Sounds like a fine effort

Bruce Steele has provided wonderful sounds on the organ at North Balwyn Uniting Church for 40 years.

By Rev Avril Hannah-Jones

In 1984 Bruce Steele was invited to become organist at what was then St Aidan’s Uniting Church in North Balwyn.

Forty years later, Bruce, who is 92, is still playing at Sunday services, weddings, and funerals and still experiences the joy in the sound of the organ that he discovered 87 years ago.

Bruce first remembers hearing the organ in 1937, when he was five years old, and his pianist mother took him to a recital at the Melbourne Town Hall.

The thrill of the huge sound was a revelation.

Bruce begged his father for organ lessons, and one Sunday his father took him to see the organist at the Independent Church.

The man looked at the six-year-old and, to Bruce’s chagrin, said, “his legs are too short, keep him at the piano”.

It wasn’t until Bruce was in his first year at university that his local church acquired an organ and the local organist gave him permission to teach himself on it.

Bruce’s start at St Aidan’s in 1984 came when organist Douglas Lawrence, who was about to become Director of Music at Scots Church in Melbourne, wanted to hand St Aidan’s over to someone of whom he approved.

Bruce was eventually persuaded to take on the role and, on April 21, North Balwyn Uniting Church celebrated his 40th anniversary as Director of Music, and everyone is so glad that Douglas prevailed.

When Bruce arrived, the St Aidan’s congregation decided to find an organ that would better suit the beautiful building and found one through the South Island Organ Company of New Zealand.

The congregation’s music society raised the necessary money through concerts, stalls, car boot sales, and art exhibitions, helped by a loan from the Synod.

Once the loan was paid off the Synod firmly told the congregation that in future it would not permit a church to spend $400,000 on an organ.

As a member of a university English department, and editor of works by D. H. Lawrence and Henry Handel Richardson, Bruce has always been fascinated by words as well as music.

With the support of Rev Dr Lorraine Parkinson, he created settings for all 150 of the Psalms, to be sung responsively by cantor and congregation.

When Lorraine took a group from St Aidan’s to Temple Beth Israel for a musical afternoon and Bruce’s version of Psalm 69 was sung, the Jewish audience was astonished, never having heard such a thing.

Bruce has also written his own hymns, including a ‘Hymn for the Aging’, which he wrote as a joke, but which has proved popular with the North Balwyn congregation.

Bruce says of music that it can be a better vehicle for meaning than words.

“To recite a creed, for instance, is like checking out the items on a menu,” he says.

“We can argue about their meanings, and The Nicene Creed is a good example.

“To hear it in Bach’s B Minor Mass is to have such a revelation of the divine that the words alone can scarcely suggest.”

Rev Avril Hannah-Jones is minister at North Balwyn Uniting Church

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