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Pierre Lauwers

Save The British Organ Heritage

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I don't want to end up caught in one of my characteristic circular arguments, but I really don't see how this can be possible. Restoration is about doing the least amount of work necessary to render an instrument in as-new condition. Consumables are; sheepskin on reservoirs and pallets, leather buttons and felt washers. In short, getting to grips with the fundamentals before worrying about anything clever.

 

The other approach - adding stuff on clamps, electrifying pneumatic pedals, adding pistons, swapping Dulcianas for Mixtures - all requires things to be bought or made and the organ adapted to take them. That is inevitably an expensive process.

 

Any perceived added value assumed by the term 'historic' needs to be carefully accounted for - for instance, have pipes been lengthened in a return to cone tuning, or has an original swell mechanism been replicated? None of these is likely to cost any more than the alteration did in the first place.

 

In my view, the basics have to be right before any discussion of whether or not a change of direction is appropriate; it's usually straightforward to apprehend quite quickly what has gone on inside an instrument, and work out whether it was done for any reasons other than convenience, incompetence or ego. Some changes (eg slider seals) can actually be important or even vital to the survival of an instrument, and quite easily reversible.

In connection with a couple of matters here - just last year, a substantial two-manual Willis of 1892, pneumaticised in the mid 1920's has been "restored" with substantial lottery assistance. Mechanical key action has been re-introduced. The original Great Dulciana has given way to a new quint (1892 Willis?) Mixture, and a Trombone (never envisaged in the original scheme) has been added to the Pedal. The stop action is solenoid-driven, controlled by state-of-art piston gadgetry and the swell pedal is balanced. Clearly not an "historic" approach, but one which the decision-makers within the lottery fund must be comfortable with.

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In connection with a couple of matters here - just last year, a substantial two-manual Willis of 1892, pneumaticised in the mid 1920's has been "restored" with substantial lottery assistance. Mechanical key action has been re-introduced. The original Great Dulciana has given way to a new quint (1892 Willis?) Mixture, and a Trombone (never envisaged in the original scheme) has been added to the Pedal. The stop action is solenoid-driven, controlled by state-of-art piston gadgetry and the swell pedal is balanced. Clearly not an "historic" approach, but one which the decision-makers within the lottery fund must be comfortable with.

 

 

:huh:

 

A fascinating story, many thanks for bringing this to our attention.

I suppose you aren't in a position where you could give us the adviser's name, or failing that, name the church?

 

I have a theory, which is that some advisers have an inside track to funds and 'the right' ear. A sort of old-lags network, maybe?

Put it this way, the adviser in this case must come from a totally different stable to the ones responsible for those dreadful outbreaks of kickstickswellitis.

 

Was I dreaming (?), or when the announcement was made about St.Michael's Cornhill getting a massive grant, the job was going to Nicholsons ... AND ...

the grant was to enable the instrument to be restored entirely to its 1920s state including pneumatic action and a proper wind system.

I mention this because if I have heard/read correctly, it now has neither pneumatic action nor a traditional wind system.

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In connection with a couple of matters here - just last year, a substantial two-manual Willis of 1892, pneumaticised in the mid 1920's has been "restored" with substantial lottery assistance. Mechanical key action has been re-introduced. The original Great Dulciana has given way to a new quint (1892 Willis?) Mixture, and a Trombone (never envisaged in the original scheme) has been added to the Pedal. The stop action is solenoid-driven, controlled by state-of-art piston gadgetry and the swell pedal is balanced. Clearly not an "historic" approach, but one which the decision-makers within the lottery fund must be comfortable with.

 

The criteria for grants above £50,000 are more stingent than those below. This might have a bearing in this case?

 

 

Restoration is about doing the least amount of work necessary to render an instrument in as-new condition.

 

I think Restoration is about restoring the instrument to its original condition, which in many circumstances means undoing later changes (often major). It can often mean considerable research expense into what the original condition most likely was.

I would consider what you outline here to come under the heading of Conservation.

Of course in an unadulterated instrument they may become the same thing, but this is rare.

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I don't want to end up caught in one of my characteristic circular arguments, but I really don't see how this can be possible. Restoration is about doing the least amount of work necessary to render an instrument in as-new condition. Consumables are; sheepskin on reservoirs and pallets, leather buttons and felt washers. In short, getting to grips with the fundamentals before worrying about anything clever.

