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Three Great Organists. (With Personal Reminiscences.) III. W. T. Best.

 wtbest.jpgWilliam Thomas Best was the son of a solicitor of Carlisle, England, in which town he was born, August 13, 1826, and where for fourteen years he lived. In those days the old Cathedral was the center of musical life in the town, and there the people would gather on a Sunday afternoon to hear the anthem and the organ, then played by Young, whose pupil the youth Best became.

All this time he was studying for the profession to which his parents intended he should be put—engineering; but for this he had no liking, and went heartily into the study of his much-loved music. Soon afterward he paid a visit to Liverpool, and during his stay there received the appointment of organist at Pembroke Chapel.

He then went into his studies with renewed zeal, and spent about four hours a day at practice, further developing his technical skill by long and diligent practice at the piano, upon which instrument, for a couple of years, he played nothing but scales and exercises founded thereon. His organ practice included Bach’s “Preludes” and “Fugues,” and the pedal-work was to him of the most interest, and received attention accordingly.

“In 1847 he was appointed organist of the Church for the Blind, and the following year, when but twenty-two years of age, organist to the Philharmonic Society. His name had already become known in London, and in 1852 he was appointed organist to the Royal Panopticon, Leicester Square. He also held a post at Lincoln’s-Inn Chapel and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. In 1855 Best went to Liverpool to preside at the great organ then just completed at St. George’s Hall. His salary was fixed by the Corporation at £300 a year, and after some years it was increased to £400. Best’s engagement was for thirty-two weeks in the year, as the remainder was spoiled, from a musical point of view, by the assizes and city sessions, during the sittings of which the organ was silent. This militated greatly against large attendances at recitals, as the public never knew when they were certain of a performance. Nevertheless, there were usually good audiences, among them being many of the American and Continental visitors who are continuously passing through the city. The recitals were greatly valued and appreciated by all music-loving people, and the wondrous welcome given to Mr. Best upon his return from his Australasian tour showed how he was held in the admiration of the people of Liverpool. In 1860 Best was appointed organist to the Wallasey Parish Church. In 1863 he took the organ at Holy Trinity, Alton Breck, and subsequently was appointed to West-Derby Parish Church, where for so many years he made the musical part of the service famous. Here, indeed, many musicians maintain he was heard absolutely at his best, arguing that, whereas at St. George’s Hall organ he was expected to demonstrate the excellencies of the instrument, in the West-Derby Church he would play to suit himself entirely, and his more musicianly feeling had thereby freer scope.

“After finally settling down here Best took to teaching, his name and skill securing him an extensive list of pupils; but, the work being distasteful, he gave it up and devoted himself to compositions and arrangements for the organ and the pianoforte. So famous are many of his arrangements that one is apt to lose sight of original compositions which have proceeded from his prolific pen. Among them are the valuable works, ‘Modern School for the Organ’ and ‘The Art of Organ-Playing,’ both of world-wide celebrity. Then, too, there are preludes and fugues, sonatas and concert pieces of many kinds. For the orchestra, perhaps his best-known writings are a ‘Festival Overture’ and ‘Triumphal March.’ Pianoforte pieces are numerous, and church-music, hymns, anthems, and voluntaries occupy a small catalogue, including complete services composed for Carlisle Cathedral and the famous choir of Leeds Parish Church. Arrangements by Best from the orchestral scores of the great composers are published in thousands of pages, with the intention of familiarizing the public with these works where orchestras are not available to give them as composed.”

During a stay in Italy Best edited and arranged for English instruments a selection of pieces by the chief Italian organists, and two folio volumes of this work were published by the great Italian house of Ricordi. He went to Australia, in 1890, to inaugurate the organ in the Town Hall, Sydney, then, as now, the largest organ in the world (see The Etude for October, 1900). He gave a cyclus of twelve recitals on this organ.

Best died in Liverpool, May 10, 1897, at the age of seventy.

A high authority in England once wrote: “Mr. Best is acknowledged to be the greatest master of the organ living in Britain.” His skill in handling the organ was something marvelous. When playing his two hands would perform feats of registration which would require three hands for most any other organist, and those who heard him were amazed at the effects of expression and tone-coloring which he produced.

On concert-days Best, in his well-known velvet playing-coat, could always be seen in his own room at the hall before and after the concerts. At his home at Broad Green, a few miles from Liverpool, he was generally found in his second-floor studio surrounded by his desk, his books, piano, and music. Piles of his own publications were on the shelves, while he was generally at work arranging some score for organ alone.

Best was greatly maligned by many of his own countrymen as being cross and testy, disagreeable, and the like. His disposition was peculiar and made for him many enemies. He was a man of very strong ideas, and never hesitated to give vent to his opinions, oftentimes exaggerating to increase their forcefulness.

At one time I was chatting with him in his study. We had been talking about organ-builders, and I casually mentioned the name of an English builder with whom he had recently held a wordy disagreement. Best burst forth: “That man X. does not know how to build an organ. Look at the organ in _____ Hall! He put the solo stops on such a high pressure of wind that it was necessary to chain them to the wind-chest to keep them from being blown out through the roof.” I roared, and he too burst out laughing. Ten minutes later he was enthusing over the fine work of this same builder in another organ.

When I first wrote to him, asking if he would give me lessons, he sent me a sharp reply stating that he did not teach at all, and ended his letter: “You Americans are very fond of studying music in Germany and afterward coming to England to rub off the Teutonic rust.” I wrote back that, as I had been studying with Guilmant for six months or so, I thought the “Teutonic rust” was about all rubbed off. He then wrote me a most cordial letter, inviting me to visit him, and sent me a great package of his music. This was the beginning of a friendship which lasted to his death, and I have many pleasant recollections of long chats with him, when, in spite of his natural irritability, we had many pleasant discussions on organ topics. I always found him cordial, warm-hearted, enthusiastic, and entertaining.

To the organ-student he is best known by his “Arrangements from the Scores of the Great Masters,” in which he brought out so prominently a feature which was peculiarly his own, and in which he showed that the organ is in itself capable of reproducing orchestral effects, without transcending its proper functions or descending to trickery. This he made possible only by his complete knowledge of its resources. Though he was the first and greatest in his methods of reproducing orchestral effects, he repeatedly expressed himself as believing that the organ was an instrument of its own kind, producing effects that no orchestra could produce, and should be treated accordingly.

To compare Best, Guilmant, and Haupt would be invidious. Each was and is great in his own way, but all three are as dissimilar as day from night.—Everett E. Truette.

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