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Can And Should Organ Builders Play The Organ?


Jeremy Ewen
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Hi folks, I have been reading the forum for a long time now with much interest, and would like to pose a question. For a few years in the late 80's I had organ lessons from Frank Bradbeer and learnt much about the state of organ building in the UK before Maurice Grant appeared on the scene. One thing that Frank said, which always amazed me, was that any young apprentice who showed an interest (or ability) to play the organ was ostracized by the old hands and almost had to leave the firm. Apparently this was not restricted to GDB and was even worse in other firms of the "old school".

 

With at least two senior partners of successful UK builders having RCO qualifications at present, the scene has presumably changed, obviously for the better. Can any correspondents offer an explanation as to why the old attitudes were so strongly held, and indeed if the situation has improved as much as I think it has?

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Jeremy raises an interesting point.

 

I found myself in the situation of being asked not to play organs in the workshop. I challenged the works manager as to why this should be but never got a suitable (come to that, printable) reason.

 

Since he could neither play, nor identify middle c on the keyboard, I suspect that some jealousy was involved and that criticism was feared if faults should be found in action or voicing. It could be argued that time=money and playing was therefore a waste of both.

 

Of course, one could fritter away time playing aimlessly but - with a critical ear and purposeful exploration of registrational variety, it could be time spent to the customers' benefit.

 

I think times are more enlightened now. We have many leading builders able to play to high standards. Certainly, as a tuner, I find it is of inestimable benefit to be able to play. But of even greater benefit is to be able to LISTEN with a critical ear.

 

I shall probably be shot down in flames for expounding this but I do think there are many organists who hear what they expect (or would like) to hear when playing. They'll pull out shedloads of 8fts and say how marvellously French it all sounds. All I hear is the all the 8fts arguing and robbing the wind ! A pokey two manual in a suburban brick-kiln is not going to sound like a V/100 C-C organ going flat out and never will.

 

Beecham was right about the British ; they don't care for music but they absolutely love the noise it makes.

 

Ah well, back to sorting out the music for the Midnight...

 

Headcase

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It should be absolutely compulsory for provincial organ tuners upwards to be able to play to at least average parish standard. How can you maintain an instrument, especially a mechanical one, if you've little clue about how it should feel in use? You wouldn't let someone fix your car who didn't know how to drive. All the most successful tracker instruments I have played have been the work of people who are themselves excellent or v good players. These are the people who will take the time to regulate actions & couplers well & not just yank the pallet springs open as tight as they can (to prevent having to come back & fix ciphers).

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT

With at least two senior partners of successful UK builders having RCO qualifications at present, the scene has presumably changed, obviously for the better. Can any correspondents offer an explanation as to why the old attitudes were so strongly held, and indeed if the situation has improved as much as I think it has?

 

 

 

 

Interesting! Perhaps the workers who played would spend too long in playing the instuments being built and not do what they were supposed to do? However, it is often necessary to know how your instrument works for you. Certainly a little knowledge has helped me on concert tours when things have gone wrong. Michelangli always did his own maintence on his instrument for his concerts. Orchestral players make their own reeds etc.

Francis Jacob helps build Aubertin's. Not only helps create them but he has two in his own church near Strasbourg as well to play. He was on the team building the Saint-Louis-en- l'Isle instrument and produced a double CD of Clavierübung III for the opening of it in a couple of days. He could possibly be the most highly qualified builder/player around. He won 1st prize in the Guilmant Concours in Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1987 and at Bruges in 1997. He has the highest certificate for teaching in France as well as making a number of CD's on instruments throughout France. He plays at London's Temple Church on 11th January by the way.

And of course we must always know of dear G M at Christchurch Priory too!

 

I don't realy care if the builders can play. All I ask is for a musical instrument built with knowledge and understanding. For me is the question - should players know how to maintain their instruments, and certainly look after the reeds themselves?

 

 

 

Interesting topic.

 

Season's Greetings to all.