 

It really does depend on where you're starting and exactly where you're going. So many things can be done to an instrument so that, whilst it is still recognisable as a version of the original thing, and therefore restorable, the devil is very much in the precise detail, and that can be very expensive to rectify. You also have to consider, for example the cost of ripping out an electro-pneumatic action, and rebuilding from scratch something like a Binns 3 stage pneumatic action. However you look at it, it's going to cost a lot of money.

 

AJS

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Guest Patrick Coleman
Common Sense was applied at Llandaff in 1898, when the 'superb Gray and Davison' was slung out.

 

Thank goodness there was no 'outbreak of Common Sense' in Usk in 1930, or 1950, or 1980, or indeed in 2006.

 

Paul

Crass irony apart, this would suggest - given the funds and the location/availability of 'original' instruments - that we would end up with one properly restored/maintained organ in each county. As for the rest of us, I suppose we can go to hell, having struggled by every possible means to maintain our pipe organ heritage despite the lack of interest on behalf of those who think they know...

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It really does depend on where you're starting and exactly where you're going. So many things can be done to an instrument so that, whilst it is still recognisable as a version of the original thing, and therefore restorable, the devil is very much in the precise detail, and that can be very expensive to rectify. You also have to consider, for example the cost of ripping out an electro-pneumatic action, and rebuilding from scratch something like a Binns 3 stage pneumatic action. However you look at it, it's going to cost a lot of money.

 

AJS

 

Of course. But in the 'typical parish', if such a thing exists, I think this is seldom the case. More often than not, the 'typical parish' I encounter has a 2-manual tracker of about 15-22 stops. Maybe one time in four there is some kind of tonal change. Invariably the blower is a later addition. Almost always the action is very badly adjusted.

 

I'm afraid I would find it very, very hard - actually, quite impossible - to justify (in a church) reconstructing a pneumatic action after it had been replaced. As for electrics, there is inevitably an element of disposability built in, as there are also evolving safety and fire prevention considerations to consider. A permanent mechanical linkage is a more straightforward thing to respect because it's either there or it's not.

 

I expect this is mostly down to my own personal prejudice, but I like to think there is some small element of pragmatism in the suggestion that anything more complicated than it needs to be - i.e. two sticks and a pivot - isn't doing anyone any favours.

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I don't want to end up caught in one of my characteristic circular arguments, but I really don't see how this can be possible. Restoration is about doing the least amount of work necessary to render an instrument in as-new condition. Consumables are; sheepskin on reservoirs and pallets, leather buttons and felt washers. In short, getting to grips with the fundamentals before worrying about anything clever.

 

The other approach - adding stuff on clamps, electrifying pneumatic pedals, adding pistons, swapping Dulcianas for Mixtures - all require things to be bought or made and the organ adapted to take them. That is inevitably an expensive process. Anyone offering to do such work for less than would be charged by someone offering to simply put into good order what is already there ought to be at least questioned with healthy scepticism.

 

Any perceived added value assumed by the term 'historic' needs to be carefully accounted for - for instance, have pipes been lengthened in a return to cone tuning, or has an original swell mechanism been replicated? None of these is likely to cost any more than the alteration did in the first place.

I think Heckelphone's exactly right, and possibly 'purist' is the wrong word. A good instrument that has ended up in a poor way, which receives careful informed restoration as Heckelphone describes, will end up as a good instrument again. The same instrument 'rebuilt' with extra stops, an electronic 32' reed and a whizzy-looking piston system simply doesn't improve musically - the money is wasted. I can't believe that conservation and repairs cost more than gadgets and vanity, unless the craftsman doing the repairs charges more because they are much better at what they do, and you generally get what you pay for in this case.

