January has been a mercifully quiet month, ending with a most enjoyable Bloomsbury Organ Day at the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, during which I gave an illustrated talk about The Organ Club and its well-supported September 2023 tour of the organs of Greater Birmingham.
I’ve been able to catch up with jobs such as ‘remaindering’ some of the least-used academic music books in my library to the attic (there are Billy bookcases up there!), to make room for currently homeless and more useful replacement organ tomes. My life-long passion for collecting books and booklets on the organ has resulted in some 1,400 of them on my shelves, plus many hundreds of specification leaflets and smaller booklets in folders in cupboards beneath the shelves. The photograph herewith gives a good idea of the library side of my music room. The drawers contain organ CDs. The unit was designed and made for me by Renatus of Bideford; I’ve been thrilled with it ever since it arrived seven years ago. There’s a library ladder, too, not in shot.
December has been an extraordinary month, ending by judging the first day of the Organ Club Annual Organ Competition in St Clement Danes. The organ is unchanged – Ralph Downes and H&H in RFH mode – and pretty fine it remains.
Just a few days before, on Thursday 21st, it had been my privilege to give the Tribute which Dr Roy Massey had composed (with additions by David Briggs and myself) at the funeral of Roy’s beloved wife, Ruth, in Hereford Cathedral. It was a truly beautiful service, with inspirational singing from the cathedral choir conducted by Geraint Bowen and some stirring congregational singing, led in no uncertain way by Peter Dyke at the famous Father Willis.
During the month there has been my usual organ consulting work but our most important family event was the ceremony on 2nd December in the Manchester Reformed Synagogue, at which our son Morgan (who is director of music there) was taken into the Jewish faith. The photograph shows him rehearsing singing the Torah at that service. Quite a day.
It’s been another month of interesting organ surveys / reports, interspersed by giving a recital and attending some wonderful Hallé, CBSO and Opera North events, including this evening’s CBSO’s worthy tribute to Simon Halsey’s outstanding 40 years as director of the CBSO choruses.
At the start of November I found myself in Wales, surveying the 1923 Charles Gill instrument in St Edward’s Church, Roath (Cardiff). Spread over two bays on the south side of the Chancel, it is unusual in that the first bay contains only the console and the Pedal Bourdon, elevated where the Great might normally be. The Great and Swell are in the second bay, with a striking front of 16ft Pedal Violones. The 1996 Choir Organ – uniquely in my experience – is entirely derived from two extended Swell ranks. The organ doesn’t work very well at the moment, but would restore very satisfactorily. St Edward’s is a musical church and the organ is very much a central element of their liturgy and concert-making, I was glad to be told.
The following week included at meeting at All Saints, Broseley, in the lovely Shropshire countryside, where a remarkable early 19th century J.W. Walker organ sits proudly on the west gallery for which it was designed. It has had a sad life (the tallest front pipes have been temporarily removed as one fell out) but it is very good to report that the church is determined to do something about it.
A few days later I visited St Philip’s, Earl’s Court Road, London, to inspect and report on a highly successful ‘transplant’ of an instrument of similar vintage. This is an 1848 Gray & Davison, augmented in 1901 by Hele, who added a Choir Organ (all on tracker action). Made for St Peter’s Whitechapel, and redundant from the late 1980s, it was restored by Peter Collins and installed in St Philip’s under the direction of the late Stephen Bicknell, during 2003. Here is an organ which looks beautiful with its gorgeously painted front pipes, and sounds magnificent in a fairly generous acoustic. Something of a lack of maintenance since Covid has led to some areas of concern, though my inspection showed that they can readily be rectified, and, with a new blower, the organ will be fair set for many more decades of marvellous music making. I hope it becomes better known. Its Mander-rebuilt predecessor, incidentally (designed by Francis Routh), was exported to Poland.
This past week has seen me at All Saints, Woodham (near Woking), inspecting one of those perfect small 3-manual Harrison & Harrison organs from the 1920s/30s. Several are found in Public School chapels (such as Repton) and many more in churches up and down the land. Quite a few still work on their original tubular-pneumatic actions and with their original bellows leather. Here, H&H had electrified the actions in 1991 but otherwise the organ is a superbly-voiced untouched specimen, needing an overhaul but not much else. It was a joy to find it, and to learn that it is treasured by the church.
