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Tewkesbury Abbey


nachthorn

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I've just spent a hard-working, pretty chilly, but tremendously rewarding weekend accompanying a visiting choir run by a friend, singing the services at Tewkesbury Abbey. I'd heard positive but vague comments about the place, and was bowled over by the building and by the musicality of the 'Milton' organ when I arrived. It's one of those instruments that seems to turn every note into a beautiful sound, aided no doubt by the acoustic, and I found the tracker action to be very light and communicative. The Choir division, in particular, was stunning.

 

It did raise a few questions, though.

 

(1) Why is this instrument not better known and more frequently mentioned in the context of good instruments? Is it just me who found it so good?

 

(2) What is the purpose of the Apse division? I know the history of the organs there, including Stubington's grand plan, but what was the idea behind putting a division in a remote chamber, and what was the rationale behind the tonal plan of the division? It was far too distant for use in Quire services, but had no impact in the Nave (Tuba excepted). It was obviously important enough to be included in the 1997 rebuild though.

 

(3) How did Kenneth Jones manage such a supremely musical rebuild, when - for instance, and in my opinion - Nicholson achieved nothing of the sort in similar circumstances at Christchurch Priory only two years later? I don't think that the quality of tone or the touch of the action are in the least comparable, yet both must have cost similar sums at similar times and were guided by the same consultant. Different buildings, different acoustics, yes I know, but there's no obvious excuse for the disparity. Nicholson have seen plenty of regular work before and since, but Kenneth Jones' work is still rare in Britain.

 

Incidentally, I did spend quite a while gazing longingly across at the 'Grove' organ from the 'Milton' console, but sadly neither time nor circumstances permitted a closer acquaintance with it. Maybe next time...

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Incidentally, I did spend quite a while gazing longingly across at the 'Grove' organ from the 'Milton' console, but sadly neither time nor circumstances permitted a closer acquaintance with it. Maybe next time...

 

Alas, you have been in the silent presence of one of the wonders of the English organ world.

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Is Kenneth Jones still trading? I thought I had read something to the effect that the firm was no more.

 

I encountered his work at Emmanuel College, Cambridge at about the same time as I first encountered Pembroke College. The two instruments were clearly trying to do different jobs, but Emmanuel left a very clear impression on me as an exceptionally fine piece of work in itself, whatever may be thought of the way old material was treated. (But, then again, I thought the Catz organ was an absolute sensation - it was redone by Flentrop not long afterwards - so perhaps I was particularly impressionable.)

 

That positive impression was confirmed when I saw the University Church in Cambridge, which I thought was lovely to play and listen to. There is a chamber/practice organ in Salisbury dating from about 2000 which doesn't quite match up to the expectations set by the earlier work.

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I suspected as much. But what of the 'Milton'?

 

We sat with the great & good at the opening recital and I was very impressed by all I heard at the hands of Nicolas Kynaston.

 

A

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I've just spent a hard-working, pretty chilly, but tremendously rewarding weekend accompanying a visiting choir run by a friend, singing the services at Tewkesbury Abbey. I'd heard positive but vague comments about the place, and was bowled over by the building and by the musicality of the 'Milton' organ when I arrived. It's one of those instruments that seems to turn every note into a beautiful sound, aided no doubt by the acoustic, and I found the tracker action to be very light and communicative. The Choir division, in particular, was stunning.

 

It did raise a few questions, though.

 

(1) Why is this instrument not better known and more frequently mentioned in the context of good instruments? Is it just me who found it so good?

 

(2) What is the purpose of the Apse division? I know the history of the organs there, including Stubington's grand plan, but what was the idea behind putting a division in a remote chamber, and what was the rationale behind the tonal plan of the division? It was far too distant for use in Quire services, but had no impact in the Nave (Tuba excepted). It was obviously important enough to be included in the 1997 rebuild though.

 

(3) How did Kenneth Jones manage such a supremely musical rebuild, when - for instance, and in my opinion - Nicholson achieved nothing of the sort in similar circumstances at Christchurch Priory only two years later? I don't think that the quality of tone or the touch of the action are in the least comparable, yet both must have cost similar sums at similar times and were guided by the same consultant. Different buildings, different acoustics, yes I know, but there's no obvious excuse for the disparity. Nicholson have seen plenty of regular work before and since, but Kenneth Jones' work is still rare in Britain.

 

Incidentally, I did spend quite a while gazing longingly across at the 'Grove' organ from the 'Milton' console, but sadly neither time nor circumstances permitted a closer acquaintance with it. Maybe next time...

I love the Milton too. A superbly musical and physical instrument to play, that really leaves you smiling. I think the Apse divison was well worth preserving. Yes it can be ineffectual on its own (except in echo passages), but can be very effective downstairs when coupled through and with generous use of subs and/or supers. The Solo, too, with its beautiful flutes, strings and medium-loud reeds is extremely useful for adding further colour and breadth to the Great (which sounds somewhat distant at the console), especially in French or German romantic music.