 

NJA

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT

Waking up in the night with this still on my mind, I remember that the heroic G M Holdich organ of 1867 upon which I practice (sic) and which was designed by Dr Gauntlett for the Union Chapel in Islington, was played by the builder himself at the opening of the organ when it was bought in 1878 for £600 by Hinckley folk for their new chapel. Interestingly in that short space of time fashions were changing. I notice a Cornet V goes from the Swell in favour of a Twelfth and a Voix Celestes, but still leaving another mixture of 3 ranks! A Mixture leaves the Great for a 2nd Open Diapason and joining 3 other extant flue 8's. A 3 rank Sesquialtera is now the only mixture left. Father Willis built the new organ for the new Union Chapel (see The Organs of Britain p.90 - John Norman) but with the same number of stops as the Holdich. Such an interesting comparison of fads and fashions. The Holdich has a swell of 16, 8, 8, 4 reeds. So different from the Willis for Dr Gauntlett a decade later! By the by, considering the influence of him with Hill, it might be seen as being somewhat 'down hill'. The Holdich bears many similarities on paper to the huge Hill of 1841 for Great George Street Chapel which was built by William Hill in collaboration with Dr G. (See The Organs of Britain p.84 - John Norman).

 

NJA

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
I do think there are many organists who hear what they expect (or would like) to hear when playing. 

 

Well said!

 

There are some good players out there building organs. There always have been.

 

Only speaking of this country: Father Willis was a good player, also Father Smith - both of them held regular positions. In the present day: Most of Principal Pipe Organs' workforce are musicians, likewise (I believe) at Ken Tickell's. Trevor Tipple of Worcester runs the music at St.Martins.London Road, Worcester and has done so (very well) for many years. Michael Farley plays (at Ottery St.Mary) likewise Lace Foy.

 

Surely it can't hurt to play as well as build. I would go with the suggestion that grumbles from the rest of a workforce would relate to showing off, showing up faults or wasting time.

 

Nobody ever told me off for playing the organs in the workshops at R.H.Walker in the 60's and 70's and I got to demonstrate to possible clients a few times.

 

The essential thing for both players and builders is that they have a critical ear.

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Guest Barry Oakley
Well said!

 

There are some good players out there building organs.  There always have been. 

 

Only speaking of this country: Father Willis was a good player, also Father Smith - both of them held regular positions. In the present day: Most of Principal Pipe Organs' workforce are musicians, likewise (I believe) at Ken Tickell's. Trevor Tipple of Worcester runs the music at St.Martins.London  Road, Worcester and has done so (very well) for many years. Michael Farley plays (at Ottery St.Mary) likewise Lace Foy.

 

Surely it can't hurt to play as well as build.  I would go with the suggestion that grumbles from  the rest of a workforce would relate to showing off, showing up faults or wasting time.

 

Nobody ever told me off for playing the organs in the workshops at R.H.Walker in the 60's and 70's and I got to demonstrate to possible clients a few times.

 

The essential thing for both players and builders is that they have a critical ear.

 

And, of course, the builder of the fine organ at Holy Trinity, Hull, John Compton and his right-hand-man, Jimmy Taylor, were also accomplished players.

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Stephen Cooke - DOM at Westbury PC is an acomplished organist and respected organbuilder. His work at Westbury has been noted here before and is well worth a visit. And as far as I know John Budgen still plays for at least one parish down this way.

 

AJJ

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
Mark Venning at Harrisons is said to be a fine organist. To my knowledge in the past year he has given at least 2 recitals in London at St Margaret's, Lee and Westminster Abbey. Now that is certainly what I would call putting one's head above the parapet!

 

Very true. He is an FRCO by examination - not by any means one of the (many) honorary holders of those hard-to-come-by letters! Before joining H&H he was Director of Music at Sherborne School, Dorest.

