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Whither The British Organ In The 21st Century?


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ouch

 

this may be about to go zooming off topic...

 

please, please, keep it on...

 

=======================

 

 

This IS topical, and relates directly to organ-design.

 

Look at the REASON for the great changes in the design of organs geenrally throughout history, and they occured because there was a musical demand. That stated, Cavaille-Coll did things HIS way, and the composers caught up with him eventually.....a unique event in organ history, if ever there was one!

 

The great German (and neighbouring countries) Baroque organ evolved from the concerted-style, the French Baroque from the florid stylists of that country, the refined 18th century English sound fulfilling the needs of accompaniment. Then came the congregational "war-horses" and the great transcription instruments, the fabulously exotic German romantic instruments which suited Wagner and Reger so perfectly, and then, out of the Dolmesch-school and the Organ Reform Movement, the desire to re-create the baroque.

 

Without NEW music, or at least a new musical historical quest, the organ will remain static, which makes MUSIC the most important factor in organ-design.

 

Back on topic?

 

MM

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Look at the REASON for the great changes in the design of organs geenrally throughout history, and they occured because there was a musical demand. That stated, Cavaille-Coll did things HIS way, and the composers caught up with him eventually.....a unique event in organ history, if ever there was one!

I could not agree more. What we need more of today is organ builders with the courage of their convictions to produce honest instruments that do not even begin to attempt to be all things to all men. Where are the instruments being produced today where, with some certainty just using your ears you can say who built the organ? I doubt you would need more than the fingers on one hand to count them.

 

Which is why I believe the unveiling of Kenneth Tickell's Worcester Cathedral organ in 2008 will be a watershed moment for UK organ building. We have all been criticising the recent trend of awarding major new builds in this country to overseas builders. Worcester could well tell us whether this has been such a misguided trend by the much maligned consultants (we all know who they are...).

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Personally I quite agree with you, but I frequently get the feeling that I'm in a minority these days. But I'm sure that a lot of it is because of the paucity of first class organ repertoire of any period. Not a total lack, to be sure, but we do do poorly compared to many orchestral instruments. Even much of Bach's organ music compares poorly to things like the cantatas and orchestral suites. The best organ music is often by people unkown to the mainstream musical public. It's difficult enough to get them interested in organ recitals. When they do turn up they like transcriptions (OK, it's because they don't know any better - which is a pity, but there you go.)

 

Sorry if I'm off topic, but I don't really think I am. Organ design that doesn't take account of what the organ-loving society wants from it is going to end up in a cul-de-sac. All IMHO, of course.

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Oh please - let's not go back to the sixties and seventies when we had pompous experts tell us what we could and could not have and we got lumbered with a lot of really useless instruments (and a few good ones as well - OK I admit).

 

Organs in English churches are there to (a) accompany hymns (:angry: accompany the choir - if there still is one © make spiritually uplifiting liturgical sound effects (don't knock it - it works) and (d) maybe play some organ music that nobody much will listen to unless you're really lucky - not necessarily in that order.

 

So please can we have the humilty to relearn how to make those totally effective Hill/Willis/Harrison/Nicholson/Walker/Gray and Davison etc instruments that did (and still do) the job so superbly well. 14 stops is plenty if the siting is right.

 

I think it's been going in the right direction of late and our English builders certainly have mastered how to make superb actions of all types.

 

I'm not interested in fancy or progressive instruments - being clever is not necessary. Being good and effective and fit for purpose is.

 

Stewart Taylor

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This always feels a bit tart to me, but Quality is the overriding concern. Often it's not the design or the style of the organ that determines whether it's a success but how well it's carried out. I'll quite happily live with anything so long as it works well and appreciate it for its qualities.

 

However, I'm concerned about the lack of artistic direction in the trade right now. WE seem to have a bit of everything - from the Drakes and Aubertins, through to the big boys like Mander & H&H, the likes of Nicholson, Walker etc - and also the FH Brownes, Matthew Copleys and Percy Daniels. In some ways we're just recovering from the intense objective direction of the 60s and 70s. It just seems to me people are still finding their feet in an uncertain market place and we're beginning to open up our ears to sound and hands to touch as much as our eyes to design again.