 

An instrument I have known (on and off) for nearly twenty years, has over this period received attention from an organ technician who is known to be remarkably 'cost-effective'. Some of this attention has involved essential repairs - patching leaks etc. - but there have been numerous tonal changes and additions: for example, the only 4' Principal in a manual division was replaced by a 4' string, a 16' reed was added that sounds like pebbles shaken in a jar, electronic pedal stops and console gadgets were added etc. etc. etc. After all of this, it still sounds to be short of wind, none of the stops blend, full organ makes the toes curl, and yet this was once a good instrument by a first-rate builder. A blind 'purist' approach might have attempted to restore the instrument to an imagined original state (long since lost), but a proper craftsman would have concentrated on the winding, action and voicing to return this beast to some form of musicality. The latter approach is unlikely to have cost more than all the additions, yet the result would have been far better - and musical once more.

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An instrument I have known (on and off) for nearly twenty years, has over this period received attention from an organ technician who is known to be remarkably 'cost-effective'. Some of this attention has involved essential repairs - patching leaks etc. - but there have been numerous tonal changes and additions: for example, the only 4' Principal in a manual division was replaced by a 4' string, a 16' reed was added that sounds like pebbles shaken in a jar, electronic pedal stops and console gadgets were added etc. etc. etc. After all of this, it still sounds to be short of wind, none of the stops blend, full organ makes the toes curl, and yet this was once a good instrument by a first-rate builder. A blind 'purist' approach might have attempted to restore the instrument to an imagined original state (long since lost), but a proper craftsman would have concentrated on the winding, action and voicing to return this beast to some form of musicality. The latter approach is unlikely to have cost more than all the additions, yet the result would have been far better - and musical once more.

Well there's no accounting for incompetence...except when you come to put it right.

 

AJS

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Well there's no accounting for incompetence...except when you come to put it right.

 

AJS

 

It's not just about incompetence - trouble is, few organbuilders with a car to tax and insure and a workshop to heat and bills to pay will say no when someone hands over a cheque and asks for a new stop. There's no point in saying no, because someone else will say yes. The battle to get parishes to recognise what might be a more sensible solution is a difficult one to fight, and against the considerable opposition of someone else offering shiny new toys. It's become as bread and butter as plumbing. How? In some small way, I believe it's because pneumatic and electric actions made it possible and even straightforward to add things and change things where previously you could not. It then becomes the cultural norm. This makes the organ into an appliance first and a musical instrument second. Avoid such industrial relics (at parish level, at least) and you avoid many of the associated problems.

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It's not just about incompetence - trouble is, few organbuilders with a car to tax and insure and a workshop to heat and bills to pay will say no when someone hands over a cheque and asks for a new stop. There's no point in saying no, because someone else will say yes. The battle to get parishes to recognise what might be a more sensible solution is a difficult one to fight, and against the considerable opposition of someone else offering shiny new toys. It's become as bread and butter as plumbing. How? In some small way, I believe it's because pneumatic and electric actions made it possible and even straightforward to add things and change things where previously you could not. It then becomes the cultural norm. This makes the organ into an appliance first and a musical instrument second. Avoid such industrial relics (at parish level, at least) and you avoid many of the associated problems.

 

I couldn't agree more. A parish in the north, with a rather effective small organ in excellent repair (Victorian IIRC) asked me after I gave a recital for an opinion on whether they should rip out a stop to replace it with a trumpet. Having found that the instrument sounded rather fine, I recommended against installing a spurious reed. Almost needless to say, a trumpet was installed shortly afterwards!

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A little case study, if you will. I spent most of today working inside a large 3m tracker job, with the brief to keep it alive for the next 18 months or so while they get funding in place for a new organ. This one is to be broken up, or sold if anyone wants it. Three organ builders, two household names here and one from outside the UK, have deemed it to be in a state of collapse and not worth saving. A little sleuthing revealed that virtually all the pipework (more than 75%) dates from the 1790s and is by Samuel Green. At least two of the soundboards are probably of that time. Will they heed my proposal which is suggesting a return to the situation prevailing in about 1877, except with the present compass, or will they have the shiny new builder from one of the three firms approached...?

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A little case study, if you will. I spent most of today working inside a large 3m tracker job, with the brief to keep it alive for the next 18 months or so while they get funding in place for a new organ. This one is to be broken up, or sold if anyone wants it. Three organ builders, two household names here and one from outside the UK, have deemed it to be in a state of collapse and not worth saving. A little sleuthing revealed that virtually all the pipework (more than 75%) dates from the 1790s and is by Samuel Green. At least two of the soundboards are probably of that time. Will they heed my proposal which is suggesting a return to the situation prevailing in about 1877, except with the present compass, or will they have the shiny new builder from one of the three firms approached...?

