As It Happens

World-renowned organist buys a Nova Scotia church, pumps out Bach in his pyjamas

Xaver Varnus wanted a quiet place to play the organ — so he bought a church in rural Nova Scotia. 

Xaver Varnus the new owner of the Pilgrim United Church in Brooklyn, N.S.

Xaver Varnus, a Canadian-Hungarian organist, is known for performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in massive cathedrals in Europe. (CBC)

Xaver Varnus wanted a quiet place to play the organ — so he bought a church in rural Nova Scotia. 

The world-renowned artist is the new owner of the Pilgrim United Church in Brooklyn, N.S. It was first built in the 1840s as a congregational church, and replaced in the 1890s. Varnus compares it to an old castle, looking out onto the Mersey River.

"The church is very tall. Just over the organ, there is a beautiful stained glass window. On the side of the church windows, I can see the ocean … this is one of the most amazing things," Varnus told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It's very good for the organ because you can hear everything clearly."

Premier organ player buys vacant church in Liverpool, N.S.

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Xaver Varnus is considered one of the premier organ players in the world. He has played the biggest and best cathedrals throughout Europe. But now his favourite place to perform is the seaside church he bought just outside of Liverpool. CBC's Colleen Jones reports. 4:22

Varnus has been called the Glenn Gould of the organ, after the late Canadian classical pianist. The Canadian-Hungarian organist is known for performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in massive cathedrals in Europe.

He has played the greatest organs in the world throughout his career, including those in Bach's Thomaskirche in Leipzig; Notre-Dame, Saint-Sulpice and Saint-Eustache in Paris; the Moscow Conservatory; as well as the largest existing instrument in the world, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Philadelphia.

While living in Toronto, he was looking for a bigger space to play the organ and call his own.

"Somehow, on the internet I found this church," he said. "It [reminded] me of one of my old memories. Twenty-five years ago, I had a very nice friend here in Nova Scotia. His name was Bob Stead and he was the mayor of the city of Wolfville. And actually, he tried to seduce me to move to Nova Scotia. But 25 years ago, I was too young for Nova Scotia."

Varnus was born in Budapest in 1964. His mother was a mathematician and his father, a jazz pianist. When he was five years old, Varnus began learning the piano from one of the last students of French composer Claude Debussy. Soon enough, he heard his first notes on the organ and he knew that was what he wanted to pursue. 

His career took off when he was 16 and on his first concert tour of Europe. In 1981, he left Hungary to study with the late French organist Pierre Cochereau at the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Soon after, he debuted in North America.

With that illustrious career, though, came a lot of obstacles to simply play the massive pipe organs that are normally found in churches.

The Pilgrim United Church was built in the 1890s, looking out onto the Mersey River. (CBC)

"Nobody's controlling me anymore," he said.

"In my childhood, it was quite difficult to go practice in some churches in Europe because we always have to [get] dressed up to go to the church, ask for the key from the priest or the minister, or we have to argue with some old Catholic nuns who were responsible for the church. They always said, 'Oh you play the organ so loud, we can't live here.'

"So now I'm alone and I can play as loud as I like.... Sometimes I play in pyjamas, of course. But there isn't any rule that we have to play only in tuxedos. So, fortunately, I can be dressed like that."

An organ sourced from Truro

Although the Brooklyn, N.S., church was the perfect place for Varnus to play Bach in peace, it didn't come with an organ. So just as he found the church online, he found himself a great organ on a Facebook organist group. 

"I asked, 'Do you know any organs for sale in Canada?' And just in 30 minutes, I got the answer, 'Yes, in Nova Scotia,'" he said. "I'm the luckiest person on this Earth because [between] the new organ and the church, the distance was no more than 100 kilometres."

Varnus says playing the organ at the Pilgrim United Church feels like coming home. (CBC)

Varnus says the first time he sat down at the organ's keyboard felt like a magical reunion.

"It was like when Mary Poppins was coming back to the Banks family," he said.

Even though he is used to playing in cathedrals and performing in sold-out venues, he described playing in this wooden church in rural Nova Scotia as a sort of spiritual experience.

"It's my organ and my church … that is completely different because I am more emotional with this."

Dreams for the church

For Varnus, the organ is more than just a church instrument. He has aspired to learn and share the enchantment of classical music for almost his entire life.

And his fellow Brooklynites want to hear him play, he said. 

"It's very beautiful that almost every day, five, six, sometimes 10 people are knocking on the door," he said

"Everyone was so excited when the organ came here, you know, it was almost like some huge accident because a great crowd came around the church when the organ arrived. Even the people who were more interested in rock 'n' roll or pop music before, they were here almost day by day and they are asking different pieces to play."


Written by Mehek Mazhar with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Nova Scotia as an island.
    Dec 08, 2020 12:36 PM ET

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