Making music to bring joy, amusement

Chris Hainsworth has loved the organ all his life.
Chris Hainsworth has loved the organ all his life.
Fans of organ music are in for a treat next month as two top organists visit Dunedin to play "Norma" and the St Joseph’s Cathedral organ. Rebecca Fox talks to Hans U. Hielscher and Chris Hainsworth about life as organists. 

Chris Hainsworth has a penchant for 19th century New Zealand organs.

"I wallow in them. You can play just about anything on them," the New Zealand organist, who lives in France, says.

So his regular trips home to Wellington are welcome, not only to see friends and family, but also to play the organs he loves.

This time he will get to experience a new organ — the organ at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin.

"It’s the sort of organ I really like."

It is also the type of organ that is perfect for celebrating Italian composer Gioachino Rossini’s 56th birthday on February 29, 1792. So Hainsworth plans to feature his work in the Dunedin concert alongside works by composer Theodore Dubois, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams and Bach.

"You can play all sorts of things on organs like that. It’ll be lively stuff."

Although he admits playing unknown instruments is one of the challenges for organists, especially if unforeseen experiences do not give the player time to rehearse with it first.

Chris Hainsworth is now the organist of Beziers Cathedral in France. Photo: Getty Images
Chris Hainsworth is now the organist of Beziers Cathedral in France. Photo: Getty Images
"If your plane is late and you get there five minutes before a concert, you can do it but it’s a real challenge."

Hainsworth prefers to arrive at least one day before a concert so he has time to play the instrument, "sleep on it" and then rehearse again.

"You need to work out the combinations of stops. What can be good on paper might not always be good on the ear."

As a freelance organist it is a challenge he faces regularly. He has been living in Europe for 40 years and is now the organist of Beziers Cathedral in France.

His love of the organ grew out of hearing it played in church. With parents who were stalwarts of the church, the only highlight of his time in church was listening to the organ.

"I dreamt of being able to play it so I started learning the piano. As soon as my feet could reach the pedals, I was able to start the organ, I was about 12. I’ve never looked back.

"I love the sound and variety you can get and the different music you can play."

A "brilliant" school teacher who "extolled the virtues" of French life, inspired his love of French and France so he studied both music and French at Victoria University before heading to Toulouse, France to complete his doctorate and study French classical organ with Jean Ferrard in Brussels, Belgium.

He returned to New Zealand to teach at Waikato University but his dream was always to return to France. Then he met a French girl in Hamilton who "dragged" him very willingly back to France where he has been based ever since.

As well as playing he taught at Beziers Conservatoire for 15 years.

"I’ve been very lucky to make a living from music and I taught until I officially retired. I really enjoy playing all sorts of stuff. Now I mainly play the organ and the harpsichord and historic piano, I have an 1830 piano I travel around with."

Beziers Cathedral dates to the 13th century. Photo: Getty Images
Beziers Cathedral dates to the 13th century. Photo: Getty Images
He also enjoys collaborating with other musicians including trumpeters and clarinetists as well as accompanying orchestras and choirs.

"I do too much, actually. I think about retirement sometimes but it would be so boring."

Over his career he has become known for his interesting programmes mixing the serious and light, something he tries very hard to balance.

"You need to find programmes that appeal to people. There has been a lot of boring organ music written so it’s really important to hunt around and find stuff that will appeal and maybe change people’s prejudices and give them a thrill."

For Hainsworth getting the comment after a concert "I didn’t know the organ could sound like that" is a real compliment.

"That’s the type of comment I like getting. It’s about music that dances along rather than puts people to sleep. It should be a bit of fun, have some humour in it or the presentation."

He is also a fan of including a section of improvisation at the end of a concert. It is a tradition among organists, especially in France, who often improvised to fill in time in church.

So he asks people for themes and suggestions and then plays.

"It’s more exciting to watch something being created. It’s very stimulating."


Chris Hainsworth, St Joseph’s Cathedral, March 1.