In recent weeks I’ve been working on surveying and reporting on numerous organs, as usual. What is less usual, though, is that three of them are what one might call ‘modern’ organs, in other words, instruments built over the past few decades, two with tracker action, inbuilt wind regulators, comprehensive piston systems and an eclectic tonal scheme based on complete flue and reed choruses plus historically informed ‘colour’ stops. All are still in fine working order, but are due for cleaning and other work. One finds itself in a different position from the others, as the church in which it sits is to be replaced by a smaller building.
The first I visited was Lancing College, and an organ whose opening recital I remember attending in 1986. The architecture of the chapel, the Stephen Dykes-Bower rose window and the David Graebe organ case never fail to inspire, even though the dry acoustic always comes as a disappointing shock. The bottom octave of the 32ft Double Open Diapason uses diaphonic pipes (more often found in cinema organs and in the larger instruments of John Compton). I thought a photograph of one of the beaters might be of interest.
I was hugely impressed when playing and surveying the splendid 1973 Hradetzky organ in the Royal Northern College of Music – arguably the finest large neo-classical instrument in any UK educational institution. Although the RNCM no longer has an organ department, it is very proud of its Concert Hall organ and is taking my advice over its restoration and the improvement of safe access for tuning and maintenance.
Notice that as the manual keyboards are closely spaced, there is insufficient room for engraved pistons – quite a challenge to improve.
This incredibly effective ‘multum in parvo’ 1970 Hill, Norman & Beard organ in Carrs Lane Church, Birmingham has pleased all who hear or play it for over fifty years. One of John Norman’s cleverest and most successful small neo-classical designs, using direct-electric soundboards and with much of the pipework drawn from the previous building’s high-romantic Norman & Beard, this organ really punches above its weight. The 1969 building is going to be replaced with a somewhat smaller one, so the challenge is to come up with a way to integrate the 1970 organ in the new building. I’m open to suggestions!
I’ve just about recovered after leading a 54-strong group of Organ Club members on a grand organ tour of Greater Birmingham from September 13th to 19th. A total of eighteen organs were visited, and I’d like to offer my gratitude to all who made us so welcome. No door was closed in my face during months of planning, thus enabling us to visit three concert halls, two cathedrals, a school chapel (mine! Solihull School), the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and a host of churches. We used coaches for three days but managed the rest on foot. An outstanding event was Daniel Moult’s inspirational two-hour masterclass for five of our members on the new Flentrop (a Schnitger copy) in the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where the audience learnt every bit as much as the players. Favourite organs? I think Birmingham Town Hall came out top, perhaps equal with St Chad’s Cathedral, where David Saint’s luminous performance of the great solo violin Chaconne of J.S.B. (arranged W.T. Best) ended our day in heavenly fashion.
The Solihull School chapel Nicholson delighted and surprised everyone as it sounded so splendid;
it was eclipsed on the Sunday only by Pearson’s glorious Birmingham church of St Alban the Martyr, where a haze of incense greeted us along with the extraordinarily effective sounds of its modest size organ.
The Willis I, excellently rebuilt by Michael Farley at St Peter’s Wolverhampton was another hit, as was the stentorian Willis III in Emmanuel, Wylde Green. Other than a touch or two of Covid, all went without a hitch and it was a happy and contented crowd that left Birmingham with a distinctly enhanced idea of the hidden qualities of Britain’s Second City.
Home again after a stimulating Diocesan Organ Advisers’ Conference based this year in Portsmouth. Each year we visit a different diocese, at the invitation of the Organ Adviser to the Diocesan Advisory Committee of that diocese, spending the better part of three days discussing current issues, funding, technical matters and interesting local organs.
This year, the full day (the second day) was rather more concentrated than usual on two organs: the 3-manual 1931 HNB rebuild, currently out of use in the church now called ‘King’s Church’ (was St Peter’s) and the large Rushworth & Dreaper extension organ of similar date (though modernised) in the Church of the Holy Spirit (both in Southsea).
We considered the strengths and weaknesses of both organs and whether the redundant organ in St Peter’s might be an improvement on the R&D in the Holy Spirit. The jury was still out at the end of the day! The two musical highlights were a splendid evening experiencing the recently restored Walker organ at St Mary’s church (Portsea), an event greatly enlivened by the words of Dr William McVicker and Andrew Caskie (managing director of Nicholsons) and by the playing of Tom Bell.
The Anglican cathedral’s historic Nicholson was put through its paces on the second evening by cathedral organist Dr David Price, along with its recent nave additions which include a solo fanfare trumpet – reputedly audible from the other side of the harbour. It was an instructive and sociable few days and we all look forward to the 2024 conference.
