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Recollections of Felix Aprahamian (1914 - 2005)

 
 

Felix Aprahamian with David
at St Paul's, London Sept 2001
[Photo: Oscar Rook]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The organ on the screen at
Kings College, Cambridge
[Photo: Oscar Rook]

 

 

David practising on the
Marchal organ at home
[Photo: Gerco Schaap]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Widor's Cavaillé-Coll organ
at St Sulpice Paris
[Photo: Oscar Rook]

Felix Aprahamian’s vision and gift for introducing people to each other had a profound influence on my life, from the moment in 1978 when I met him during my final years at Worcester College for the Blind. He knew that my organ playing would benefit from lessons with his old friend, André Marchal. So it happened that I, aged 17 began studying in Paris with Marchal, aged 84. I took mostly Bach, Franck and Vierne to those lessons:  Marchal having been a close friend of Vierne’s, and dedicatee of the Impromptu

Felix was a frequent visitor to our home, only a mile or so from his; and would often bring a piece of organ music to dictate to me after Sunday lunch.   We would battle through a Frescobaldi or Cabezon piece not otherwise available in Braille:  Felix naming and playing the notes, while I bashed away on my Perkins Braille typewriter!   Sometimes I even tried to learn the piece on the train going back to Worcester that evening.   Later on, Felix dictated such complex music as the Trois Esquisses by Dupré or the Brahms Prelude and Fugue in G minor.   

Felix often welcomed my grandmother to tea on what he called her “State visits to London”!   He taught my brother, Christopher, to become an excellent Scrabble and backgammon player, later nurturing his gift with plants, and employing Chris as his gardener.   He was also thrilled when my mother painted pictures from his loft window, and of his garden in flower. 

I recall one of my earliest recitals at St Nicholas’ Worcester, where Felix introduced each of my pieces to the audience:  quite something to have this vote of confidence from such a distinguished figure!   My greatest wish was to study more intensively with Marchal after leaving Worcester, but he died in 1980.   Felix and my Headmaster both strongly urged me to apply for Cambridge, and I now believe that Felix, who regarded me as a son, wanted me to have the “establishment” education and advantages which he had missed.   During those final years at Worcester I composed a large-scale piano fugue on the letters “F E L I X   A P R A H A M I A N”, also suitable for harpsichord, including Felix’s request for an augmented entry in the bass to be playable on organ pedals!   In due course this became the first of a set of fugues.   Many years later I finally got these Seven Fugues Op.13 typeset on computer and desk-top published.   Felix was very proud of his copy. 

During that first trip to Paris, Felix introduced me to Langlais, Susan Landale, André Fleury, and Messiaen.   In London he took me to many concerts and recitals, of which I remember particularly the Royal Festival Hall Wednesday 5.55 organ series.   Felix could be a little thoughtless when distracted, and would sometimes leave me stranded in a crowded foyer while he socialised during an interval.   I became used to the critics’ habit of getting ready to make a hurried exit as soon as the final applause started – wanting to avoid curious friends asking Felix what he thought of the performance!   

Felix seemed very proud of my progress at Cambridge, and attended several of my recitals, particularly at King’s.   His friend and colleague, Ralph Downes, also came to hear me play there - I was later told that Downes spent much of the recital walking to and fro under the screen, head tilted, listening to the organ from East then West sides.   During my student years at Cambridge, in 1983, I had the honour of performing for the first time at the RFH, alongside Downes, Felix and Thomas Trotter.    

Felix learnt through me about the antagonism in the Cambridge Music Faculty towards organists.   This was best illustrated by Hugh Wood’s referring to “Duruflé, Howells and all that crap!”   At about that time I was infatuated with Duruflé’s music, exchanged letters with the composer and his wife, and, thanks to Felix and Dennis Hunt, had a most wonderful long lesson with Madame Duruflé at St-Etienne-du-Mont. 

