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Chester Cathedral Organ


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A few weeks ago, I travelled to Chester with a visiting choir, which was booked to sing the services in Chester Cathedral from 15 - 18 August. I was engaged to play the organ for these services (and a concert at another church).

 

Initially, I was somewhat apprehensive; I had regarded some of the work undertaken on this Whiteley/Hill instrument as unfortunate - and some of the subsequent alterations as questionable. However, I found that I was pleasantly surprised.

 

In fact, the organ was superb. Several ranks which were introduced to the scheme at the time of the 1969-70 rebuild (by Rushworth & Dreaper) have since been displaced. For example. the G.O. Double Open Diapason has been re-instated, the Gedeckt now speaks at 8ft. pitch. The Solo flute chorus has been placed on an open soundboard and the two vaguely Baroque reeds replaced: the Regal for a Vox Humana (although the Tremulant needs to be slower in order to make this stop effective for Franck) and the Schalmei by a Clarinet.

 

On the Pedal Organ, the 4ft' Flute extension has given way to the Choir Double Dulciana (borrowed from this division - and far more useful than the usually pointless 4ft. extension of the Bourdon).

 

Due to the retention of Hill's distinctive and possibly unique* drawstops, with their reeded edges, several stops are not as engraved, so one has to be aware of this when playing.

 

It would be interesting to know whether the compound stops have had their missing ranks re-instated. according to the NPOR stop-list most of them have had one or two ranks removed (or silenced), for some reason. I did not have time to attempt to analyse these stops, but I suspect that the G.O. may be missing some of its upper-work. I am not sure why this was done.

 

I must admit that I enjoyed my time on this fine organ immensely. sitting at the console and playing was like wearing an old pair of jeans or an old, much-treasured jacket. It was most comfortable (aside from the frightening - and occasionally anonymous - foot pistons). The 'hidden' Great to Choir (by thumb piston only) was also useful.

 

I am not sure whether the G.O. Open Diapason III still has Spitzflöte pipes from C25 up, but it was a most versatile stop for accompaniment.

 

The instrument has an almost inexhaustible range of tone-colours. The choice of two 16ft. and two 8ft. chorus reeds on the Swell was a luxury - albeit an extremely propitious one. The only disappointment was that I found the Solo mutations lacking in colour; they were rather bland. However, the chorus works surprisingly well, especially when coupled to that of the Choir Organ. It is then possible to use the Swell upper-work and either of the two 16ft. reeds to augment the Pedal Organ.

 

There were two stops which I did not use: the G.O. Twelfth, which now speaks at tierce pitch, and the Solo Tuba. I have no idea what this stop sounded like.

 

The Pedal and G.O. reeds were superb. I cannot imagine why anyone should ever have favoured Harrison Trombe with stops such as these.† I think that I prefer these reeds at Chester to those by Willis. Certainly, from the console, the Pedal Trombone (for example) is capable of far greater musical use than the FHW Ophicleide at Truro.

 

Whilst it would be helpful to have the G.O. reeds transferable to both the Pedal and Choir organs, even as it stands, the Chester organ is a comprehensive and versatile instrument, with a thrilling tutti - and probably the best 32ft. reed (and flue) which I have ever encountered.

 

I understand that some restoration work is contemplated. I hope that the character of this instrument will be retained, perhaps with the re-instatement of any missing mixture ranks. It would be good to see the G.O. Tierce returned to its former pitch as a Twelfth. In addition, some of the woodwork of the console (the key-cheeks § and sundry panels containing the piston control panels) needs replacing.

 

I suspect that the pistons and key slips (and the pedal 'sweep') may also be tidied-up and the layout rationalised. As it stands, there are fourteen pistons to each division (1 - 11, and the pistons A, B and C; each with their own setter, I believe), and fourteen general pistons. They are of the same - or a similar - wood to that of the key cheeks. The off-white engraving is barely readable on some pistons - particularly the generals.

 

However, even as it stands, the organ of Chester Cathedral is a noble, beautiful and thrilling instrument.

 

 

 

* I am not aware of any other instance of the use of such draw-stops by Hill. It would be interesting to hear of any other examples, should they exist.

 

† It is quite possible that Dixon disliked Hill reeds due to having heard some bad examples, since it must be said that Hill did produce some less than good work towards the end of the nineteenth century. However, even allowing for unevenness of tone and poor regulation, I should still rather have inferior Hill reeds to those by Harrison..

 

§ I suspect that the key cheeks were replaced at the time of the 1969-70 rebuild. The rest of the console woodwork (and the main case) is executed in limed oak. The teak (?) used for the key cheeks and other panels is rather too much of a contrast.

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Nice one - it's good to hear about instruments from the point of view the music that can be played on them. Too often organists do themselves no good when they almost mystically remove the instrument from its musical purpose!

 

A

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When I was a tiny tot, I remember listening on the wireless to John Betjamen visiting great and grand cathedrals. The choirs sang and the organ played and he so wonderfully described being there in the building. In some he even said where he was sitting to gain the best effect. The organ at Chester played by John Sanders has remained with me to this day. It was such a thrill to be able to play it a few years ago. Indeed, a wonderful musical machine.

