Canon Giles Bryant is the organist and choirmaster at All Saints, Peterborough. He will be retiring on Sept. 6. He is also the organist and master of the choristers emeritus of St. James Cathedral, Toronto.
After being sent away from home during the 1939-1945 war and spending time at various convents, I went on to the school where my two brothers had been, St. George’s College, Weybridge in Surrey. My parents were both keen singers and my mother played the piano, so that from an early age I was singing at home. I was very lucky in that at St. George’s we sang folk songs in the classroom every day. I graduated to the chapel choir and developed a reasonable treble voice, encouraged by various teachers. When my voice changed, I continued on as a tenor in the chapel choir.
Meanwhile, I was taking piano lessons and became fascinated by the monster in the corner of the chapel. I was pushed into service quite often as organ-blower, which further encouraged my yen to play the beast. As well as wishing to play, I was intrigued by the mechanics of the organ. After much begging, I started having lessons and was allowed after a while to play for simple services. I practised late at night, much to the distress of the monks trying to pray at that time. However, Fr. Raymond, of whom I was scared, and Fr. Bede, of whom I was not, were very encouraging.
From school I went into national service in the RAF and had very little music except for Saturday nights in the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) and, magically at one point, meeting a chap who wanted to practise flute sonatas.
I went on to University College, London, and read English language and literature. I sang professionally in the choir of St. James, Spanish Place, and also for many groups specializing in Renaissance music. I even earned money singing for television. I also joined the London University Choral Society. I continued with the organ and played for some services here and there.
I fell madly in love with a Canadian girl, who sadly had to come back to Canada. My father was in charge of the European buying offices of Eaton’s. So I pestered him to help me get to Canada, and he got me a job at the Eaton’s Queen Street store, selling men’s shirts. Meanwhile, I sang for Elmer Iseler’s Festival Singers and in the choir of Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto. After a while, the money situation changed and very boldly I quit Eaton’s and supported myself by singing, playing the organ and working for an organ-builder.
I suppose the highlight of my career was conducting a 1,500-voice choir for the sesquicentennial service of the Diocese of Toronto in what was then the SkyDome. I was lucky enough to play for a papal visit to the Martyr’s Shrine at Midland. At St. James Cathedral, I had the honour of meeting several members of the Royal Family as well as distinguished Canadian figures. People have been kind to me and I have some honorary degrees and am a canon of St. James Cathedral.
A low point would be teaching combined music and civics at an English comprehensive school when I went back to England for three years in the 1970s. That after being head of music at Upper Canada College in Toronto! But I did have a job playing the organ and that saved my sanity.
My first wish for five years from now is still to be alive – I think. I would like to have the use of my fingers and a little of my brain, so that I can continue playing the organ for various churches.
It is very difficult to pick a favourite hymn, but the choice would, according to my mood or the day of the year, lie between “Praise my soul the King of heaven,” “O come down O Love divine” and “My song is love divine.”