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Wednesday, September 12, 2018


(The rejuvenated organ)

Whoever said “singing is praying twice” is certainly not wrong. And singing in Pietermaritzburg’s charming 120-year-old church St George’s Garrison Church with the first pipe organ built entirely in KwaZulu-Natal, makes it ever so more special.

On September 30, 2018, the Pietermaritzburg Amateur Music Society (PAMS) Choir will be celebrating the freshly rejuvenated organ with an invitation to the well-known Pietermaritzburg-born organist Christopher Cockburn to perform a selection of organ-music to reveal the range and capabilities of this lovely old instrument.

When the British annexed Natal, they established their garrison at Fort Napier on August 31, 1843. At first it was staffed by the 45th Regiment but many regiments were garrisoned there over the years, especially during the Anglo Zulu War of 1879 and during the two Anglo Boer Wars.

St George’s Garrison Church was built in 1898 as a place of worship for the troops. It played an important role in the life of the small but growing city of Pietermaritzburg, especially since the army and imperial administration provided something of a social hub for its people. At first, the military band played at services and often added secular or patriotic music as well. However, St George’s finally obtained its own organ, consecrated by the bishop in December 1903. It was first heard in combination with the band of the West Yorkshire Regiment on Easter Day the following year.

What makes the organ special is that it was the first to be built entirely in KwaZulu-Natal by William Kemp. Kemp had come to Natal to install the first organ in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall for a Sheffield organ-builder in 1893 and again the second time in 1901 after the first City Hall burnt down. He decided to settle in the colony and set up his own organ building works. The organ survived a heavy storm in 1928 which severely damaged the organ, so that Kemp had to dismantle, dry out and reassemble it. Kemp’s firm maintained and upgraded the organ until 1935, but it was not until 1952 that an electric pump provided the air: before that it was inflated by manual bellows and much hard labour! Finally, in 2018 the organ has undergone a major refurbishing and is back to its pristine condition.

The celebrated organ has been played by many accomplished musicians but was most particularly under the control of Mr W F Poole as organist and choirmaster for 72 years until his death in 2000, the longest recorded tenure of an organist anywhere in the world according to the Royal School of Church Music. Marianne de Jager and now Jack Frost have most recently kept the tradition of organ music alive at St George’s Garrison Church.

At the organ concert, the PAMS choir will perform a feast of sacred and secular music under the baton of Nigel Fish as a prelude and postlude. “The powerful expressive poetry of the Book of Psalms depicts a wide range of emotions and conditions and inspired composers over the ages to set many of them to music,” Fish said.

The audience will be treated to three very contrasting settings of the best-known Psalm 23, i.e. The Lord is my Shepherd” Firstly, the popular “Crimond” hymn (named after the Scottish village in which it was written) will be sung, followed by Franz Schubert’s beautiful vocal rendition. The third interpretation of this psalm is by Howard Goodall, who composed his setting for the BBC TV series The Vicar of Dibley.

Johannes Brahms’s moving How lovely are Thy dwellings fair from his German Requiem concludes the first part of the programme.

After the organ recital, two secular pieces will follow: Ronald Binge's charming Elizabethan Serenade, and then an arrangement of the British folksong Waly Waly, with its heart-rending text on the waning of love - Waly meaning "Woe is me!"

Finally, the organ will be included once more in a setting of Psalm 130 by the 19th-century composer British composer Dudley Buck, that passes from heartfelt yearning to positive affirmation.  Jacques Heyns will accompany the PAMS choir.

“Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community and our souls. You express, when you sing, your soul in song,” said PAMS chair, Jonathan Draper, quoting composer John Rutter.

A veteran PAMS chorister confirms the surprising benefits of group singing. “The deep breaths taken equates to that of an aerobic exercise. It increases blood flow and produces antibodies which fight off bad bacteria. I believe singing in a group also release feel-good hormones. No wonder I always feel so much better after choir practice!”

Draper emphasises that while striving for excellence the PAMS Choir “sing for joy.” He believes it is a great tool to solidify and unify the nation as a cohesive voice. “The PAMS Choir needs people of all cultural and age groups who are passionate about singing. Join PAMS for choir practice on Tuesday nights at 18h30 for some basic music reading and warm up exercises and great choir practises at the Dutch Reformed Church, Beverley Road in Prestbury, Pietermaritzburg.”

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The concert will take place September 30, 2018, at 14h30 at the St George’s Garrison Church in Devonshire Road. Tickets R50 (R25 scholars). There is secure parking across the road from the church at Fort Napier parking lot. Enquiries may be directed to Mary at 082 683 0441 or