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David Coram

E.j. Johnson & Sons

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I have come across several times the name E.J. Johnson on console plaques. Every time, the instrument has been virtually perfect. And yet, in conversation, few seem to have heard of this firm. I am thinking particularly of the stunning instrument at St Catherine's College, Cambridge; also Malmesbury Abbey and a whole string of very distinguished single-manual continuo instruments. Has anyone else played one of their instruments and got any comments?

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Guest Barry Oakley
I have come across several times the name E.J. Johnson on console plaques.  Every time, the instrument has been virtually perfect.  And yet, in conversation, few seem to have heard of this firm.  I am thinking particularly of the stunning instrument at St Catherine's College, Cambridge; also Malmesbury Abbey and a whole string of very distinguished single-manual continuo instruments.  Has anyone else played one of their instruments and got any comments?

 

E J Johnson are a company of organ builders based in Norwich. I believe they were originally based in Cambridge.

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E J Johnson are a company of organ builders based in Norwich. I believe they were originally based in Cambridge.

 

Interesting - didn't know they still existed - everything I have seen has been Cambridge, c. 1965-1980

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Interesting - didn't know they still existed - everything I have seen has been Cambridge, c. 1965-1980

 

Hi

 

Johnsons did indeed used to be based in Cambridge, but moved out a few years ago. I think I've heard that the proprietor is now semi-retired.

 

I have played a couple of organs worked on by them - St. Clement, Cambridge (NPOR D02721) is pretty "off the wall". A much-rebuilt Chancel organ in the church where Bill Johnson (son of the firm's founder - if my info is correct) is (was?) organist. A single manual with such delights(?) as a Groos Tierce whitch, along with several other stops, is not what is shown on the stop knobs. With careful registration, the sound is quite pleasant.

 

More conventional is their rebuild of the c.1875 Miller just up the road in St. Giles (NPOR A00673).

 

The firm was still in business in a small way when I left Cambridge 3 years ago - but most "ordinary" work in the city was by then in the hands of Charles Hall.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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I have to say that when I heard St Catherine's Cambrige, both fairly regularly as a student and at the ICO in the late '80's, that was a remarkable organ. Much overlooked. However the one in Sidney Sussex that I played almost every day for 3 years was not so good (and may be replaced shortly).

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I have come across several times the name E.J. Johnson on console plaques.  Every time, the instrument has been virtually perfect.  And yet, in conversation, few seem to have heard of this firm.  I am thinking particularly of the stunning instrument at St Catherine's College, Cambridge; also Malmesbury Abbey and a whole string of very distinguished single-manual continuo instruments.  Has anyone else played one of their instruments and got any comments?

 

I played their organ at Churchill College in the 1970's. It wasn't the world's greatest instrument. The cornet was exceptionally aggressive and unmusical: it might have mellowed in a much larger building, but was painful in the small, resonant chapel at Churchill

 

The organ at St Catherine's college was last worked on by Flentrop in 2002. Johnson carried on some work on the instrument in 2000, but it was done against the advice of the director of music, who resigned his fellowship over the issue. The present very beautiful instrument owes far more to Flentrop than to Johnson.

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Some time ago (at least 10 years) I went to a recital at Malmesbury Abbey by a distinguished cathedral organist from the North East - the tuning was ghastly and there was a constant sound of wind escaping and general 'runnings'. I felt very sorry for the player in question and wondered quite how the instrument had got into such a state. I am not sure what it is like at present however. The stop list (at least on paper) is quite impressive for a 2 man. - 32' reed - lots of colour, tracker action etc. I think it was designed by the late Dudley Holroyd when he was at Bath Abbey.

 

AJJ

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I played their organ at Churchill College in the 1970's.  It wasn't the world's greatest instrument.  The cornet was exceptionally aggressive and unmusical: it might have mellowed in a much larger building, but was painful in the small, resonant chapel at Churchill

 

The organ at St Catherine's college was last worked on by Flentrop in 2002.  Johnson carried on some work on the instrument in 2000, but it was done against the advice of the director of music, who resigned his fellowship over the issue.  The present very beautiful instrument owes far more to Flentrop than to Johnson.

 

I last played Catz pre-2000 and I think, at the time, it was probably one of the most outstandingly vibrant and alive instruments I had ever come across. Seems like the others and the more recent work has been a mixed bag, though - was disappointed to read AJ's comments about Malmesbury - probably 15 years since I saw that, and at the time it was not too bad. It makes you wonder what the pressures were, or what changed - to suddenly go from really good stuff to mediocre - but hey...

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk

To join in with the moans above, I wasn't terribly impressed with Malmesbury either. Mind you, it doesn't help when everyone within a distance of twenty miles in every direction has been told that it's the finest organ ever built. I found the action heavy and pretty unsensitive, which is the main reason for having tracker action at all. The wind supply also seemed a bit dodgy, but this seems very common these days. Thinks: It might be a worthwhile new topic to exchange opinions on winding systems and the efficacy (or otherwise) of some modern installations.

 

To balance this critique: Very much in Johnson's favour, however, is the voicing of the rebuilt Milton Organ at Tewkesbury Abbey. I am open to correction of course, but I think that Bill Johnson voiced most of the new stuff there working under sub-contract for Kenneth Jones. There was quite a lot of new stuff to voice too - all the Choir, much of the Swell fluework and several extra ranks around the rest of the job which had to be blended in alongside a very strange and exotic collections of earlier stuff. All of the resulting choruses pull their weight beautifully now.

 

My only cavil about that scheme - based on hindsight, of course, is that there really ought to be a stronger 16' pedal reed available. The present one underpins but cannot 'stride out' - if you see what I mean.

 

There is much to say in the rebuilt Milton's favour - in particular so little of the ravishing softer colours had to be sacrificed, which was a real relief to those of us who loved the previous instrument.

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Some time ago (at least 10 years) I went to a recital at Malmesbury Abbey ...  The stop list (at least on paper) is quite impressive for a 2 man. - 32' reed - lots of colour, tracker action etc. I think it was designed by the late Dudley Holroyd when he was at Bath Abbey.

 

AJJ

 

I thought they (Johnston's) went under doing Selwyn. Then Collins picked up the pieces. Now gone. I thought it was Peter Le H from St Catherine's who designed Malmesbury. He played a concert for BBC3 just after it was built.

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
I thought they (Johnston's) went under doing Selwyn. Then Collins picked up the pieces. Now gone.  I thought it was Peter Le H from St Catherine's who designed Malmesbury. He played a concert for BBC3 just after it was built.

 

 

Have met another E.J.Johnson just today - the choir organ at St.James, Grimsby*.

 

Simple answer to this topic question - one of the greats? No, not really.

 

At best, this effort* is pretty standard/mediocre. Probably the best that could have been achieved, but a fine musical instrument? No.

That's got to be a pretty fair definition of a great organ-builder - he/she builds fine (or better) musical instruments.

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