In recent week my travels as a recitalist and consultant have taken me to three churches with unusual and thought-provoking organ cases. Today is a good example, where the chunky 3-manual Harrison & Harrison at St Botolph’s church, Boston, Lincs (Boston ‘Stump’) speaks out from behind this curious façade. Amazing it gets out at all, but the audience at my lunchtime recital seemed to enjoy what they heard, so all was well.
Hidden in the countryside near Alderley Edge is the tiny – exquisite – church of St Catherine, at Birtles. Here, an eccentric nineteenth-century ‘squarson’ incumbent had three organ case made entirely of salvaged timbers and carvings. They are an extraordinary confection (especially close-up) and the central case has nothing in it – but a fire-place beneath it!
At the other end of the country, I found that St Saviour’s, Dartmouth has a unique organ case by Paul Micheau of Exeter, dating from c.1787 and set up then in the church’s spacious west gallery. Moved to its current unfortunate home on the north side of the chancel in 1888, much of the case has been hidden ever since behind the equally fine carved oak screenwork behind the choirstalls on that side. Oh that it could be seen once more in its full splendour!
Since our return from an idyllic few days in Paris [see 29th May post] it’s been a singularly busy and productive four weeks. I have given two organ recitals, spent a thrilling weekend (with Anne and Morgan) in Manchester to attend Sir Mark Elder’s inspiring final Hallé performances of The Apostles and The Kingdom, visited Ramsgate (with Anne) to see the wonderful restoration of Pugin’s buildings connected with St Augustine’s church, have travelled around the country surveying organs ‘in need’ in Manchester, Birtles, Dartmouth, Broseley and Alberbury and have spent many hours on on-going projects and on Organ Club admin. Last week was spent mainly in beginning to write up detailed reports on the organs I’d surveyed, but yesterday there came a welcome break from my desk when Anne and I drove to New College Oxford (can it really be 52 years since I started there as a [very green] organ scholar?) for a very special event – a discussion between Sir James MacMillan, Robert Quinney and the Revd Dr Erica Longfellow (Dean of Divinity) about the major anthem to a text by John Donne, commissioned from Sir James by New College and later given its premiere at Evensong.
The piece (When one man dies) is profound and worthy of taking up by choirs who can do it justice; the discussion (mainly about John Donne’s writings, in particular this text) was thought-provoking and educative, the Evensong – which, whilst centred on the new anthem, also offered contemporary works by Caitlin Harrison, Matthew Martin and Deborah Pritchard – showed New College Choir in top form. Their new CD – entirely of New College commissions, from Harris’s “Faire is the Heaven” right up to the present day – was released after Evensong; a glass or two of bubbly was imbibed, and the assembled company dispersed after enjoying a golden day.
Anne and I spent a delightful five days in Paris last week. Mainly art galleries, museums and walking, taking in a splendid concert in the new Philharmonie (what a hall!), visiting beautiful La Sainte-Chapelle for the first time (the medieval glass must be the finest anywhere), and enjoying both the warm sunny weather and the fine food and wine – of course. A real treat was the Musée de la Musique, whose collection of harpsichords must be by a mile the most impressive in the world. They also had a few small but interesting organs on display, so I am posting some photographs here, along with a photo of the spectacular Saint-Eustache organ, which we visited on our last morning.
Just back from three stimulating days in Northern Ireland, visiting a project in progress and revisiting two other projects which we hope will come to life. It was a delight to revisit the H&H / Wells Kennedy organ in the beautiful cathedral at Downpatrick. Long thought to have been a late organ by Samuel Green, it is now known to have been built a decade or so after his death.
In progress is a Henry Groves / Wells Kennedy rebuild of the fine 3-manual, 57-stop 1963 Walker in St Philip & St James, Holywood (Belfast); the organ’s innards are now almost entirely removed, most of them being shipped to the Henry Groves works near Nottingham, while the console has gone to Renatus in Bideford for a complete refurbishment.
The largest organ I’m involved with in the area is the famous 4-manual 72-stop Hill / Mander organ in the Ulster Hall, which is showing its age in every respect; writing a major report on that will be a few days’ work, even though it is an update of my 2009 report.
This fine view from the very back of the organ is possible only because Mander removed the Choir expression box shutters in 1976: just one of the issues up for discussion.