 

There's still an uneasy compromise between those that look as an organ almost like a tool for the liturgy or for the concert hall, wanting items to be added to it rather like a new appliance in their kitchen and those that look as organs as items in their own right - that that's the way it is and it would be a traversty to alter it.

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This always feels a bit tart to me, but Quality is the overriding concern. Often it's not the design or the style of the organ that determines whether it's a success but how well it's carried out. I'll quite happily live with anything so long as it works well and appreciate it for its qualities.

 

However, I'm concerned about the lack of artistic direction in the trade right now. WE seem to have a bit of everything - from the Drakes and Aubertins, through to the big boys like Mander & H&H, the likes of Nicholson, Walker etc - and also the FH Brownes, Matthew Copleys and Percy Daniels. In some ways we're just recovering from the intense objective direction of the 60s and 70s. It just seems to me people are still finding their feet in an uncertain market place and we're beginning to open up our ears to sound and hands to touch as much as our eyes to design again.

 

There's still an uneasy compromise between those that look as an organ almost like a tool for the liturgy or for the concert hall, wanting items to be added to it rather like a new appliance in their kitchen and those that look as organs as items in their own right - that that's the way it is and it would be a traversty to alter it.

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You're absolutely right here. The truth, I suspect, is that our builders are just not building enough instruments to fine-tune what is, after all, a very empirical process. Anyone who has had the privilege of being involved with a good organ builder in the fascinating business of starting from scratch, even if it's only one stop, will rapidly realise how incredibly complicated and touchy the whole business of creating sound from organ pipes actually is. I think they've now completely mastered the mechanics of actions and winding in a way that the Victorians (surprisingly) never did, but the creation of a cohesive tonal scheme that works in a particular acoustic is very hit-and-miss - and that's if you don't have clients/advisers/architects who know nothing and do everything to mess up the final result.

 

I've played many tremendous Victorian organs that have worked really well in the context of today's parish church services and today's very different ideas about registration and articulation. We use them differently now, but they rise to the challenge. What they all have in common is that they were knocked up month after month out of standard ranks of pipework that the factory was turning out by the hundred every month. Practice makes perfect.

 

In another field, the Steinway piano has reached the peak of perfection (if you like that sort of thing, which I do) that it currently occupies because they've been at it for so many years and built so many pianos.

 

If I had one suggestion for where we are right now, I'd say please let the organ builders get on with it and stop interfering. The more we push them this way and that the less chance they get to perfect one particular house style. I think we'd get a better result if gave them more space.

 

Stewart Taylor

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
I've heard it said more than once that the biggest problem with organs today is that there are so few people around who know how to voice pipes really artistically. Could there be anything in this?

 

 

I don't think so. Voicing skills are always going to be rare (in particular, the patience required to get real regularity) but we do have these people. I rate voicers especially on their ability to match existing work - this is the skill that appeared to be lost about twenty years ago. Top of my UK reed voicers list would be (in no particular order) Peter Hopps at H&H, David Frostick and Keith Bance (the last two of these free-lance quite a bit).

I would rate these well up there in the world. Our buildings (and tastes) do not easily accept coarseness in reed voicing so the ability to produce even power without rough edges (when required) is a rare skill.

 

Much more to the point, organ designers and players seem to expect inadequate sepcifications to do everything. A low wind-pressure that makes flutes and principals sing, often leaves the organbuilder having to settle for considerably less than the best results with reeds. One recurring problem: the finest voicing in the world won't make up for trying to make a cramped/restricted size of swell box give H&H or Father Willis results. Quarter-length basses may have stability in tuning (if you're lucky) but they can't compare for tone with full length ones.

 

I can't resist citing a classic case: The Walker at St.Martin-in-the-Fields with pipework scales and specific instructions given to them by the designer, Dame G.W.

