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Clutton, Dixon, Elvin et al


AJJ

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I recently re read bits of one of Laurence Elvin's books quickly followed by a quiet afternoon thumbing through back issues of The Organ and it set me questioning. Much of the wrtiting is in a sort of all knowing 'gentlemans' club' type style with a smattering of descriptions of the sounds of stops etc. and somewhat hazily simplistic historical backgrounds. How do people rate these writings these days - compared to Bicknell, Thistlethwaite, Jonathan Ambrosino (in the USA) and Peter Williams for example. Were they 'just' interested amateurs - not that there is anything wrong with that - or real experts in their field? In parallel way - what also of their work with the instruments themselves? As an example - Wells Cathedral. I sang their again recently and was quite disappointed by the way that the organ was not able to conduct itself even in expert hands. Soundwise the early work and later Clutton inspired additions did not sit easily together with everything somewhat lacking in real projection and identity - another similar scheme at Ely has not long ago been somewhat 'de Cluttonised' and for its good from what I have heard. Ralph Downes had enough personality and identity in his work (backed up by his writings ) for most of it these days to be just 'augmented in style' (St Albans, Paisley, RFH and Gloucester for instance) but how do these others stand now?

 

A

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I recently re read bits of one of Laurence Elvin's books quickly followed by a quiet afternoon thumbing through back issues of The Organ and it set me questioning. Much of the wrtiting is in a sort of all knowing 'gentlemans' club' type style with a smattering of descriptions of the sounds of stops etc. and somewhat hazily simplistic historical backgrounds. How do people rate these writings these days - compared to Bicknell, Thistlethwaite, Jonathan Ambrosino (in the USA) and Peter Williams for example. Were they 'just' interested amateurs - not that there is anything wrong with that - or real experts in their field? In parallel way - what also of their work with the instruments themselves? As an example - Wells Cathedral. I sang their again recently and was quite disappointed by the way that the organ was not able to conduct itself even in expert hands. Soundwise the early work and later Clutton inspired additions did not sit easily together with everything somewhat lacking in real projection and identity - another similar scheme at Ely has not long ago been somewhat 'de Cluttonised' and for its good from what I have heard. Ralph Downes had enough personality and identity in his work (backed up by his writings ) for most of it these days to be just 'augmented in style' (St Albans, Paisley, RFH and Gloucester for instance) but how do these others stand now?

 

A

 

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

 

 

Cecil Clutton wrote of the organ I play:-

 

 

"One of the ten best small organs built in Britain this century."

 

He was infallable! <_<

 

In all other respects, he was a terrible snob, but knew his vintage cars.

 

More seriously, he at least tried to understand things, as did all the others such as Bonavia-Hunt, Downes, Dixon et al.

 

I think we should also include Francis Jackson among them, because along with Peter Hurford, he did important work as a consultant, and probably changed the face of British organ-building as much as Ralph Downes.

 

Possibly the one person who absorbed what the baroque exponents said, and carried it through to a successful conclusion, was Dennis Thurlow, who acknowledged his debt to Downes.

 

Personally, I'm not sure where amateur finishes and professional starts. T C Lewis wasn't exactly qualified, but he achieved great things in due course.

 

MM

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Interesting observation.

 

I often wonder where all the great minds are today, on a par with say Goerge Ashdown Audsley. He was first and foremost an architect, artist, illustrator, writer, decorator and expert in Japanese art yet on top of that determined to become the world's foremost organ designer, setting about to write the treatise of all treaises, The Art of Organ Building. Whilst one can scoff at his tonal concepts, I can think of noone who devoted more energy to producing a record of organ construction as it stood at that time in history. The execution of the book, the attention to detail in the diagrams (who else could devote an entire chapter to the construction of the manometer, the U-shaped glass tube that measures wind pressure?) partially makes up for his bizarre tonal ideas and it is easy to overlook how much work must have gone into such a book, in an age where there were no computers to aid with images and design, and for all I know it could have been written by candlelight.

 

Who are today's equivalent polytalents?

