Society of Women Organists launched at Royal Festival Hall

A new Society of Women Organists (SWO) was launched on 23 February at the Royal Festival Hall, ahead of a solo recital on the hall’s Harrison & Harrison organ by Catherine Ennis.

SWO is dedicated to celebrating and raising awareness of female organists in all areas of music-making. It aims to support all women organists, to encourage women and girls to study the organ and to foster the promotion of women’s activities in the organ world.

The society has already begun to achieve some of its aims, by setting up beginner organ lessons for 70 girls and creating opportunities for people who are passionate about celebrating women organists to meet and talk about the best way forward.

At the launch event, SWO’s founding co-chairs Anne Marsden Thomas MBE, director of music at St Giles Cripplegate Church in the City of London and the first woman to receive the Royal College of Organists’ (RCO) medal for distinguished service, and organist and composer Ghislaine Reece-Trapp joined Catherine Ennis and the Southbank Centre’s director of music Gillian Moore on stage to discuss their reasons for setting up the society and the status of women in the organ world.

Moore pointed out that there have been truly great women organists, powerful musical personalities and pioneers, citing Dame Gillian Weir, Marie-Claire Alain, Margaret Philips and Jane Parker-Smith as examples who came readily to mind. ‘Yet it’s also true that women are hugely under-represented in the organ world at large and that is why we at Southbank Centre were delighted to host the launch of SWO on the occasion of Catherine Ennis’s recital here. The society aims to balance those inequalities and this chimes well with Southbank Centre’s commitment to further the role of women across all music.’

Anne Marsden Thomas said that the success of some individuals and the numbers of women attending the launch event might give a false picture of the situation – reality is reflected in the fact that only two women have been awarded fellowships of the RCO in the past three years. Part of the reason for this may be that female organ scholars and their teachers don’t aim high enough. ‘I was lucky as a student in that I saw skilled women working as organists at my church and I was pushed to do well.’

Representing a younger generation, Ghislaine Reece-Trapp said that many people had supported her wonderfully over the past ten years, but she was conscious of barriers and prejudices. ‘For example, when I come down from the organ loft after a taxing recital I’ve been asked if I was turning pages. There is still progress to be made.’

Catherine Ennis recalled that when she was assistant organist at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, ‘the choristers called me “sir” because they had never had a woman conducting them before’. Delving further back into her memory, she recalled a teacher at school telling her that one day she might be lucky enough to sit in a cathedral organ loft and watch the organist at work. ‘The idea that I might aspire to being a cathedral organist myself was completely alien at that time.’

The discussion touched on the fact that there are still very few women in the top jobs at UK cathedrals, and Ennis pointed out that weekend church duties and the unsocial practice hours for instruments in public buildings such as cathedrals and concerts halls make being an organist a difficult profession for women with families.

But on the whole Marsden Thomas and Reece-Trapp were keen to point out that SWO aims to celebrate women players rather than to complain about working conditions. Asked if they faced resistance or challenges from male colleagues, they admitted that there had been some negative feedback, but they were hoping it would go away. ‘We’re not a threat to anyone, we’re just trying to make the organ world healthier and more representative,’ said Reece-Trapp. ‘We’ll be providing more opportunities for working together, such as the Jennifer Bate Organ Academy a joint initiative between Guildford Cathedral and St Catherine’s School, Bramley, in Surrey, which has been encouraging young female players.’

Membership of SWO is free (though donations are welcome) and is open to men and to non-playing supporters as well as to both professional and amateur organists.

Photo caption: Left to right Gillian Moore, Catherine Ennis, Ghislaine Reece-Trapp and Anne Marsden Thomas at the Royal Festival Hall