 

I actually find the Choir division a bit of a problem. It is so much more immediate and penetrating from the Nave that it can, in inexperienced hands, make the organ sound like yet another 'dark' Edwardian organ that's been tarted up with glittering cymbals and snarling crumhorns. But used sensitively, the Choir division really helps the organ get out into the building, and is also extremely beautiful it it own right. I could play Handel concerti all day on that division alone!

 

As for its reputation, it does deserve to be more widely appreciated, but it's certainly highly regarded round these parts :)

 

I rather enjoy Christchurch too - but, like many, have never played it from the mechanical console. But it's a very different tonal scheme and generally feels like a much smaller and more 'neo-classical' instrument.

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As for its reputation, it does deserve to be more widely appreciated, but it's certainly highly regarded round these parts :)

 

Hear hear. I really look forward to the Autumn series of recitals at Tewkesbury. The Apse section sounds delicious from the Nave when used as Ian suggests and the effect from there is quite beautiful. The whole organ works perfectly in the splendid acoustic of the Abbey.

 

It's a shame that the Grove isn't used a bit more for recitals as it's a real revelation and speaks much better into the Abbey than its position would suggest. At the short recital given by Carleton Etherington at the launch of a new book on the organs of the Abbey, during which he played all three instruments, the Grove sounded exceptional from the Quire. Perhaps it may be used at the lunchtime set later this year? {Please...}

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It's a shame that the Grove isn't used a bit more for recitals as it's a real revelation and speaks much better into the Abbey than its position would suggest. At the short recital given by Carleton Etherington at the launch of a new book on the organs of the Abbey, during which he played all three instruments, the Grove sounded exceptional from the Quire. Perhaps it may be used at the lunchtime set later this year? {Please...}

 

I was there and can honestly say that hearing the Grove and the Kenneth Jones side by side, so to speak, it was a revelatory experience and confirmed my impressions of both. A downside in playing the Grove I believe, is the proximity to a bookstall! This makes for difficult rehearsal for a concert?

Best wishes,

N

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I rather enjoy Christchurch too - but, like many, have never played it from the mechanical console. But it's a very different tonal scheme and generally feels like a much smaller and more 'neo-classical' instrument.

I have played the organ of Christchurch Priory on many occasions - but I was surprised to read your description of neo-Classical, Ian!

 

It is certainly a different tonal scheme than Tewkesbury, which I have also played (before and after its reconstruction). At Christchurch, although it is better than it was immediately following the rebuild in 1999, there are still a number of points on which organists may disagree. The Choir Organ, in particular, does not seem to know what it wants to be; therefore its usefulness is somewhat restricted. I suspect that Nocholson's were partly constrained by the wish to use much of the old Willis and Cummings pipework. At sixty one stops as against sixty seven they are of a similar size. However, one of the areas in which Christchurch is deficient is in a good selection of quiet 8ft. and 4ft. ranks - and under expression (only most of the Swell Organ is enclosed). Instead, Christchurch has a Nave division (which is actually a Bombarde), containing the Grant, Degens and Rippin chorus (formerly part of the twenty one stop G.O.), with its blistering five-rank Mixture * and the old Tuba and its octave extension. These stops have since been augmented by a Posaune rank, playable at 16ft. and 8ft, pitch - which, together with the rebalancing of the old Tubas, the re-loudening of the Mixture (see footnote) and the rest of the chorus, has gone a good way to solving the acute shortage of powere that was extremely obvious in the opening recital and subsequent early concerts. This division has latterly (2006) been joined by a most useful Harmonic Flute 8ft.

 

The organ, as it now stands, is considerably improved. I am not sure that you would like the loft console, Ian. The last time I played this, I fould the action to be rather heavier than either Chichester or Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. In addition, there are some stops which are not available on this console. As it was, Nicholson's had to exercise some ingenuity in order to accommodate the additional stopheads on the rather squat Nave console.

 

 

 

* This was altered at the rebuild, but has subsequently been restored to something like its original effect.

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I believe Kenneth Jones has retired.

 

I haven't been to Tewkesbury and can offer no judgment of the organ. However, some things put me off this and Kenneth Jones organs in general:

 

1) A reputation (deserved or otherwise) for mechanical unreliability. A close friend of mine had one of the worst experiences of his career playing a recital on his organ near Edinburgh for the entire school in which it is housed (I think there was an audience of over 500 and a big screen downstairs). The organ ciphered dramatically in the middle of the Franck 3rd Choral...

I have many similar accounts from elsewhere. Once again, I offer no judgment.