 

 

All I can say is 'wow!'

 

Oh and, I was once brought in as a second opinion - Monmouth RC Church - where an experienced organ-builder had reported that the organ was only fit to be thrown away. Arriving expecting this to be the case, I found instead a complete and very largely unaltered antique chamber organ, GG compass and complete with a fully-functioning nags head swell and a shifting movement.

'We've been told to throw it away, but we like the sounds it makes...'

 

Throw-away line:

At the reopening concert of that organ, I was thrilled to be introduced to the bell-ringer - veteran entertainer the late (great) Jake Thackray.

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a return to the situation prevailing in about 1877, except with the present compass,

 

So actually, a new situation?

And I expect none of the pipework has been revoiced in any way, or had the pitch changed?

And why 1877 rather than 1790s?

 

[exit devil's advocate...]

 

 

This may be a national tragedy, or the tragedy may have happened years ago, but not everything old/by a particular maker is wonderful, especially if it has been "got at".

A bit difficult for the rest of us to judge I think to be honest.

 

If enough evidence survives and the pipework hasn't been "given the treatment" then my instinct would be a return to the 1790s instrument...why not?

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'We've been told to throw it away, but we like the sounds it makes...'

 

In which case I hope they've had a second opinion or advice on how to save that sound, because ultimately someone needs to like the thing!

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If enough evidence survives and the pipework hasn't been "given the treatment" then my instinct would be a return to the 1790s instrument...why not?

 

I am, as many know, the sort of chap who foams at the mouth at the sight of a Pozidrive screw. However, I cannot seriously advocate a tenor F Swell, FF/GG Gt and Ch and no pedals as the prime instrument for a city centre church. The choir sings Rutter, the congregation sing Shine Jesus Shine and the organist plays Eric Thiman. I will not win that battle, much as I would love to; they'll get a new ****** instead and chuck it in a skip, which is what has been seriously proposed.

 

So, while it probably is a new situation, it's better than no situation at all to sometimes accept that the best on offer is to freeze the old pipework/soundboards in time and re-use the Victorian mechanical underpinnings, adding a new take on a pedal organ which is a logical downward continuation of the manuals and doesn't need its own transept. Little will be gained, but nothing will be lost - for now - and others in the future will be able to see all that we can about what has happened to the pipework (which I actually don't think has been significantly revoiced, in the most part - an esteemed historic organ specialist in the south of England has used at least one stop from it as a model in a reconstruction elsewhere).

 

To link to the topic - this is what I would deem to be 'the purist approach' and I don't think it's hard to see how this will cost less than new soundboards, new case, new pipes and new mechanics!

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In which case I hope they've had a second opinion or advice on how to save that sound, because ultimately someone needs to like the thing!

 

 

Oh, I think it's safe now. This story is about ten years old.

 

I did the organ up a bit, and turned it through 90 degrees so that it can be appreciated down below. After I'd repaired them, the wooden flat-back dummy pipes in the case were recovered in gold leaf by the priest and a team of his friends, the improved look was completed with some replacement silk backing, it now looks like a smart little organ and not like a tatty cupboard.

 

I wish I could have left the roof off the case, because the sound in the (relatively small) church was truly wonderful before the whole of the nags-head swell went back over it all, but you have to respect these things - don't you?

 

The only non-original stop got exchanged for something more useful. A member of the congregation was on friendly terms with Martin Neary who advised, and at his suggestion a second 8' flute disappeared, making way for a Twelfth. The only other major change was that plastic 'ivories' got replaced with the real thing 'reclaimed' of course.

 

I told the story to show our friend H that for an organ-builder to condemn something with more than a little life and historic interest left in it is sadly not rare.

Oh, and I forgot the punchline* when I told the story earlier.

 

*Inside the instrument I found the pencilled signature of the same organ-builder about twenty years before - he'd already overhauled the thing himself!

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I am, as many know, the sort of chap who foams at the mouth at the sight of a Pozidrive screw. However, I cannot seriously advocate a tenor F Swell, FF/GG Gt and Ch and no pedals as the prime instrument for a city centre church. The choir sings Rutter, the congregation sing Shine Jesus Shine and the organist plays Eric Thiman. I will not win that battle, much as I would love to; they'll get a new ****** instead and chuck it in a skip, which is what has been seriously proposed.