Allegedly, Walkers were told to put a full length 16' reed in a box not more than 6' high. As with all reed pipes, the first 12 inches or so is taken up with just the boot of the pipe, so (following orders) the St.M's 16' resonators would have to have been wound round and round like French Horns!!

 

Walkers are perfectly capable of excellent new work when allowed to follow a reasonable scheme and their own best judgement - try St.Chad's Birmingham, for example! This very fine (and completely new) instrument was designed by Nicholas Kynaston and David Saint together (I think).

 

We seem to want it all ways - natty little designer cases (often very beautiful) with whacking great-scaled pipework and, of course, a swell box (and tuning access) magically hidden inside - Tardis style. We expect to get gorgeous little flutes and principals but can't settle for anything less than full rich reeds. If we could only realise that there is often a compromise that has to be made we would enjoy new organs more!

 

For seven years I was organist of a strictly neo-Baroque Dutch organ (c.1980). It looked fabulous, was beautifully made (never any faults) and the majority of the pipework sounded very fine indeed. It had flexible winding from a wedge bellows and non-equal temperament tuning. Everything the baroque fancier could wish for.... except....

the console was extremely uncomfortable, achieving a new low in ergonomics, and the reeds would stay in tune for 30 minutes if you were lucky.

 

Some people would describe it as a treasure, others as a waste of money or (if casually used) an ugly sound. The question was always, did you approach it on its own territory?

 

Now....The (smaller and cheaper) Kenneth Tickell organ at St.Anselm's Dartford can do everything my Dutch job could do, and looks as good...but it has a little swellbox (pretty effective one, too) to make accompaniment more flexible and is comfortable to play. Do our builders know what they're doing? - emphatically YES.

 

In England we have a long tradition of wanting to play everyone else's music. We don't pick up English works very often, but all our young stars want to play Widor, Vierne, Messiaen and Reger. All these composers (please note) wrote for higher than present taste wind-pressures and vast great instruments with assisted actions. Of course, nobody would risk funds building an organ like that now!!

 

Thank goodness that the worm is slowly beginning to turn. Recent examples of rebuilt big organs have resulted in more cohesive, more consistent schemes. We won't be getting large essays in new romantic organs, but at least the ones we have seem to be more appreciated than they were. Hopefully, gone are the days when the Council for the Care of Churches could take a PCC and their organist to Consistory Court to back up the Diocesan Organs Adviser who wanted the whole of a large (unique) romantic organ thrown out - this happened at Bridlington Priory 1966. Fortunately, the PCC won!

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Thanks for your comments on that, Paul. I hope I didn't give the impression that we have no good voicers. Clearly the big names have no problems in this area and I know of at least one other firm that has their pipes voiced by someone outside the firm. I was thinking rather of some small firms who I have strongly suspected of trying to do the job themselves without posessing any artistic expertise therein. One such has recently gone out of business and, having endured quite a few examples of their rebuilds when I lived in their area (all of which spoke with a characteristic shriek), I can't bring myself to mourn for them. I don't really know whether this is a widespread problem, but it did ring bells when I heard the comments I mentioned about the rarity of voicers. But maybe I put two and two together and made five.

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Hopefully, gone are the days when the Council for the Care of Churches could take a PCC and their organist to Consistory Court to back up the Diocesan Organs Adviser who wanted the whole of a large (unique) romantic organ thrown out - this happened at Bridlington Priory 1966. Fortunately, the PCC won!

 

===================

 

 

I'm not sure that there were any winners!

 

I feel sure that the work Laycock & Bannister did at the time was well intentioned, and they didn't skimp on the quality of the mechanical work done, but tonally, the new material stood out like a sore ear (It couldn't be a thumb, could it?)

 

Frank Bannister didn't have much idea about anything tonally.

 

Due to the merciful release of toxic elements from the heating-system, Dennis Thurlow (who took over Laycock & Bannister) was able to improve things in the subsequent partial re-build, but back in 1966, the organ was a bit of a pig's ear tonally; though capable of many fine sounds if used with care.