 

2) The subcontracted nature of much of his instruments (the new metal pipework at Tewkesbury is by Stinkens).

 

3) The part electric, part mechanical action. As if the mechanical portions were just to satisfy the conscience of the organist...?

 

4) My one experience of playing a KJ organ - the organ already mentioned in Cambridge which I found dreadfully dull (albeit hampered by its chamber and by the dry acoustics of the room).

 

5) The presence of the Grove organ (which could have been on my 'want to play' list yesterday...)

 

However, I would be interested to hear the Milton live and would do so with open ears!

 

Bazuin

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I have a big problem when listening in the building to this organ that strangely I do not have in other places. I can not reconcile the sound I hear with the case I see. An old case and a modern(ish) reedy sound.

 

I also think it a pity that an opportunity was missed to be really bold and restore the colours and finishes of the cases, something I gather Jones was keen to do. Having seen a photographic exhibition at Tewkesbury showing what was uncovered of the original case colours the black case now seems somewhat dull (even if full of the marvellous embosed Dallam pipes).

 

Was it not the organ Jones built for Rugby that caused his later demise?

(I think Kenneth Jones was a very talented modern organ case designer who managed to come up with some very original designs. I did not like them all but that does not stop me admiring his work).

PJW

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I can not reconcile the sound I hear with the case I see.

PJW

 

This makes my heart leap for joy when I read this. I realize of course that the Case/Buffet remains and the insides that provide the sound, are renewed or rebuilt to suit the taste of the time. But had there been a movement as found in some other countries, I feel that this would have been a tremendous opportunity to have used scholarship to recreate an organ from past times to play (in a superlative acoustic) all of our glorious repertoire from the same times. Mincing around on positives gives no impression of the grandeur of the works of late Elizabethan and Jacobean times. This Abbey already had a Romantic organ of extraordinary stature. This is just one of those places that something did not need to be a compromise. The Chair case (we are reliably informed) exists. What a moment to recast the ensemble with a new copy of it. The Abbey would be a Mecca for players/scholars/students/pedagogues alike. But perhaps all this occurred not quite at the right time for our thinking to create something to happen along those lines. I know many would raise hands in horror and shriek. I suppose I would myself once upon a time before I had moved around the world and found how sadly lacking we are in the UK to provide instruments to promote our very own music.

The Grove organ needs in my estimation, to be raised to the higher level (I believe one of the solutions/arguments used before when the West End position was being considered). I believe that a higher position would bring even greater wonders of sound into the building. I know that I am not alone in thinking this. No instrument in the building (other than the distant newer portions away from the cases) was designed for there - I think. Nevertheless it is more than fortuitous that things have worked out so well. Organ transplants are not often the happiest of operations. Tewkesbury have been extremely fortunate with their donations. But hearing two organs with swells and solos and tubas in the same place, one cannot help but compare them. Human nature, isn't it?

After visiting Tewkesbury for that concert and launch of the Organ Guide I began to seriously think what other places there are where old cases exist. I then realized that I have two in my very own Diocese and fancifully tried in my mind to create a project and bring them together again. The two cases are from St John's College Chapel, Cambridge (before the Scott chapel). The Chair case is sumptuous and in a redundant building believe it or not! The big case houses a mid-Victorian instrument in a sensational Bodley-designed interior and they are by chance, only 3 miles apart! But at Tewkesbury, I firmly believe that they could have embraced the best of two British organ worlds with the instrument/case that they possess.

Here endeth the ramble. But I still dream of my mean-tunings by the Severn as I do of the Dallam by the Cam.

 

Best wishes,

N

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I fully agree with Nigell.

 

-How much english baroque organs still exist -untouched I mean- in the UK ?

 

-The William Thynne organ deserves a better position (I visted it, but halas

it could not be heard then in 1978). For acoustic reasons, of course, but for

another one yet: last year, it nearly played "Am Wasseflüssen Babylon" alone,

a Choral that could have been *final*!

 

Pierre

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I fully agree with Nigell.

 

-How much english baroque organs still exist -untouched I mean- in the UK ?

 

-The William Thynne organ deserves a better position

 

Pierre

 

Actually, the sound from there into the Nave is quite marvellous - beyond all expectations. Certainly when you see it you think that it is buried - but the sound reaches the Nave wonderfully and is much more forceful than the Kenneth Jones (well it was where I sat). If it was raised to a proper height it would be arguably the finest sound in a church that we possess in the UK - giving Armley a run for its money, most certainly. It just oozes personality and panache.

All the best,

N

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...Some things put me off this and Kenneth Jones organs in general:

 

1) A reputation (deserved or otherwise) for mechanical unreliability. A close friend of mine had one of the worst experiences of his career playing a recital on his organ near Edinburgh for the entire school in which it is housed (I think there was an audience of over 500 and a big screen downstairs). The organ ciphered dramatically in the middle of the Franck 3rd Choral...

