Richard Valentine Williams
Captain Charles Brennan (1876 - 1972):
Charles John Brennan was one of the leading figures of the musical life of Belfast for almost all of his long life, whether as teacher and lecturer, conductor, adjudicator, or - and this is perhaps how he is best remembered - as church and cathedral organist and choirmaster.
Brennan originally came from Gosport, Hampshire, though his family background was largely Galway, and he spent a period of his childhood in Cork. A chorister from the age of eight, at the age of 15 he was appointed organist in Clifton Parish church, Bedfordshire. At the age of 18 he gained the Associateship Diploma of the Royal College of Organists, and at 21 the Fellowship Diploma of the same organisation. In 1897 he was appointed organist of Strabane Parish Church, County Tyrone, where he spent four years, training several choirs in Strabane and the district.
In 1901 he became organist of Elmwood Presbyterian Church, University Road, Belfast. One of the most prominent churches in Belfast, it was also one of the first to install an organ. Brennan remained there three years. In addition to his church duties, he also gave public recitals. (The Elmwood congregation was dissolved in 1970, but its musical role continued to resonate: the Church building was sold to Queen's University, which made it available as a concert hall; it was one of the most attractive and suitable chamber music venues in Belfast and later again it was the headquarters of the Ulster Orchestra. Amongst the leading artists of the world to grace it have inlcuded Radu Lupu, Menahem Pressler, Jorge Bolet, Kylie Minogue and John O'Conor.)
In 1904, he was appointed organist of St Anne's (Church of Ireland) Cathedral in Belfast, followed in 1908 by his appointment as Belfast City Organist, which gave him responsibility for the organ as well as Saturday night and other concerts conducted under municipal auspices. Brennan's was also active with the Ulster Male Voice Choir, the Queen's Island Operatic Society and Belfast City Operatic Society whose pre-War performance of Puccini's "La Bohème" was of such a standard that it was granted permission to perform the same composer's "Madame Butterfly", the first amateur society in the world to be accorded this privilege (though the First World War intervened). The War also prevented him from realising a plan to have a Professional Musicians' Orchestra, which was to be composed largely of players in theatre orchestras. Brennan enrolled in the Queen's University Officer Training Corps, was called up in September 1917 (Royal Irish Fusiliers) and had a tour of duty in early 1918 in France and Belgium during which time he organised musical activities for soldiers. One personal legacy of this period was that he would ever after be known universally as "Captain" Brennan.
Captain Brennan was elected a member of the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters on its foundation in 1918 and elected its President while on military service on France. He was equally acclaimed as a choirmaster, and throughout the rest of his (long) life in Belfast, his activities included besides Cathedral and City Organist, the positions of Organist of the Grand Masonic Lodge of Ireland, Conductor of the Ulster Operatic Society, Conductor of the Ulster Male Voice Choir, as well as being an adjudicator at music festivals, an external examiner, and President of the Society of Professional Musicians. At Queen's University, there had been established 1903 a part-time lectureship which Brennan occupied from 1928 until 1941, and again from 1943 until 1947, when the position was made full-time (and awarded to Ivor Keys, who was subsequently appointed the first Hamilton Harty Professor of Music in the University). Some musicians in Belfast at that time recall that not only did Brennan teach in the University Department of Music - he simply was the Department of Music. His teaching, which he also carried on with private pupils, covered organ, harmony, counterpoint, composition, singing, piano and choir training. In 1905 he published a book on pronunciation for singers, Words in Singing.
In the early 1920s, when the BBC were setting up in Northern Ireland, they approached Brennan as a possible Head of Music. Brennan was amenable but subject to the condition that his Cathedral duties take precedence, to which the BBC were not prepared to accede, and he responded to the BBC's insistence by recommending a highly distinguished musician from Holywood, County Down, E Godfrey Brown, who accepted the appointment and went on to lead an impressive career at the BBC, and beyond.
Brennan (his being known as Captain was also testimony to his "looking the part", small, neat, dapper and certainly self-confident and authoritative) was certainly one of Belfast's memorable musical fixtures: in a BBC Northern Ireland Radio broadcast in 1971, a highly musical Belfast cleric recalled his youthful attendance at concert, with Captain Brennan at the organ as a great attraction. In 2003, a meeting of the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters heard a local organist recounting how he had entered on this calling after hearing Brennan's playing for the first time in 1936: "I'd never heard the organ played like that, and I came away determined that one day (please God) I'd be a Church organist, inspired by Captain Brennan." The same cleric remarked that he had been delighted to see that Brennan was still conducting carols at Christmas - as he was, at age 94 barely a year before his death.
Brennan had retired from the Cathedral posts in 1964, after a 60 years' outstanding tenure. He was awarded the OBE for services to music in Belfast and an honorary MA from Queen's University. He was also Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music and Bachelor of Music of Durham University.
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