December 24, 2004 | Graham

If they do not condemn you, neither do I

The Courier Mail has yet to get the Christmas spirit. Yesterday it announced that Robert Keith Boughen had retired after 40 years as organist at St John’s Anglican Cathedral Brisbane (no link available). But instead of celebrating his considerable achievements it buried the announcement on an inside page with references to an investigation that had been held during the year into an alleged incident in the ’60s.
There are legal problems with going too far into this. Suffice it to say that this is the second time that The Courier has reported on the incident. The first time included details of the allegations, but did not name the man concerned. Connecting up the dots was not too difficult, because they gave you age, suburban address and occupation. This time they name the man, but not the charges.
As far as I am concerned, you are innocent until proven guilty. The Courier Mail applies other criteria to the Anglican Church and scandals, which does it no credit. Whatever complaint was in the wind has been dropped. When Christ quelled the crowd about to stone “the woman caught in adultery” he said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When the crowd had dispersed he then said to the woman “If they do not condemn you, neither do I.” In this case, it would appear that the complainant does not even condemn, so I see no role for The Courier.
I feel I know Robert Boughen well, even though I am sure he would not know me – church organist at St Matthew’s Holland Park is not a particularly musically elevated post. Yet it is more than the “Dianna principle” at work for me, and I think he is owed a slightly better notice on his retirement than The Courier is obviously going to give him. Others could write more and with more accuracy, and these recollections are drawn off the top of my head, but this is something I want to get off my chest before Christmas, the season when organists and choir masters come into their own.
Boughen has been a dominating figure in church music in Brisbane and Australia for quite some time (and frustrated the ambitions of a lot of younger organists by his long tenure at St John’s as well). My organ teacher, Stephen Nisbet (who is now the organist at St Andrew’s Uniting), was taught by Boughen, so in one sense I’m in the Boughen tradition, a sort of apostolic succession.
I’ve also been taught by Boughen – not one on one but in a couple of choral master classes run by the Royal School of Church Music. The first time I was only 14, and wondering what I was doing amongst this group of geriatrics, many of whom would have been in their 40s. The second time I would have been in my 40s. Boughen was a marvellous choir master, demanding and entertaining all at the same time. He’d divert you with stories of flying planes in World War II before tackling that bravura passage again.
Brisbane was much smaller once. My father has “Bobby” Boughen stories because the Boughen family lived in East Brisbane and he knew Bobby when he was just a young boy. Apparently he was always a showman. When I was a nine year old (or perhaps even younger) we were all crowded into a room at East Brisbane State School and Boughen gave us a talk on music. I think he may be the EBSS’s only famour alumnus.
Mum also had stories about him. When she was deaconess at the West End Methodist Mission where, at the time, Arthur Preston was setting up the Blue Nurses, Boughen used to come to give lessons on the church organ. I gather he was quite dashing.
I also know Boughen from his work. There are two hymn tunes in the Australian Hymn Book written by Boughen, which is two more than just about any other Australian composer (apart from the catholic composer Richard Connolly, who got a leg up from the Living Parish Hymn Book). I play both of them from time to time. They’re not well known, but they’re good. They also show the influence of one of Boughen’s other great loves apart from church music – jazz. You can’t play music by someone without feeling yourself in some way an intimate, so these two hymns make me feel like I “know” Boughen, more than my other experiences.
There is another way that I feel that I know him – through the organs he helped to design. In the 70s and 80s there was a revival of the baroque organ. Over the years organs had grown progressively larger, and the sound progressively muddier – fine for Elgar or Mahler, but hopeless for Bach. Most large organs used some form of electric action to work the keys. These actions incorporated a delay between touching the key and hearing the sound, making for even more laboured performances.
Then with lighter materials and new construction techniques it became possible to build quite large organs using “tracker” action. Tracker action is a system of levers which connect the key to the pipe, like a piano action, except more complicated. Boughen was a proponent of both tracker and baroque, and his influence can be seen in the organ at the University of Queensland, Mayne Hall, and (I think) at the Cultural Centre at Southbank.
When I hear these organs played they remind me of him. They are forthright, they are clear, and while they might appear old-fashioned, they are on the leading edge of innovation. There’s a lot to celebrate there.

Posted by Graham at 12:00 pm | Comments Off on If they do not condemn you, neither do I |
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