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Royal Festival Hall Compton


Barry Oakley
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Earlier today I was having a face-to-face chat with Cynic and I asked of him if he knew if there had ever been a recording made of the Compton electronic, the forerunner to the Downes-inspired Harrison pipe organ that's now resident in the building? "I don't know" came his reply, "but it could be a topic to raise on the Mander Forum."

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Earlier today I was having a face-to-face chat with Cynic and I asked of him if he knew if there had ever been a recording made of the Compton electronic, the forerunner to the Downes-inspired Harrison pipe organ that's now resident in the building? "I don't know" came his reply, "but it could be a topic to raise on the Mander Forum."

 

Hi

 

I've asked the question on a list dedicated to the Compton Electrone - I'll pass on any replies. The onrgan did exist in private hands - but IIRC it's recently been gutted and the console fitted with digital electronics.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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Hi

 

I've asked the question on a list dedicated to the Compton Electrone - I'll pass on any replies. The onrgan did exist in private hands - but IIRC it's recently been gutted and the console fitted with digital electronics.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

 

Thanks, Tony. I'll be interested to know of any responses. It will also be interesting to learn if the original stops have been retained even though they may have been digitised in the meantime.

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Earlier today I was having a face-to-face chat with Cynic and I asked of him if he knew if there had ever been a recording made of the Compton electronic, the forerunner to the Downes-inspired Harrison pipe organ that's now resident in the building?

 

The Harrison organ is not currently 'resident' in the building I'm afraid. Certain sections have been re-instated, the rest languishes in a warehouse in the north of England (awaiting funds for the completion of the re-installation). A totally disgraceful position, the authorities at the RFH should be utterly ashamed with this complete and utter shambles.

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Well, perhaps they ought to leave it in the warehouse and put in something a bit more musical in its place! :)

 

Whatever one thinks of the organ, and I was never quite happy with its effect in the building, it is an historically important instrument in an historically important building and in my view deserves to be fully re-installed and heard far more often.

 

Jonathan

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Whatever one thinks of the organ, and I was never quite happy with its effect in the building, it is an historically important instrument in an historically important building and in my view deserves to be fully re-installed and heard far more often.

 

Admirable sentiment, Jonathan, and I can see where you're coming from.

 

But are there many who'd want to hear it? Is it a beautiful instrument which would have not only organ buffs but also general music fans raving about the organ? Unfortunately, I don't think so. Yes, it was a trail-blazer of its time, but it's now time to stand back and to see it for what it is today IMHO.

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Guest Cynic
Admirable sentiment, Jonathan, and I can see where you're coming from.

 

But are there many who'd want to hear it? Is it a beautiful instrument which would have not only organ buffs but also general music fans raving about the organ? Unfortunately, I don't think so. Yes, it was a trail-blazer of its time, but it's now time to stand back and to see it for what it is today IMHO.

 

 

I agree with Jonathan Lane. There were audiences for it before, even when it was placed in a most unhelpful acoustic. With an improved acoustic, this instrument, fully restored, would certainly have an audience. In any case, in the premier concert hall in the capital of any civilised country there ought to be an organ able to fulfil the needs of major choral, orchestral and solo repertoire. Even if one ignores the historical importance and unique style of the RFH instrument, restoring the instrument the South Bank already owns will be significantly cheaper than approving the purchase of another.

 

I think the present situation is (unfortunately) typical of the times we live in and the sort of management that our benighted country is cursed with. It's all short-termism or asset-stripping, God help us!

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My memory of the old Wednesday recitals was, "What an awful acoustic", not, "What an awful organ." Indeed, I remember the organ being rather exciting at times. That may be because in those days there wasn't all that much for the less travelled of us to compare it with and I wonder what I would think if I were to hear it today. Nevertheless, I suspect I might still find it a breathe of fresh air. It is an iconic instrument and as the foremost monument to Downes's philosophy it deserves to be properly preserved for the reasons Cynic mentions.

 

Years ago when our local IV/P foghorn was due to be rebuilt the vicar said to the organist, "Can't we sell one half of it and save some money?" That appears to be precisely what we have at the RFH at the moment. I hope the management will find the commitment to restore the whole organ. To leave it in its current state would be truly shameful.

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Indeed, I remember the organ being rather exciting at times.

 

I remember once being asked the most exciting feature of the organ at which I presided over at that time. I concluded it was the "Off" button. :)

 

That may be because in those days there wasn't all that much for the less travelled of us to compare it with and I wonder what I would think if I were to hear it today.

 

Yes, indeed. It was a child of its time and it paved the way for other, much better instruments. But it was a misguided instrument for Ralph Downes to experiment with his mainly unsupported and ill-informed ideas.

