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Organ Criticism

Mark Fownes

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A friend has given me a bound copy of The Organ (vol XVI, 1936/7), a magazine that I have not read for a long time. I had forgotten how interesting these pre-War articles were, how lively was the letters page and how different is the content from what we get today.


Evidently, we no longer want informed and critical reviews of organs old and new. Is it because we no longer have the time to write or to read such material? Or perhaps there is no longer any impartial opinion worth reading? Or do we now buy the CD and judge for ourselves?


In short, is what we get today better in any sense than the material contained in, for example, the 256 pages of Vol XVI of the The Organ?



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I agree, the present Organ publication I feel is more of transient interest and generally lacks the scholarly approach of the original The Organ. However whatever the depth of scholarship and literary skill of the authors in the original or current Organ, whenever it comes describing how an organ sounds it can never be communicated exactly to the reader. What is needed are recordings to illustrate the articles. These can be provided with present day technology. Perhaps a quarterly magasine with a CD, or have the whole thing published on line with the necessary links to recordings. It is fairly futile to read descriptions of organ tone - there is no universal vocabulary that is understood by all.

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This is a valid question, and I find it hard to answer.


One point that comes to mind is the fact that organ building is, in most cases, a risky line of work. Every organ that is, justifyably or not, discussed as a failure, can put the builder and his companions into serious trouble; the threat or bankuptcy is never far away. Now, if you were given the opportunity to openly criticise an organ, and the builder is an outright hack, then by all means do it. Hacks are still around, if not as many of them as used to be in the heydays of organbuilding around 1900. But then, there are so many workshops working at high risk, putting everything into their work and not expecting much gain from it, to produce a beautiful instrument. If then you find fault with it, what would you do -- go public, or maybe rather discuss the problem with the builder first, giving him his chance to explain himself and put it right?


But since there are so many varieties and flavours of organs being built from scratch, and so many different ways of doing a restoration, that quickly you will be within the grey areas of opinion, and of being opinionated. If a debate results, then that is a good thing. But what if not? How many opportunities of open debate do we have in the organ world today, and what is the probability that the debate reaches the non-organic public as well, that might still be impressed by the first utterance of criticism?


I still am impressed with the open criticism that was the hallmark of the late Stephen Bicknell. His comprehensive knowledge of organs and organbuilding, combined with his poignant writing, put him into a remarkable position; and the contributors on piporg-l benefited heavily from Stephen’s habit of posting his own lectures and writings before publishing them, and inviting each and every member to come forward with questions and criticism. This combination deeply impressed me: Not holding back criticism, and at the same time inviting being criticised. This went so far as to openly deeming a failure a large organ, in the design and building of which he himself had played a vital role. On the other hand, he could put forward enough well-founded arguments about another organ by a German builder and have the criticism end with the remark: “This isn’t a work of art. It’s an appliance.” I’ll never forget meeting him at a conference in deep US prairie, after the presentation of a new organ that was hailed as the arrival of true English cathedral style in America, and the first words he said were: “Now wasn’t that organ dreadful?”, and the chat that followed made clear precisely why, in his eyes and ears, it was. Reading and re-reading his postings and essays to me is an ongoing source of pleasure and inspiration.


At the same time I wonder: Could I put forward as well-founded criticism as that? The answer is, of course, no, I never could. I did not design, or crouch into, as many organs world-wide as Stephen did. Neither did I the impressive kind of research he had to do to put it into his book.


Of course, there are other, maybe more subtle or polite, ways of criticism. I remember very well Roger Fisher’s OR essay on the big Birmingham Klais, which you might read as just a knowledgeable presentation of the facts, which it certainly is. On a second glance, I found it to carry a subtle between-the-lines message -- I might be wrong here, but what I percieved was: “These are the facts, this is what the beast is like, and you might need to go out of your way to tackle it. Now it is up to you to draw your conclusions, as a player and as a listener.” There was one emphasis that came closest to criticism -- I paraphrase: “… you will have to take your time trying.” But since there was still a flavour of “… but you might find it worth it”, even that undertone was balanced.


So, this is another possibility of intelligent criticism, no less inspiring than Stephen’s. Deep knowledge and a shrewd pen seem to be needed, and in matters organic, both meet just as rarely as in other areas.




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