 

So, while it probably is a new situation, it's better than no situation at all to sometimes accept that the best on offer is to freeze the old pipework/soundboards in time and re-use the Victorian mechanical underpinnings, adding a new take on a pedal organ which is a logical downward continuation of the manuals and doesn't need its own transept. Little will be gained, but nothing will be lost - for now - and others in the future will be able to see all that we can about what has happened to the pipework (which I actually don't think has been significantly revoiced, in the most part - an esteemed historic organ specialist in the south of England has used at least one stop from it as a model in a reconstruction elsewhere).

 

To link to the topic - this is what I would deem to be 'the purist approach' and I don't think it's hard to see how this will cost less than new soundboards, new case, new pipes and new mechanics!

 

Whilst it sounds to me that the appoach you outline has considerable merit musically as a rebuild and certainly sounds "conservationist" and economical, I quite like the approach taken at St Botolph's Aldgate. Although this is an earlier instrument, it was restored to three independent manuals (inc short swell) and a small independent pedal section added.

 

I realise I'm probably in a minority, but I'd live with such an instrument and accept its limitations.

Equally I recognise the limitations in a typical Willis instrument.

We seem to be very accepting of playing earlier repertoire on later instruments, and less accepting of playing later repertoire on earlier instruments; this seems to me to be an odd state of affairs. A busy city centre church will hopefully be exploring a wide repertoire, so the organ of whatever ilk will always be asked to do incongrous things. Howells on a Grant, Degens and Bradbeer? Blow on a Harrison? Which is worse?

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I'm sorry to be a terrible spoilsport, but I should point out something which, as far as I can recall, hasn't appeared on this thread yet. (Please feel free to correct me on this point.) The vast majority of churchgoers would know relatively little/next to nothing about organs, yet it is people such as these who would be involved in making decisions about organs. Even if we organ-lovers can easily see the merits of a particular instrument, or its historical importance, even if it's not to our taste (let's ignore the question of objectivity in such judgements for a moment), how on earth are we to persuade those not in the know that an instrument for which they are responsible is worth maintaining? If an instrument is not in good working order, it won't sound good for all the world, even if all that needs doing is a particular kind of renovation, for example, repairing split soundboards, or sorting a leak in the wind supply, etc. It may have the best pipework ever made, but if it's not working properly, it won't sound as it should, and thus persuading a church of its merits and getting it renovated may be very difficult, unless someone who is in the know is involved. In addition, if it can't do the job that is required of it in a particular church, for example, if it is at just the right volume for accompanying the choir but too quiet for a full congregation, then any investment is that bit less likely to be forthcoming.

 

Another important issue is money. In many cases, an organ may have been the gift of a wealthy benefactor, or a church in a once-prosperous area may have been able to pay for an organ at one time. If a church's financial situation is such that it barely keeps going anyway, it doesn't really make sense to spend a large proportion of their money on maintaining an organ. It does seem to me that many (smaller) churches require little more than a machine for playing hymns, and perhaps the odd voluntary for funerals and weddings. In such churches, if a new organ is needed, the provision of a good-quality smaller organ whose upkeep costs are much smaller, and which can do all that the church asks of it, is of much greater advantage to everyone than a larger organ. The main reason for wanting an unnecessarily large organ is vanity, whether that of a benefactor, or of an organist!

 