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Admirable sentiment, Jonathan, and I can see where you're coming from.

 

But are there many who'd want to hear it? Is it a beautiful instrument which would have not only organ buffs but also general music fans raving about the organ? Unfortunately, I don't think so. Yes, it was a trail-blazer of its time, but it's now time to stand back and to see it for what it is today IMHO.

 

As a student I went to the Bach/Handel/Scarlatti anniversary series, and these were well attended. We offer recitals at various times on our very fine two-manual 1990 Nicholson, in an excellent acoustic, often with outstanding performers, big names, to audiences of under a dozen, so I don't believe your argument holds up. I think there are many who would like to hear it, provided the timing was right, lunchtimes, after work, etc. I also remember the organ being a fine instrument in a poor acoustic, perhaps they should keep the organ and rebuild the hall!

 

Jonathan

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....perhaps they should keep the organ and rebuild the hall!

 

:P

 

Is the organ really that good, though?

 

I know what it's like to put on regular recitals and to rejoice if two dozen people turn up! :)

 

Sorry, but I'm still not convinced that the instrument is any more than a massive indulgence to RD's wild ideas.....

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:)

 

Is the organ really that good, though?

 

I know what it's like to put on regular recitals and to rejoice if two dozen people turn up! :rolleyes:

 

Sorry, but I'm still not convinced that the instrument is any more than a massive indulgence to RD's wild ideas.....

 

As someone who loves the organs of Cavaille-Coll, William Hill, Henry Willis and others, I still rate this organ very highly, as I do Coventry Cathedral (perhaps not too controversial, but many don't like it) and Gloucester Cathedral (even more don't like this, but having played it a few times, and having listened to it accompany the liturgy daily for several years, I find it a very thrilling instrument). But everyone knows controversy is my middle name!

 

Jonathan

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But it was a misguided instrument for Ralph Downes to experiment with his mainly unsupported and ill-informed ideas.

Now it could be that my youthful ignorance or my memory is playing tricks, or it could be that going to hear the instrument every week, one simply got used to it, but I seem to remember the organ hanging together as an entity quite well. Even if Downes was a well-meaning but misguided amateur at organ-building (and on this I willingly bow to the superior knowledge of those in a position to know) my recollection is that the organ had integrity and in the right hands could produce a decently musical account of any repertoire. I daresay that as a result of Downes's "unsupported and ill-informed ideas" the organ ended up resembling nothing else on earth, but does that automatically mean it is a write-off? I am more inclined to think that Downes ended up with a lucky happenstance (no doubt thanks to the skill of H&H).

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Now it could be that my youthful ignorance or my memory is playing tricks, or it could be that going to hear the instrument every week, one simply got used to it, but I seem to remember the organ hanging together as an entity quite well. Even if Downes was a well-meaning but misguided amateur at organ-building (and on this I willingly bow to the superior knowledge of those in a position to know) my recollection is that the organ had integrity and in the right hands could produce a decently musical account of any repertoire. I daresay that as a result of Downes's "unsupported and ill-informed ideas" the organ ended up resembling nothing else on earth, but does that automatically mean it is a write-off? I am more inclined to think that Downes ended up with a lucky happenstance (no doubt thanks to the skill of H&H).

 

I think that is true, but quite often a success story (and I believe it is one) is achieved by someone with little or rudimentary knowledge, a fresh mind so to speak. I would definitely acknowledge the skill of H&H was part of the equation. Does anyone remember the fascinating Open University programme in which Simon Preston demonstrated the organ, some time during the seventies. Somewhere I have the soundtrack on reel to reel, but would love to see it again.

 

Jonathan

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Hi

 

I've asked the question on a list dedicated to the Compton Electrone - I'll pass on any replies. The onrgan did exist in private hands - but IIRC it's recently been gutted and the console fitted with digital electronics.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

 

I think the organ Tony Newnham has in mind is (or was) the Compton from the Free Trade Hall in Manchester; it was built shortly after the RFH one and, give or take one or two stops, they were identical. My recollection is that Compton took back the RFH one, not best pleased at the contract for the permanent replacement going – contrary to what he thought he had been given to understand – to another company, and it was broken up in his factory. As Tony says, the FTH console has been recently pressed into service for a Hauptwerk system, but the Compton tone-generators and all the associated electronics have been preserved in full working order and are temporarily in use in a three-manual Compton console.

 

Regards.

