians down to the College’s equality and diversity policy. She also draws attention to the enthusiasm of Koenig and Exeter’s undergraduate organ scholar, SJ Park. “I wasn’t aware of many female organists,” she says, pointing out that they “are only beginning to get the recognition they deserve.” A quick internet search for female organists is dominated by articles about Anna Lapwood; it would be easy to assume that she is the only female organ player worth mentioning. 

Yet, Exeter’s Michaelmas Term programme was full of inspirational and talented women from all over the world. Professor Dupree takes care to point out the wealth of female organists in the musical community. She highlights, among many, Claudia Grinnell, the sub-organist at Winchester Cathedral, who played at Exeter on 24 October. Grinnell highlighted the continued relevance of female composition by playing a piece by Grace-Evangeline Mason, a composer born in 1994. On 14 November, Dr Rebekah Okpoti played a piece she composed, inspired by 19th Century diarist Anne Lister, a woman recently brought into the public eye by the popular TV show, Gentleman Jack. But Lister was more than a diarist and modern-day television sensation: she was also an organist at Halifax Minster. Women as organists are not an emerging phenomenon, but neither are they stuck in the past. Organ music is as relevant now as it was to historical figures such as Lister. 

Dr Okpoti has been invited back to Exeter in Trinity Term to showcase her latest composition, this time inspired by John Ruskin. It’s a suitable piece for the College: Ruskin was a major influence for Exeter alumni William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.

The new addition of light refreshments following each recital will be continued in coming terms, giving attendees the chance to meet the organists responsible for the exceptional performances. To experience the combination of organ and architecture alongside the inspirational presence of a diverse set of organists in the Exeter College Chapel is uniquely powerful. The Michaelmas series was not to be missed, but Hilary and Trinity promise to be just as interesting.

Exeter College’s organ recitals are open to all, for free, every Tuesday during term time at 1.10 pm. To view upcoming performances please view the music list on the Chapel web page.

Poster for Michaelmas Exeter organ recitals

Poster for Exeter College’s Michaelmas Term Organ Recital Series

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