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When I wasn't quite such a tiny tot, I think maybe about 9 or 10, I took upon myself to learn Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor off by heart (at least, the bits I could play, my feet wouldn't reach the pedals so I had to use my left hand for some of the pedal passages). During a visit to Chester Cathedral I somehow got talking with the organ scholar, who after a good look round to check noone was listening, said "Why don't you come up to the console and I'll let you play a few notes?" The next ten minutes or so were undoubtedly the most exciting in my life thus far. I have no idea who that organ scholar was but if he ever tunes in to read this post I hope he will be glad to know that not long afterwards I took up more serious organ playing and have continued playing to this day.

 

On more recent occasions when I've been on the organ bench and visiting children have been wandering around the church I have been keen to encourage them to try pressing a few notes, even if they don't play the piano, to see what the organ can do, and I keep in reserve a few themes from Harry Potter and similar films just to show that the organ isn't only for dull boring hymns.

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On more recent occasions when I've been on the organ bench and visiting children have been wandering around the church I have been keen to encourage them to try pressing a few notes, even if they don't play the piano, to see what the organ can do, and I keep in reserve a few themes from Harry Potter and similar films just to show that the organ isn't only for dull boring hymns.

 

I endorse this. Just a couple of weeks ago I had just finished practicing when a mother and little boy of about 3 came in to the church from, as it turned out, a holiday cottage owned by the churchwarden. The boy asked, "What's that?" pointing at the organ. His mother told him "It's the organ for playing music - a bit like a piano* but with different sounds." I asked him if he'd like to hear it and what would he like me to play. "Baa Baa Black Sheep, please". (Oh good, he's not a child prodigy!). I busked through a few verses using different stops and somehow morphed the tune into "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" then asked him if he'd like to press the keys. He had a whale of a time for some minutes until his mother thought that I'd had enough although I was enjoying it as much as he. The look on his face when the sounds came out was a great reward for me and who knows, the experience may have struck a spark for the future.

 

*More so than most instruments, having only one keyboard.

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The number of times I've said to ever-protective and over-officious custodians of organs: "You can't break an organ by playing it".

 

 

This is not quite true.

 

There is (or was) a pipe organ not many miles from here, which is now defunct. A previous organist was so heavy-handed that he managed to get through two consoles. The last time I had to play it for a concert, I had to play as best as I could with one hand and both feet, whilst holding up as many of the stop-keys as I could manage (during quieter pieces), since otherwise they simply put themselves on all the time. The key action was also pretty much shot away, too. apparently, this was almost entirely due to the regular rough handling which this organ had received at the hands of the (then) incumbent organist.

 

In addition, another contributor here has quoted a story of a workshop or composite lesson involving a young organist and Olivier Latry. After watching the person play, Latry said 'You will never play at Nôtre-Dame.' The sense of the story seemed to be that the young man in question was being unduly rough with the instrument. (This story was related to a video clip which someone had posted, which featured an organist 'playing' with a sequencer, which he had set up to move the stops in 'pretty patterns' - this is sheer irresponsibility.)

 

Furthermore, I have occasionally had to remind visiting organists to the Minster here that the instrument does not have an old, heavy mechanical action - and it is therefore not necessary to stamp on the pedal keys, or slam the keys of the claviers into their beds, by using the whole weight of the arms and the power of their shoulders. After one or two such visitors, I have had to take panels off the back of the console and re-position contact wires, after the organists managed to cause cyphers.

 

Whilst I take your point, a church organ is not a toy - it is a costly, complex machine. I recognise the need to encourage others to take up playing the instrument, but one still needs judgement and discretion.

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Just a couple of weeks ago I had just finished practicing when a mother and little boy of about 3 came in to the church from, as it turned out, a holiday cottage owned by the churchwarden. The boy asked, "What's that?" pointing at the organ. His mother told him "It's the organ for playing music - a bit like a piano* but with different sounds." I asked him if he'd like to hear it and what would he like me to play. "Baa Baa Black Sheep, please". (Oh good, he's not a child prodigy!). I busked through a few verses using different stops and somehow morphed the tune into "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" then asked him if he'd like to press the keys. He had a whale of a time for some minutes until his mother thought that I'd had enough although I was enjoying it as much as he. The look on his face when the sounds came out was a great reward for me and who knows, the experience may have struck a spark for the future.

 

*More so than most instruments, having only one keyboard.

 

 

We had a German couple in the congregation here for a year while they were at Memorial University. Their son, Freddy, was mesmerised by the organ. One Sunday, his mother tried to get him away from the console to go down for milk and cookies.

 

'Not yet,' he said, 'Dr Drinkell is playing Bach'.

 

They did come from Leipzig....

 

I always encourage the curious to try the organ, and let it be known to vergers, guides, etc, that this is the policy. A number of organists were good to me in the distant past (Francis Jackson, for example) and I resolved that if I ever had the custody of a large and/or notable instrument, I wouldn't hog it to myself.

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A friend of mine was charged £50 to play the famous organ at St Anne Limehouse recently.