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  • 1 month later...
Waking up in the night with this still on my mind, I remember that the heroic G M Holdich organ of 1867 upon which I practice (sic) and which was designed by Dr Gauntlett for the Union Chapel in Islington, was played by the builder himself at the opening of the organ when it was bought in 1878 for £600 by Hinckley folk for their new chapel. Interestingly in that short space of time fashions were changing. I notice a Cornet V goes from the Swell in favour of a Twelfth and a Voix Celestes, but still leaving another mixture of 3 ranks! A Mixture leaves the Great for a 2nd Open Diapason and joining 3 other extant flue 8's. A 3 rank Sesquialtera is now the only mixture left. Father Willis built the new organ for the new Union Chapel (see The Organs of Britain p.90 - John Norman) but with the same number of stops as the Holdich. Such an interesting comparison of fads and fashions. The Holdich has a swell of 16, 8, 8, 4 reeds. So different from the Willis for Dr Gauntlett a decade later! By the by, considering the influence of him with Hill, it might be seen as being somewhat 'down hill'. The Holdich bears many similarities on paper to the huge Hill of 1841 for Great George Street Chapel which was built by William Hill in collaboration with Dr G. (See The Organs of Britain p.84 - John Norman).

 

NJA

 

The fine organ to which Nigel refers is about to be restored - see www.hinckleyurcorgan.co.uk

 

It is thought to be the largest surviving Holdich organ and according to John Norman is only one of two large organs surviving designed by Gauntlett (the other being the Hill organ - rebuilt Mander - at St Mary-at-Hill). It has fully developed choruses - from 16 ft - up to and including tierce mixtures on both swell and great divisions. Other interesting features are that the 4' flutes on both choir and great only go down as far as Tenor C, while the 16ft doubles on swell and great, along with the dulciana on the choir, each have separate bass and treble stops.

 

David

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An interesting question. I came to 'the trade' many years ago as a player, and was puzzled by the antipathy of Organ builders (the men on the shop floor, not the guys in charge) towards those who played as well as made. I never got to the bottom of it, I'm afraid, and it puzzles me still. The men I worked with, though, all knew where the various notes of the keyboard were, and every maintenance man I ever met played chromatic scales rather well!

I think the basic reason is a dislike of the music - I don't recall any workman who enjoyed the music of the instrument he was making, except for the voicers, some of whom were accomplished players. And, of course, there was the belief that those who played the Organ would waste time rather than do the job.

I left the trade 30ys ago now - I hope it has changed. It seemed a shame that the care and attention I saw my colleagues put into making Organs work properly (and they did - the words loving care spring to mind) produced instruments that they didn't enjoy at all. Sad.

 

Regards

 

John

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One thing that Frank said, which always amazed me, was that any young apprentice who showed an interest (or ability) to play the organ was ostracized by the old hands and almost had to leave the firm. Apparently this was not restricted to GDB and was even worse in other firms of the "old school".

 

With at least two senior partners of successful UK builders having RCO qualifications at present, the scene has presumably changed, obviously for the better.

 

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

 

A thought struck me, which has little to do with organ-building.

 

Were the great designers and builders of racing-cars any good as drivers?

 

The answer is almost completely and emphatically no!

 

They were, of course, very good listeners and doers.

 

I think there's a lesson there, but I can't quite make the connection.

 

:P

 

MM

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  • 1 month later...
==============

 

A thought struck me, which has little to do with organ-building.

 

Were the great designers and builders of racing-cars any good as drivers?

 

The answer is almost completely and emphatically no!

 

They were, of course, very good listeners and doers.

 

I think there's a lesson there, but I can't quite make the connection.

 

:unsure:

 

MM

 

In the 1920's and 1930's the major firms had quite large factories and the factory staff often had jobs that give them little or no contact with the finished product.

 

This did not bother them as they were far more concerned in being in employment and bringing home a weekly wage, not were not organ nuts. The mill hand spent his time cutting up and planing wood, the bellows hands just made the bellows, the wiring department (in the case of HNB entirely staffed by women) made up the cables, the console hands (often skilled cabinet makers) made the consoles and it was left to the outside building teams and the voicers and finishers to take charge of the installation and actually hear it make music. It also happened that all employees took a great pride in their own particular finished product.

 

While the building team often lacked players the voicers and finishers could usualy manage to play something if not always up to R.C.O. standards.

 

I have always hoped that tuners could play a bit otherwise how can one be aware that while the Fifteenth tunes happily to the Principal it can sound horribly out of tune in the full organ combination full of `wind gobblers' and needs to be `adjusted' to sound acceptable.

 

Apprentices who could play were looked on with great suspicion by the inside factory staff as I well know!

 

Frank Fowler

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