Sound and Silence


The Organist – Mark Abley

“Did you know I was more than you made of me?” This is what the ghost of Henry Abley asks his son in a dream, at the opening of The Organist. “It’s a question that runs like the recurrent melody of a fugue throughout this compelling book.”  [D. MacFarlane] 

Henry Abley was a complex man.  A gifted organist he began as a young 22 year- old playing in a 3100 seat cinema in London in 1939.  After the interruption of World War ll, Abley’s career would take him to Canada where he was a church organist and choir director, first in Lethbridge, than at St John’s Anglican Cathedral 1967-77.  At one point he did a tour of cathedrals in Germany where he could play the music of his beloved J.S. Bach.

But apart from his music, father and son seldom bonded.  If Harry’s work blossomed into gorgeous sounds of the pipe organ, in family life the two found their relationship lost in long silences and missed opportunities.  Mark, star student of the English department at the U of S, Rhode Scholar at Oxford, poet and essayist, struggled to communicate with a distant father who either embarrassed or infuriated him. 

And then there was the depression Henry suffered from his entire adult life.  Mark writes:  The shadow that my father cast was one of misery and frustration.  Or so it appeared to me…. At some point in his life he typed out some lines by the great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore.  He always kept this sheet, no matter what else he discarded.

“The song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day.                                          

I have spent my days in stringing and unstringing my instrument.                       

The time has not come true, the words have not been rightly set;                     

only there is the agony of wishing in my heart.”

This book is a beautifully written, haunting tale of father and son and the often difficult challenges of navigating generational differences.  And it reminds us that there is more depth to those we love than we often imagine or credit.   

For those of you interested in further exploration of the book, including some of Henry Abley’s music, and photographs, please see the following website.