I don't intend to be comprehensive in my amateur-ish assessment of the threats facing our organ heritage, but I think I should point out another foe, namely self-proclaimed church modernisers (in the Anglican churches). These people have a deep-seated antagonism towards anything that smacks of traditionalism (by definition, just in case anyone wishes to accuse me of generalising), and the organ is just one of many of their pet peeves. Of course, I don't wish to deny people the opportunity to worship in the way they see fit, and ultimately everyone has to make their own spiritual journey, but all I see from self-proclaimed church modernisers is another kind of iconoclasm, partly guided by a Romantic notion that any order or discipline is antithetical to freedom (I have seen this at first hand spelt out by the actions and practices certain modernising clergymen, and for my part think it's complete bunkum), but also a Puritan antipathy towards anything that smacks of High Church. This latter point is obviously informed by the former. Choirs and organs are clearly the most obvious manifestation of discipline and order in worship, and are also, for obvious reasons, associated with High Church, but in the Anglican church the tradition of organ and choral music has stubbornly survived, despite all that's been thrown at it, including Cromwell et al. Ironically, the main excuse given for not having a choir by such modernisers as I have met is that is detracts from congregational singning, whereas my own experience tells me that a congregation often needs a strong lead from a choir (or at the very least a dedicated group of leaders in the singing, called codwyr canu in the Welsh chapel tradition). It is to these self-proclaimed modernisers that we need to appeal, if we possibly can, if we are to have a chance of saving our organs before it becomes too late.

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.... We seem to be very accepting of playing earlier repertoire on later instruments, and less accepting of playing later repertoire on earlier instruments; this seems to me to be an odd state of affairs. A busy city centre church will hopefully be exploring a wide repertoire, so the organ of whatever ilk will always be asked to do incongrous things. ....

 

Not from David's post above - it sounds as if they are happy to explore no further than Graham Kendrick.

 

One of the problems with playing later repertoire on earlier instruments is a restricted compass - and not necessarily just a few notes missing in the treble; the instrument in question has no pedals, a short compass Swell and a long compass GO, and Choir. This would make playing quite a lot of the repertoire a little difficult.

 

In any case, it sounds as if any organ is becoming incidental to the style of worship in this church. There is a church just up the road from where I now sit and they do have an organ, but it is not in good condition and the console (in this heavily carpeted auditorium) is partly buried behind a couple of electronic keyboards, a mixing desk and two drum kits - goodness knows why they need two.

 

If they do not want to keep the organ, perhaps a private enthusiast or a musical instrument museum (or Milborne Port?) might be interested in saving it.

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Not from David's post above - it sounds as if they are happy to explore no further than Graham Kendrick.

 

I think if I've given that impression I've done them a disservice. I did also mention Rutter! There was Stanford in Bb at Evensong this week just gone and some unaccompanied Byrd in the morning. My point was to suggest that the church has a varied diet, including some worship songs, and the organ needs to be approachable enough to attract confident players.

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Although I don't think I've ever actually heard the organ or attended a service there, I have been in the church a number of times (years ago I had a girlfriend who lived very nearby at Fisherton Island, not to mention many SCF's) and I've always got the impression that they took their musical tradition very seriously, with ambitious music lists and an organist who seemed to have been there a long time. I think he had initials GS or something like that.

 

Fashions in liturgy and church music do change and, certainly in my recent experience, there seem to be encouraging signs of the start of a return to more traditional forms of both. I am sure the church and Mr Heckelphone should be encouraged to do what he is suggesting. If they still can maintain Choral Evensong, despite the competition from the bigger place down the road, they can't be doing too badly.

 

Malcolm

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I think if I've given that impression I've done them a disservice. I did also mention Rutter! There was Stanford in Bb at Evensong this week just gone and some unaccompanied Byrd in the morning. My point was to suggest that the church has a varied diet, including some worship songs, and the organ needs to be approachable enough to attract confident players.

 

Oh good - this does make it sound better.

 

(Does the 'bigger place down the road', to which Malcolm alludes, have a dedication to a famous misogynist? Or is it a famous virgin?)

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Although I don't think I've ever actually heard the organ or attended a service there, I have been in the church a number of times (years ago I had a girlfriend who lived very nearby at Fisherton Island, not to mention many SCF's) and I've always got the impression that they took their musical tradition very seriously, with ambitious music lists and an organist who seemed to have been there a long time. I think he had initials GS or something like that.

 

 

 

Malcolm

 

Well, they've now had three organists since 2000, and are spending a lot of time devising a Mission Action Plan. In practice this will mean thinking up ways to spoil what is still a very attractive church, full of important furnishings.

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Well, they've now had three organists since 2000, and are spending a lot of time devising a Mission Action Plan. In practice this will mean thinking up ways to spoil what is still a very attractive church, full of important furnishings.

 

This sounds ominous - are we talking TV screens on wall brackets, carpets and upholstered seating?

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