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I recently re read bits of one of Laurence Elvin's books quickly followed by a quiet afternoon thumbing through back issues of The Organ and it set me questioning. Much of the wrtiting is in a sort of all knowing 'gentlemans' club' type style with a smattering of descriptions of the sounds of stops etc. and somewhat hazily simplistic historical backgrounds. How do people rate these writings these days - compared to Bicknell, Thistlethwaite, Jonathan Ambrosino (in the USA) and Peter Williams for example. Were they 'just' interested amateurs - not that there is anything wrong with that - or real experts in their field? In parallel way - what also of their work with the instruments themselves? As an example - Wells Cathedral. I sang their again recently and was quite disappointed by the way that the organ was not able to conduct itself even in expert hands. Soundwise the early work and later Clutton inspired additions did not sit easily together with everything somewhat lacking in real projection and identity - another similar scheme at Ely has not long ago been somewhat 'de Cluttonised' and for its good from what I have heard. Ralph Downes had enough personality and identity in his work (backed up by his writings ) for most of it these days to be just 'augmented in style' (St Albans, Paisley, RFH and Gloucester for instance) but how do these others stand now?

 

A

 

I think your assessment of "gentlemans' club style" is well taken. Elvin seems in every way to be a dear and gracious man, in particular his devotion to WC Jones. While his appreciation of Jones' work may be well-taken, even if one can't endorse the extreme smoothness and dark as night quality (one is told that he was apparently able to voice in other styles), much of his writing about the post-war work of one of England's notable firms is really so much tosh. I've lived with some of their exports to America from this period and find the flue voicing shockingly rough and coarse. Reeds, however, are excellent and the consoles as elegant and comfortable as their reputation holds. Let the reader beware of Elvin's stories !

As for Clutton, there is something to be said about his appreciation of Hill work as well as turn of the century Walkers. But sadly, one can't help but notice the moment at which he erased HWIII's name from the Book of Life, after which no good could come from the House of Willis - tragic and as wrong as wrong can be.

 

Karl Watson,

Staten Island, NY

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Having sounded-off on Laurence Elvin's fantasies regarding post-war H & H, I want to pay tribute to his writing in other contexts about Compton. It's impressive and fact filled.

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Interesting observation.

 

I often wonder where all the great minds are today, on a par with say Goerge Ashdown Audsley. He was first and foremost an architect, artist, illustrator, writer, decorator and expert in Japanese art yet on top of that determined to become the world's foremost organ designer, setting about to write the treatise of all treaises, The Art of Organ Building. Whilst one can scoff at his tonal concepts, I can think of noone who devoted more energy to producing a record of organ construction as it stood at that time in history. The execution of the book, the attention to detail in the diagrams (who else could devote an entire chapter to the construction of the manometer, the U-shaped glass tube that measures wind pressure?) partially makes up for his bizarre tonal ideas and it is easy to overlook how much work must have gone into such a book, in an age where there were no computers to aid with images and design, and for all I know it could have been written by candlelight.

 

Who are today's equivalent polytalents?

 

 

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

 

 

I'm not sure whether here are multiply-talented people in the organ-world anymore, but I feel sure that they exist.

 

I recall my former American partner saying that, (and I quote), "Academics always look for those who can cross disciplines with ease, and make connections we never knew existed. That is true intelligence; not a string of qualifications."

 

I recall a conversation with my multiply-talented brother, who knows absolutely nothing about organs. I posed a problem about a wind-supply and inherent schwimmer-flutter, and off he went on a rant about air-springs, concussion effects, pressure slopes, pressure amplification and negative (rather than positive) bleeds.

 

Better informed, if none the wiser, I was impressed.

 

Maurice Forsythe-Grant was like this apparently, and would fire ideas at people in rapid succession. I feel sure that John Compton was like this also.

 

I have no real evidence for suggesting this, but I feel that it had much to do with education on the one hand, and the way people evolved through apprenticeships and practical experience, rather than the merely academic path we tend to see to-day.

(I would also add the fact that many undertook military service, where they learned how to be both self-reliant and good team players).

 

A lot of great people started out in ordinary day-to-day jobs, and when Audsley was around, that was very much the case.

 

Nowadays, sharp elbows seem to enjoy greater success than sharp minds....... but it will change.

 

MM

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