 

I seem to recall that a certain Mr.Brown (as consultant or advisor) and a very wealthy widow were instrumental in having the work at Bridlington done back in the 1960's.

 

MM

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk

Sorry MM didn't like Bridlington as it was. He will probably like it more in its competely rebuilt and redeveloped state. I can't wait to hear it and I knew its earlier incarnation reasonably well.

 

The point I was trying to make is this:

just because our 'experts' and 'advisers' don't like an organ, or it is not in fashion, this is no reason to let it go - more a reason to keep it unchanged! These things are irreplaceable. Even if were a relatively poor musical instrument (which it isn't) it represents one of the biggest instruments ever imported into this country and its very rarity makes it an essential part of our heritage.

 

The Bridlington Aneessens has got to be worth bringing up in this context. We were speaking about where the English organ goes - I would say that we still have a lot to learn. Imports and organs of non-native style are an excellent place to look. Just so long as we remember that our organs already do pretty well in an enormous range of repertoire.

 

Our big romantic beasts are a match for any in the world and you will find that your seasoned travellers from elsewhere will agree with this assessment. They do not come here to sample our Klais, Reiger and Marcussen jobs - they probably know better ones back home! By contrast, they are often fascinated by what our builders (especially in the late 19th century) really know/knew how to do - their target being rather different from ours, viz. the creation of expressive colour, richness and variety.

 

I

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"Our big romantic beasts are a match for any in the world "

 

(Quote)

 

Not only is this true, but they should help us abroad to enrich our

organ culture in new, experimental organs.

There are many features in these "beasts" that do simply not exist

elsewhere.

Take for example that Southampton Willis III built apparently with

bits from two older organs.

We are even not with the masterpieces like Hereford or W(censured)r

or St-Paul London here, just an excellent example of something good

we do not have.

A french builder on my forum noticed there are seven different reed pipe

construction in this organ, while in a french one of that size you'll never

find more than four! and of course all of the "free toned", open shallot

kind.

After having experimented with uneven mutations ranks for about five

decades we could try to build reed stops with german, french and english

shallots and voicing; for example have Trombas on the great, Trompettes

on the Grand-choeur (which would crown over the darker Trombas), Trompettes

harmoniques on the Swell, and try again that german "Helle Trompete" belgian builders of the begining 19th century had named "Trompette céleste" on the choir

(not a celeste of course, just a small-scaled Trumpet with german shallots).

There is also the Willis type, and, and, and. Countless combinations are imaginable in a kind of synthesis that would be made from contemporary elements, so far away from the "all-purpose repertoire-machine" old chimeric idea.

Of course such experiments should, better said: must, be made in new projects and never in an existing organ.

 

Best wishes,

Pierre

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After having experimented with uneven mutations ranks for about five

decades we could try to build reed stops with german, french and english

shallots and voicing; for example have Trombas on the great, Trompettes

on the Grand-choeur (which would crown over the darker Trombas), Trompettes

harmoniques on the Swell, and try again that german "Helle Trompete" belgian builders of the begining 19th century had named "Trompette céleste" on the choir

(not a celeste of course, just a small-scaled Trumpet with german shallots).

We have certainly tried that over here, back in the days of the "eclectic" organ. To take one example I used to know rather well 30-odd years ago, St George's Windsor had English Trumpets on the Great and French ones on the Swell (where the mixture was also effectively a French Plein Jeu; it was splendid with the reeds but hopeless with the flues). The Solo Orchestral Trumpet was English, but the accompanying Clarion had French shallots. The Chair Organ (not so called) had a parpy little Trompette that was meant to be I don't know what (English? Cliquot perhaps?) and the Positive a fairly vicious Baroque Krummhorn. The Pedal had an extended, French-style Trombone chorus, and a Baroquish Fagotto rank at 16' and 8', plus a Schalmei and a Kornet 2'. I use the past tense, but I doubt that much has changed. Most of it worked brilliantly, especially the synthesis of the French and English reeds. In fact, the whole organ was a triumph of design. The layout of the stop jambs was particularly clever: you could draw almost any combination you wanted with just one fistful, whether it was the Great diapason chorus, the Gt flute chorus 8', 4', 2', the Pedal Baroque reeds, etc, etc. With just 72 stops there was nothing you couldn't play with some approximation of the required tone colour - even that Messiaen piece from Les Corps Glorieux that requires Cornets on three manuals (though you had to pretend a bit with the Choir Sesquialtera). The only completely redundant stop on the organ was the Great to Pedal coupler - I'd have traded it in for an italian-style undulating Principal.

