The Organist: A Memoir
Mark is now working on a memoir of his father, Harry Abley, who was a cinema organist as a young man and a cathedral organist in later life. The book will be as close to an autobiography of his own childhood — and parts of his adult life too — as Mark ever expects to write.
Some pictures of his father appear on this page as a foretaste to the book to come. A few sound clips have also been added, although because they were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes several decades ago, the audio quality is not the greatest. Even so, they give a sense of what Harry Abley sounded like at work. As his performance of Widor’s “Toccata” shows, he had a formidable technique (the recording has a couple of pauses where he unfortunately had to turn a page).
Harry Abley as a small boy in Knighton, a little town on the border between Wales and England, in the early 1920s. He did not have an easy childhood, and depression would scar his life.
He moved to London in his late teens, and became one of the youngest cinema organists in all of Britain. Then war broke out, and he joined up.
Harry Abley is seated at the left in the above picture, playing one of two grand pianos and accompanying a soloist during a concert for British forces at the end of the Second World War.
The above photograph, dating from the late 1950s, shows Harry Abley demonstrating electronic organs at a department store in Sault Ste. Marie. He was not a very good salesman.
One of his favourite pieces for organ was “Le Jardin Suspendu” by the French composer Jehan Alain. It expresses the artist’s ideal — an inexpressible refuge from daily life. This recording, perhaps more than any other, expresses Harry Abley’s inner life.
In this picture, he is in his most natural and beloved location: at the console of a pipe organ. The photograph was taken in Saskatoon, in the late 1970s or early 1980s. When he lived in Saskatoon he was recognized as one of the leading organists on the prairies, and he made several rewarding tours of Germany, playing in Berlin, Bremen, Stuttgart and other major cities.
The following broadcast is from the CBC Radio program “Music West” and was recorded on the organ of Third Avenue United Church in Saskatoon.
He moved to Montreal in his old age, but he was not happy in the city. The following piece, written for piano and played on the piano in his home apartment, is called “The Pines of Oka.” He wrote it as a tribute to the Mohawk Nation after the Oka crisis of 1990.
Harry Abley died in 1994. Mark began work on the memoir many years ago. It has been a challenge, a burden, and an eventual joy to write.