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I think the organ Tony Newnham has in mind is (or was) the Compton from the Free Trade Hall in Manchester; it was built shortly after the RFH one and, give or take one or two stops, they were identical. My recollection is that Compton took back the RFH one, not best pleased at the contract for the permanent replacement going – contrary to what he thought he had been given to understand – to another company, and it was broken up in his factory. As Tony says, the FTH console has been recently pressed into service for a Hauptwerk system, but the Compton tone-generators and all the associated electronics have been preserved in full working order and are temporarily in use in a three-manual Compton console.

 

Regards.

 

I managed to find a sound track on the web of the FTH organ played cinema style. I was essentially interested to hear classical voices one would associate with a concert/church organ. Unfortunately the track that I was able to access was typical of cinema registrations and with an ever-present tremulant.

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I think the organ Tony Newnham has in mind is (or was) the Compton from the Free Trade Hall in Manchester; it was built shortly after the RFH one and, give or take one or two stops, they were identical. My recollection is that Compton took back the RFH one, not best pleased at the contract for the permanent replacement going – contrary to what he thought he had been given to understand – to another company, and it was broken up in his factory. As Tony says, the FTH console has been recently pressed into service for a Hauptwerk system, but the Compton tone-generators and all the associated electronics have been preserved in full working order and are temporarily in use in a three-manual Compton console.

 

Regards.

 

Hi

 

Yes - it's possible that I'm confusing the two - it was a while ago when I saw the info. I'll try and find time to check it out - but it won't be this side of the weekend! (Major event on Saturday).

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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Is the organ really that good, though?

Sorry, but I'm still not convinced that the instrument is any more than a massive indulgence to RD's wild ideas.....

You have made it clear that you don't like the RFH organ, but unless I have missed something, you haven't told us what you think is wrong with it. Do you think it should have had devotional tones and grand diapasons?

 

In my view, it is an instrument that worked quite well in a hall that was totally unforgiving to performers and instruments. Yes, full organ is harsh, but at the hands of those who appreciate that less is more, it can (and I hope will soon) make some ravishing sounds.

JC

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You have made it clear that you don't like the RFH organ, but unless I have missed something, you haven't told us what you think is wrong with it. Do you think it should have had devotional tones and grand diapasons?

 

In my view, it is an instrument that worked quite well in a hall that was totally unforgiving to performers and instruments. Yes, full organ is harsh, but at the hands of those who appreciate that less is more, it can (and I hope will soon) make some ravishing sounds.

 

I agree with this view entirely. I listened to the RFH in recitals through the 70s and 80s, and I agree it could sound exceptional in the right hands. The best memory I have of this was Ralph Downes playing his last recital on the Organ, the delivery was superb (especially given his age) and the organ produced a very exciting sound, despite the dreadful acoustic in the Hall. Somehow, RD played 'around' the acoustic (if you know what I mean), he also achieved an intriguing balance of stop combinations that produced a splendid sound. I'm not saying that others could not achieve this combination of effects, but he could, to splendid effect.

 

 

Yes, indeed. It was a child of its time and it paved the way for other, much better instruments. But it was a misguided instrument for Ralph Downes to experiment with his mainly unsupported and ill-informed ideas.

 

Well, clearly Holz Gedeckt you are not an admirer of Ralph Downe's work, or indeed what he stood for! We are all entitled to our opinions, even if those opinions are ill-informed. I think you were right when you say that RD was 'asking questions' in the RFH Organ build, but many of the questions at the time needed to be asked, and asked very loudly indeed. When considering the vast majority of the organs built in England before and even since, we should ask the same questions and say:

 

1) Why do we want to listen to fat, overblown diapasons that have no beauty or musical value whatsover?

2) Do we need to listen to chaotic chorusus that make a dreadful din, their only purpose not to excite or to stimulate interest in the instrument or the music being played but to get people out of the building as quickly as possible?

3) Should we really listen to enormous, supersonic ear-bashing tubas with little or no musical flair? and equally effective at getting people out the the building asap?

 

No doubt it may be thought by some that certain aspects of the RFH instrument may have the same effects, but I would disagree. Questions were correctly asked on a very wide canvas, in a new building thoroughly unsuited to the making of music of any sort, and in my opinion the work of RD was an unqualified success. More still, and coming forward in time, I just only wish that the 'eyesore' that is the RFH be pulled down and replaced with a far better building fit for its intended purpose, with an acoustic actually sympathetc to music generally AND this Organ in particular. Then I think we could all be proud to walk the ghastly urban wasteland that is the South Bank and at least admire not only the RFH, but also admire the true qualities of this brave and very exciting instrument.

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You have made it clear that you don't like the RFH organ, but unless I have missed something, you haven't told us what you think is wrong with it. Do you think it should have had devotional tones and grand diapasons?

