Perth’s star organist becomes a ‘knight’ in the Order of Arts and Letters.

Joseph Nolan, organist and Master of the Choristers at Perth’s St George’s Cathedral, has described himself as “incredulous” on being awarded France’s prestigious medal of Chevalier (Knight) in the Order of Arts and Letters. The honour comes courtesy of the French Minister of Culture and Communication and is in recognition of his services to French Music.

“I received a letter from the French Ambassador in Canberra,” the British-born musician told Limelight. “I had absolutely no idea. One always wonders at the back of the mind whether one might be noticed, but it certainly was a big surprise.”

A pupil of the late, great Marie-Claire Alain, Nolan has been an Australian citizen since 2012 after moving to Western Australia eight years ago. But his love affair with French organ music began almost as soon as he had learned to play piano at the age of four. “I went to visit somebody at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester when I was 15,” Nolan explains. “I heard someone play the organ there and it was just like, ‘wow!’”

Soon after he heard a recording of Widor’s Toccata and that was that. “It’s probably become my signature piece,” he admits. “It’s an incredibly difficult piece to play really, really well – not thrashed through in an unattractive way. But once I got to the Royal College of Music, I found that I could play French organ music and it just became my thing.” After his degree recital, Nolan was recommended to Marie-Claire Alain – herself a pupil of both Dupré and Duruflé – who agreed to take him on. “I used to have three-hour lessons with her on her brother Jehan’s music, on Widor and Vierne, all on the Saint-Germain-en-Laye organ.”

A recording contract with Signum Records led to an acclaimed Widor series and invitations for Nolan to record on the great Cavaillé-Coll instrument at St Sulpice (the church where Widor and Dupré reigned as organists for over 100 years) and on Saint-Saëns and Fauré’s instrument at La Madeleine. In 2015 he followed that up with a recording at Maurice Duruflé’s old church, St Etienne Du Mont. A former organist to the Chapel Royal, he’s even played Mendelssohn on the organ in the Buckingham Palace ballroom.

Next year he has been invited to play on the instrument with what he describes as “probably the most photographed organ case in the world” – the 1735 Christian Müller organ at Sint-Barvokerk in Haarlem in the Netherlands. “Not only Mozart, but also Handel and Brahms, played it,” Nolan explains. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s a holy grail of organs and venues.”

The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres was established in 1957 to recognise eminent artists and writers, as well as people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and worldwide. It ‘knights’ people only three times a year. “I want to be cautious of the word ‘knighthood’,” Nolan says modestly. “The title is Chevalier. They put ‘Knight’ in brackets, but people always tend to think of Sir Joseph or something like the English form. I’m not sure it’s quite as strong as that! I’m very surprised, but I mean, at 41, I’m very pleased.”