 

Such organs are very much out of favour today, however, since they are seen to lack integrity as a unified instrument. I'd have to admit that you can level that criticism at St George's, but the bottom line is: in practice, the organ works! Unfortunately it sounds far, far better in the loft than it does down below.

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I note the french-english reeds synthesis worked; this said, I did not speak of any

baroque element. My synthesis idea remains strictly in the romantic style.

A synthesis done with baroque and romantic elements gives a neo-classic organ,

perfect for Messiean and Duruflé, but nor baroque nor romantic repertoire,

as demonstrated in Europe since sixty years.

This said, it would be interesting to know more about the organ you describe.

Do you have some links?

 

Ist it this one:

 

http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/today/tod_organ.asp

 

Best wishes,

Pierre.

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Sorry MM didn't like Bridlington as it was. He will probably like it more in its competely rebuilt and redeveloped state. I can't wait to hear it and I knew its earlier incarnation reasonably well.

 

====================

 

 

I didn't say I disliked the organ at Bridlingtom Priory: far from it. Actually, the organ had some of my work in it, so I may have been a little biased!

 

I merely implied that the new and old didn't go together terribly well, and in any event, the organ had been altered by John Compton from the original.

 

It is one of those remarkable instruments, and possibly the ONLY substantial Anneesens organ left in the UK, which should never have been tampered with tonally, even if it would have naturally disintegrated as all the organs did from this particular firm.

 

I look forward to the re-build, but I fear that a true restoration would now be almost impossible. Having known and played two now destroyed instruments by the Belgian company, I know that they had a fine sound with some interesting colours. Sadly, the quality of the workmanship was utterly dreadful, whatever the tonal merits.

 

MM

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If you want to have Brindlington bacl to something reasonnably original,

here is the Annessens's successor Website:

 

http://www.andriessenorgelbouw.be/

 

As for the "dreadfull quality", see Ieper Cathedral. Only a handfull of builders

today could do as well as this one.

 

Best wishes,

Pierre

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
I look forward to the re-build, but I fear that a true restoration would now be almost impossible. Having known and played two now destroyed instruments by the Belgian company, I know that they had a fine sound with some interesting colours. Sadly, the quality of the workmanship was utterly dreadful, whatever the tonal merits.

 

MM

 

 

I accept that their actions were not particularly robust, but there's little wrong with their pipes - apart from (maybe) the difficulty of adjusting the free reeds.

We could still put the longevity of this original action up against, for instance the Schulze at Doncaster, any of the Hope Jones jobs and a large number of 70/80s UK tracker jobs etc. etc. I seem to hear each week of yet another organ that's had to have a new tracker action - this is a bit ironic since the sales line was always that tracker jobs go on for ever!

 

If one forgets the underactions for a moment, the Aneessens soundboards themselves lasted through all the rebuilds right up until last year, you know! There had been a certain amount of warping - but then they were enormously long (The Choir and Great shared a soundboard and it was over 15 feet long - very unusual in this country). Don't forget another factor: our modern standards (and speeds) of church heating are

1. a thing unknown in the 19th century

2. positively harmful to solid timber.

 

It has been said (unkindly, even if maybe with some truth) that these organs were imported because they were cheap. Well, even if the actions did not necessarily give what the customers might have hoped for (long term) tonally these instruments were a 'wow'. Like MM, I would love to have heard one Aneessens organ unaltered, but that doesn't undermine the case for keeping and continuing to use what remains.