I have many similar accounts from elsewhere. Once again, I offer no judgment.

 

2) The subcontracted nature of much of his instruments (the new metal pipework at Tewkesbury is by Stinkens).

 

3) The part electric, part mechanical action. As if the mechanical portions were just to satisfy the conscience of the organist...?

 

1) There are many far worse offenders with packed order books, despite the 40 year trail of devastation in their wake!

 

2) Absolutely nothing unusual. Drake and Tickell, for two, use a well-known UK pipe house. The cost of new instruments if every organbuilder of every size is expected to train and retain a team of pipemakers would be extraordinary.

 

3) Is this not partially or all to do with the skewed ways in which heritage funding is given - and, if not, to do with the consultant? The vast majority of the instrument is mechanical and that must be of some benefit.

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1) There are many far worse offenders with packed order books, despite the 40 year trail of devastation in their wake!

 

2) Absolutely nothing unusual. Drake and Tickell, for two, use a well-known UK pipe house. The cost of new instruments if every organbuilder of every size is expected to train and retain a team of pipemakers would be extraordinary.

 

3) Is this not partially or all to do with the skewed ways in which heritage funding is given - and, if not, to do with the consultant? The vast majority of the instrument is mechanical and that must be of some benefit.

 

 

I fully agree. I've played, heard in the building, been inside including the Apse and heard four fantastic recordings of the Milton organ - it kind of helps a bit when you know the organ tuner!!

 

1. I can also think of top UK firms who have produced less successful "musical" instruments. I do remember the Milton being a little on the tight inside, but I'm a tall person anyway.

 

2. Stinkens pipes have been used very much by Nicholsons in the 60's and 70's and there are some fantastic independent pipe makers now in the UK. However I don't agree 100% about the "cost of new instruments if every organbuilder of every size is expected to train and retain a team of pipemakers". It was once the norm in the UK for everything to me made in house. They certainly do it in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

 

3. Nobody has mentioned the little Elliot organ that has just recently been restored. I helped out a bit with that. I think it lives on the south side behind the Milton organ.

 

4. I urge people to obtain recordings of the Abbey organs from Priory, Regent, Hyperion, VIF and Cantoris Records - if that recording is still around!

 

JT

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It was once the norm in the UK for everything to me made in house. They certainly do it in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

 

JT

 

No they don't!

 

The situation there is exactly the same as here: the larger Houses will make some, possibly the larger part, of their own pipes and buy other stuff in; many of the others will have their own metalhand who is capable of making an occasional stop and doing excellent repairs.

 

There are more independent pipemakers in each of those countries than there are in the UK.

 

DW

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I fully agree. I've played, heard in the building, been inside including the Apse and heard four fantastic recordings of the Milton organ - it kind of helps a bit when you know the organ tuner!!

 

3. Nobody has mentioned the little Elliot organ that has just recently been restored. I helped out a bit with that. I think it lives on the south side behind the Milton organ.

 

JT

 

Don't get me wrong - the Jones is a most fine instrument. Musical too, as you say. The difficulty (for me) is that there is another instrument of considerable size and stature close by which plays the Romantic literature. I meant to mention the Elliot in an earlier post and had it in my mind when saying that Tewkesbury needed not a compromise instrument perhaps, when I suggested making a scholarly reconstruction of the Magdalen organ. (I prefer that name to Milton). Of course in England that would never have happened, but please let me have a dream or two in old age as I do with King's College.

Best wishes,

N

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... 4. I urge people to obtain recordings of the Abbey organs from Priory, Regent, Hyperion, VIF and Cantoris Records - if that recording is still around!

 

JT

 

I shall investigate this possiblilty.

 

I did play the Milton organ after the rebuild by Kenneth Jones, and thought that it was quite pleasant; however, I also liked the former instrument too.

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"The situation there is exactly the same as here: the larger Houses will make some, possibly the larger part, of their own pipes and buy other stuff in; many of the others will have their own metalhand who is capable of making an occasional stop and doing excellent repairs."

 

Indeed. As a rule of thumb can we at least agree that the best organ builders in Europe and America make their own metal pipes and that really first-rate organs with sub-contracted metal pipes are the exception? In Holland, all the better organ builders make all their own metal pipes.

 

Bazuin

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... Of course in England that would never have happened, but please let me have a dream or two in old age as I do with King's College.

Best wishes,

N

This is interesting. There have been many rumours regarding possible fates for this organ (one which even prompted a well-known London organ builder to write to the editor of Organists' Review). However, as far as I am aware, these are just that - rumours.

 

Would you be happy to share any thoughts on your dreams regarding this instrument please, Nigel?

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