Book Review: Organ-isms: Anecdotes from the World of the King of Instruments (Jenny Setchell)

A review of this book of anecdotes and stories from Carol Rogers.

I recently came across this book, written by Jenny Setchell with a foreword by Dame Gilliam Weir. The author peeks behind the facades of the most famous concert venues and churches around the world to reveal what the life of an organist is really like. Over 120 people, from concert artists to Sunday church organists, relate the trials and triumphs of playing what can be the most difficult instrument in the world. It is whimsical, often poignant and very funny!

Glancing through the index for names I recognise I found the name of Dr Eric Thiman, organist of the City Temple, London who was the organist at my wedding. He was a brilliant organist and choir master but also a quiet and unassuming man. I found the anecdotes amusing – these are just two of them:

Members of a visiting organist associations were invited by Eric Thiman to play the very large Walker organ. After a string of ‘ear bashers’ a youngster took his turn and managed to play more loudly than anyone else before him. When Eric had had enough, he got up and walked slowly to the console and put his arm round the youngster’s shoulders. The boy stopped suddenly mid ffff in surprise to hear Dr Thiman’s still, small voice, nevertheless carrying throughout the whole church, saying “You know my boy, you will find some soft stops on the organ if you look hard enough for them”.

On another such occasion Frank Fowler recalls that he had moved with Dr Thiman to the back of the church to listen. Some of the players could be excellent and pleased him; others evoked such asides as ‘well at least it was not Crimond with the tremulant on’. During a very dodgy performance of one of his own compositions he commented “You know, I think I could almost have written some thing like that.”

The book also answers such vexing questions as :
‘Did Sir David Willcocks put his wife into the swellbox of Salisbury Cathedral organ during a live BBC broadcast?’ or ‘Why was Fred Swann practising with a tiger on the Crystal Cathedral console?’

It’s a good read!

Setchell, Jenny. Organ-isms: Anecdotes from the World of the King of Instruments. Christchurch, NZ: Pipeline Press, 2008. ISBN 0473142864. Pp. 256. £11.50 ( – also available on Kindle)