 

Thankyou Pierre for your invitation to try some in Belgium. I'm afraid, time to venture out and away is harder to come by than time sitting typing silly comments to strangers from the comfort and convenience of a warm home!

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I accept that their actions were not particularly robust, but there's little wrong with their pipes - apart from (maybe) the difficulty of adjusting the free reeds.

We could still put the longevity of this original action up against, for instance the Schulze at Doncaster, any of the Hope Jones jobs and a large number of 70/80s UK tracker jobs etc. etc. I seem to hear each week of yet another organ that's had to have a new tracker action - this is a bit ironic since the sales line was always that tracker jobs go on for ever!

 

If one forgets the underactions for a moment, the Aneessens soundboards themselves lasted through all the rebuilds right up until last year, you know! There had been a certain amount of warping - but then they were enormously long (The Choir and Great shared a soundboard and it was over 15 feet long - very unusual in this country).

 

Like MM, I would love to have heard one Aneessens organ unaltered, but that doesn't undermine the case for keeping and continuing to use what remains.

 

 

======================

 

 

I hate to disagree with Paul, but there certanly WAS a lot wrong with Anneessens pipework.

 

Again, one has to go back to the original instruments, because what Paul is perhaps seeing is the remedial workmanship of John Compton at Bridlington; even though I have no direct forensic evidence to back this up.

 

The original, and rather fine sounding Anneessens organs in Bradford, one of which used a very unreliable pneumatic action, and one which used the rare (in the UK) Schmoele & Mols patent eletcric action, had major pipework problems. It was this which possibly contributed to their demise more than anything else.

 

Charles Anneessens didn't perhaps appreciate the importance of antimony in plain-metal pipes, and consequently, the boots of flue-pipes would collapse under their own weight, reed basses resembled drunken-soldiers after a short time and the cost of remedial work easily exceeded the use of second-hand pipework from elsewhere. With cone tuning, the pipes would often split and tear quite badly over the years.

 

This is very much the case at St.Mary's, East Parade. Bradford, where a very interesting instrument (built by Booth of Otley) lives inside the original Anneessens 16ft front. There are still some Anneesens pipes, but the bulk of the organ is by Booth. This was installed by Wood, Wordsworth of Leeds, but nowadays, the organ has quite major problems and there is no money to do anything about it.

 

In many ways, the organ by Anneesens (now destroyed) in St. Joseph's (RC), Bradford, was the one I knew best. The overall sound was rather sombre, but the quieter flues, strings and the unusually fine free-reed Clarionet were a joy to hear.

The organ was replaced, due to the problems described above, by a second-hand Binns, which continues to function well, as they usually do.

 

It was indeed fortunate that John Compton got involved at Bridlington, for it possibly saved an Anneessens organ from the same fate as others, when there was enough money about to carry out such a big re-build.

 

MM

 

 

PS: Wasn't Doncaster turned into pneumatic-action to ease the weight of the key touch?

 

I don't recall that the original action failed, but then, I wasn't alive at the time; contrary to rumours.

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Once more: Annessens big pipes collapsed when the customers refused the Zinc.

Antimony is still not accepted today, while it was indeed customary with the ancient builders in northern Europe who used lead pipes for all but the façade pipes.

 

So the only alternative to Zinc or too soft metal would have been high tin percentage, which implied too thin pipes for that style.

 

Best wishes,

Pierre

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Guest Barry Oakley

 

======================

 

It was indeed fortunate that John Compton got involved at Bridlington, for it possibly saved an Anneessens organ from the same fate as others, when there was enough money about to carry out such a big re-build.

 

MM

 

I sang in a special concert at the Priory shortly after John Compton completed his work in 1949 and I can say that, although having what might be termed a novice ear at that time, the organ sounded magnificent. It was indeed fortunate that Compton had been entrusted with the work and that Norman Strafford was the consultant. He did not tolerate anything shoddy under any circumstances.

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