My own composing continued and was influenced by any music I heard and loved, always remaining tonal or perhaps verging occasionally towards atonal.   However, Felix tended to wish that my pieces contained more “naughty chords” and were not quite so cerebral.   He made some good suggestions which I incorporated into some of my compositions, especially my Toccata Op.3, whose premiere Felix attended at Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York City.  

After Marchal’s death, Felix was given the 2-manual and pedal chamber organ from Hendaye Plage, known as “Jean-Sebastien”, in exchange for a grand piano.   Felix had an extension added to his Music Room, matching externally with the same yellow London bricks, and internally by continuing the floor tiles:  witness to his wonderful eye for design (a gift clearly evident in all the family).   Since 1982 this instrument has been my greatest joy:  my “black-and-white sketch-pad” on which I learn, practise and compose daily.   Felix always loved to hear “purifying Bach”, especially trios and chorale preludes, being performed on “Jean-Sebastien”.   Every New Year’s Eve he hosted a magnificent party for friends, and I always played Bach’s reflective Das alte Jahr vergangen ist at the stroke of midnight, followed by the joyous In dir ist Freude, usually while gripping a telephone under my chin, so that our friends from Boston MA could join us vicariously.   Another ritual was for me to remind Felix how old his father would have been, since the latter was born on January 1st 1870.   Although Felix would grumble about the preparations beforehand, his pleasure at these gatherings was manifest.   One year a friend videoed some of the party, and Felix replayed it for months afterwards!   

Anyone who drove him around London would have experienced the “back-seat driving” so typical of Felix, who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of routes through town.   He retained a lifelong love of Muswell Hill, quoting André Marchal’s description of it as “La Montagne des Muses”, and maintaining that the air was better here.   The focus of Felix’s local interest was Alexandra Palace and its organ.   However, he could never be described as parochial, since Felix could equally well have navigated friends round Paris, or many other cities worldwide. 

Felix bought his beloved Steinway grand piano from Berta Geissmar, who had brought it from Mannheim to London, where she became Sir Thomas Beecham’s secretary.   Apparently Furtwängler had learnt the Beethoven Symphonies on this instrument.   A delightful array of flashy snippets would dazzle visitors, as Felix demonstrated his impressive technique:  Balakirev, Debussy, Liszt, Stravinsky.   He could play glissandos in any interval, even octaves, so the Brahms’ Paganini Variations often featured in Felix’s showcase, though only a brief extract from memory.   I have a recording of Felix playing through a haunting little piece called Fragilité by Scriabin, in order that I could learn it.   He loved brilliant or dreamy music equally, and at one time claimed to be practising one of Bach’s 48 before breakfast each morning!   Of course, this was before my mid-morning arrival at his house, so I could never verify his claim!  

As an organist, Felix was not agile with the pedals (a clear view of his feet being prevented by his portly midriff!), but he had a party piece by Clérambault which he had once played privately on the Alexandra Palace organ to André Marchal’s total satisfaction.   As assistant to Eric Thiman at Park Chapel, Crouch End, the 19-year-old Felix had been practising the Adagio from Widor’s Suite Latine.   By good luck, this was the very piece which the 89-year-old Widor played during Felix’s 1933 visit to Saint-Sulpice in Paris.   It was a revelation for the youngster:  instead of adding and subtracting stops at every crescendo and diminuendo, Widor simply opened or closed the Swell box.   Felix composed a few pieces in his earlier years:  I recall a hilarious attempt we had to play through an organ Passacaglia in D minor in the style of Karg-Elert, with Felix playing the manual parts and me reaching under the bench to play the recurring bass theme with my hands on the pedalboard!   

Many of us remember the house full of people even on ordinary weekdays:  somebody upstairs doing research in the archive, someone cooking in the kitchen, Felix either in his beloved garden or working in his office, myself practising on the organ, and a pianist or singer taking over as soon as I left the Music Room.   More friends would blow in for lunch, or at teatime, usually bearing cakes in Felix’s honour!   The conversation over “boarding-house grab” at the kitchen table would always range from the extremely intellectual and musically involved, through to the most uproarious and ribald!   Felix’s rabid anti-smoking ravings would often be answered with salvoes concerning his expanding waistline, due to his extremely sweet tooth!   Taking our cue from his frequent use of biblical quotations, we would urge him to remove the plank from his own eye, before turning his attention to the mote in another’s. 