 

Ok, I am at a slight disadvantage when I reveal that I have never actually heard this instrument in the flesh, and I speak from my hearing it in recordings only.

 

Basically, I don't like a number of the sounds I hear from it. There's nothing that actually makes me think "That's lovely". I had a recent listen to the Pye Golden Guinea recording of Downes playing Bach, coupled with the Widor Toccata, and thought what weird sounds he produced from the instrument. Certainly not the sort of sounds I enjoy hearing. I also think that a lot of the registers don't blend, and some sound rather "odd".

 

And, yes, in a concert organ of over 100 speaking stops, there should be space for devotional tones and noble diapasons as well as pseudo-Baroque squeaks!

 

And that awful "case" too, which looks like the organ has Tibias (yuk!) when it doesn't!

 

Well, clearly Holz Gedeckt you are not an admirer of Ralph Downe's work, or indeed what he stood for! We are all entitled to our opinions, even if those opinions are ill-informed. I think you were right when you say that RD was 'asking questions' in the RFH Organ build, but many of the questions at the time needed to be asked, and asked very loudly indeed.

 

Don't get me wrong, I think that the organ at the RFH paved the way to an improvement in organ building in this country. But I think it is a child of its time, and has been eclipsed by instruments (of better integrity and cohesion) which have followed since.

 

But, yes, all credit to RD for steering the organ world in a direction of better understanding of "Baroque" principles.

 

It's just not an organ which I think I'd really like to hear in the flesh.

 

However, I'm always happy to be proved wrong......

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It's just not an organ which I think I'd really like to hear in the flesh.

 

However, I'm always happy to be proved wrong......

 

I think you would have been shocked if you'd been present at RD's last recital at the RFH. He played to the auditorium in such a way that one was oblivious of the very poor acoustic. I had never experienced this before. Also, when the tutti was used the power was there, but in a startlingly 'unforced' way, with enough harmonic richness to keep you entertained. The reeds were certainly there, but they managed to blend themselves very successfully in the overall tutti (I suspect in this respect RD no doubt omitted some of the Great and Pedal reeds in the overall ensemble).

 

When the Organ is finally re-instated in its entirety it will be interesting to see how it stands up in the new acoustic, given that some 'rebalancing' work will be required to compensate for the changes in the auditorium. There may be a slim chance that the acoustic may be a little more favourable to this instrument. Either way, given the opportunity in the hands of a very skilled and sympathetic player, this instrument is a revelation. Please do not judge it by recordings alone. I have several recordings, and they are all utterly dreadful: dry to the point of being Saharan, and not one performance giving the instrument one degree of credit that it's due.

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Guest Cynic
I think you would have been shocked if you'd been present at RD's last recital at the RFH. He played to the auditorium in such a way that one was oblivious of the very poor acoustic. I had never experienced this before. Also, when the tutti was used the power was there, but in a startlingly 'unforced' way, with enough harmonic richness to keep you entertained. The reeds were certainly there, but they managed to blend themselves very successfully in the overall tutti (I suspect in this respect RD no doubt omitted some of the Great and Pedal reeds in the overall ensemble).

 

When the Organ is finally re-instated in its entirety it will be interesting to see how it stands up in the new acoustic, given that some 'rebalancing' work will be required to compensate for the changes in the auditorium. There may be a slim chance that the acoustic may be a little more favourable to this instrument. Either way, given the opportunity in the hands of a very skilled and sympathetic player, this instrument is a revelation. Please do not judge it by recordings* alone. I have several recordings, and they are all utterly dreadful: dry to the point of being Saharan, and not one performance giving the instrument one degree of credit that it's due.

 

*They're not all bad. Indeed, perhaps the most successful track on The RAM and Southwark Diocese's CD Grand Chorus is the final one which comes from the RFH in some traditional romantic repertoire - sounding well up to the task. I can't find my copy to check details (I think I've lent it to someone) but offhand I think it was Stanford.

 

The truth is, the evil reputation that this instrument had (at first) was largely down to the shock caused by the combination of raw (unweighted) reeds and over-bright upperwork, much of which was later sorted out by H&H during a cleaning in the 1970s. A player with a discerning ear was aways able to get good, even (occasionally) supremely musical sounds out of it. This in itself is an amazing achievement. In Downes' book he tells the tale of how they took a sample Diapason pipe from the Schulze Great at Armley and stood it on a voicing machine on the RFH stage. Apparently, it cut no ice whatsoever in that hall! Think of it: the loudest Diapason anyone could think of in the whole Uk and it counted for practically nothing. That would be enough of a voicer's nightmare, even if they hadn't had to contend with RD's 'micro-managing' of trial and error methods at the same time!

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