Being fascinated by languages and cultures, I soon started learning Armenian words from Felix, though he had stopped using this language at the age of 9, on the death of his paternal grandmother.   I would have to construct imaginary scenarios for him, and then ask, “if you were in this situation, how would you say that in Armenian?”   Gradually, in this way, I pieced together an Armenian vocabulary and grammar for myself, later receiving much help and encouragement from Antranig Kacharian and other Armenian friends.   Whenever Felix could not remember a word, such as “hedge” or “television”, he would assert that “they don’t have them in Armenia!”   In 1984 there was a wonderful Armenian music festival in London, when Felix took me to many concerts and introduced me to visiting Armenian musicians from all over the world.   I still treasure a cassette recording of my playing the Felix Aprahamian Fugue on the piano to Edward Mirzoyan, and our conversing in Armenian.   I have a signed programme from that occasion, written in Armenian script.   Another early memory is of a visit to the Cheltenham Festival, including a quick sortie to buy more Florentine pattern Royal Worcester for Felix’s dinner service!   Felix introduced me to Lennox Berkeley, Phyllis Tate, Peter Racine Fricker, and I tried out my Armenian with Levon Chilingirian.   Both Felix and I would loved to have visited Armenia, but it never happened.    

In fact, Felix’s parents were both Armenians from Turkey, his father having changed surname from Hovanessian to Aprahamian.   He had a great uncle who had been Archbishop of Smyrna.   I wish I could have met Araxie, Felix’s mother, but have heard many reminiscences from friends of both Felix’s parents.   I recall Malcolm Williamson’s comment:  “You should have tasted Mrs A’s stuffed vine leaves!”   I am also proud to have known Florence and Francis, Felix’s sister and brother, who were both strong, interesting and brilliant characters. 

Stevan Brown, Felix’s nephew, speaks of the dichotomy between his uncle’s Levantine appearance and his cultivation of a thoroughly English persona.   Indeed, Felix was a member of the Athenaeum Club, Royal Horticultural Society, National Trust and so on.   He also belonged to the British Iris Society, and often commented that his love of these plants might be an expression of a certain atavism, since the Iris originated in Asia Minor. 

Felix embraced technology at an advanced age, learning how to use a computer and investing in a fax machine.   However, he sometimes appeared unconcerned with safety, as witnessed by the terrifying state of the electric wiring in his house and garden, or his curious attitude towards food hygiene in the kitchen!   Whereas nobody to my knowledge ever got food-poisoning from dining at Felix’s table, the house nearly did go up in flames because of the wiring.   I marvelled at Felix’s energy and verve, often expressed in his urge to buy more books, plants for the garden, more china for the dinner table, and always keen to go to more concerts.   His love of going out on trips, coupled with a love of his home is best summed up in Felix’s own words, when offering concert tickets in exchange for a lift by car, “The invitation is from Muswell Hill to Muswell Hill!”   Not until his hearing became distorted did he finally stop going to hear musicians of all ages anywhere in the country.   One of the last times he heard me perform was at Gloucester Cathedral in 2001, when he spoke very highly of my latest composition Homophony Op.15

Sallie, Felix’s niece and I were with him at the end, for which I shall always be deeply thankful.   After over 20 years of being in his company daily, I can only say that, despite our differences, I needed to know that Felix was always there.   Now his loss leaves the greatest void in my life.   So, in honour of my dear friend and mentor, and with the blessing of Sallie and her brother Malcolm, I have decided to take Aprahamian as a middle name. 

© David Aprahamian Liddle, February 2005 

An appreciation of Felix
Aprahamian by Gerco Schaap
[in Dutch]

reprinted from "de Orgelvriend"

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