I have heard of other similar arrangements over here - in France though I have recently been allowed access to two major cathedral organs for as long as I wish. In each case the resident organist could not have been more hospitable and in one case the tourists who were around were also very attentive and actually listened to what I was playing. I did however go prepared with music that I could play and offered a donation which in both cases was refused.

 

I also know of at least two situations around here where the resident musicians are so ultra protective of their instruments making it actually quite difficult for anyone visiting as a deputising organist - supposedly there to help out when the incumbent is absent!

 

Certainly however, with appropriate overtures and a respect for the institution one is visiting I find most organists will facilitate visits whenever possible. And if not possible then the reason is usually an appropriate one!

 

A

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Apart from intentional vandalism the only organs I've heard being "broken" have been broken by accredited organists. A fine organist (who will remain nameless) showed me the Frobenius at Queen's College, Oxford in the early '70s and confessed that he had previously managed to break two pedal trackers.

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When I was a lad, the organist at my my local parish church wouldn't let anyone touch the organ unless they were having lessons with him...

Other churches nearby, although not as conveneint, were much more helpful. Most made some nominal charge which was fair enough - 3/6d an hour if I remember rightly (this was a long time ago!).

I think it was 5/- at St Johns in Stanmore but that was worth it for Rothwell's wonderful little tab stops between each manual!

 

Steve

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When I was a lad, the organist at my my local parish church wouldn't let anyone touch the organ unless they were having lessons with him...

Other churches nearby, although not as conveneint, were much more helpful. Most made some nominal charge which was fair enough - 3/6d an hour if I remember rightly (this was a long time ago!).

I think it was 5/- at St Johns in Stanmore but that was worth it for Rothwell's wonderful little tab stops between each manual!

 

Steve

And did they charge people to pray?

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And did they charge people to pray?

No - but I was very happy to contribute to the upkeep of the organ and if you couldn't (or didn't) pay, no one was going to complain.

 

With the (few) regular users at my church (who do not play for services - or come to church) we make no charge but ask for any donation as and when they see fit. Seems reasonable to me!

Steve

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I couldn't agree more with the above sentiments about encouraging anyone interested to 'have a go'.

 

What I cannot understand is how some organists are so very over-protective of their instruments and then bleat about the lack of interest in the organ amongst young (and not so young) people.

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I would always make anyone who wanted a go on my instrument welcome. You never know, he or she may feel sorry for the poor little box of whistles and its suffering player and offer a large cheque for its replacement!

 

We normally holiday in the West Country and if the local church has a pipe organ I make an effort to contact the church well in advance to ask if I might have half an hour on it at a convenient time. I have never been refused and if my offer of a donation is waved away always put something in the donations box. On one occasion in a village near Barnstaple I was looking at the organ, a nice Vowles if I remember correctly, on a Sunday morning and was asked by the vicar if I played. At the time the answer was that yes, I do, but not for a while. I ended up playing for an evening service, 4 hymns and 2 voluntaries after a couple of hours practice in the afternoon, as the resident was unable to play because of a sudden family crisis. The vicar offered me quite a generous sum which I declined and we settled on a couple of pints and a bag of crisps across the road

 

This occasion, along with some encouragment from Cynic after a chat following one of his recitals, was why I started to play regularly once again.

 

 

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I couldn't agree more with the above sentiments about encouraging anyone interested to 'have a go'.

 

What I cannot understand is how some organists are so very over-protective of their instruments and then bleat about the lack of interest in the organ amongst young (and not so young) people.

 

Absolutely.

 

Which reminds me - I meant to see if there was any interest in arranging a board members' trip here to play our Walker organ. If there are sufficient numbers, I can then find a Saturday afternoon when the building is free and set up a visit.

 

If anyone would like to do this, please let me know - here will do, or PM, if you prefer.

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  • 4 years later...

We had one of those jealous organists in Rochdale. The organ was quite nice - a Hill organ rebuilt by Harrisons  A  3 decker. A friend of mine was to get married there and asked me to play the organ. The organist refused despite the fact that he would have been paid for doing nothing. The friend asked me instead to be an usher and help her to select the music. For going out I suggested the Moulet Carillon Sortie. At that stage I couldn't have played it myself, but I suspected that the organist couldn't either. I was right! He kept repeating the first bar until we all got out of the church. I small victory for me !!!!!

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16 hours ago, John Mitchell said:

We had one of those jealous organists in Rochdale. The organ was quite nice - a Hill organ rebuilt by Harrisons  A  3 decker. A friend of mine was to get married there and asked me to play the organ. The organist refused despite the fact that he would have been paid for doing nothing. The friend asked me instead to be an usher and help her to select the music. For going out I suggested the Moulet Carillon Sortie. At that stage I couldn't have played it myself, but I suspected that the organist couldn't either. I was right! He kept repeating the first bar until we all got out of the church. I small victory for me !!!!!

Sometimes we do come across titulaires who, jealously, guard their instrument - for whatever reason. My experience is that it has usually been their own insecurity! My policy, and I was never in charge of a remarkable instrument but I was responsible for music in a church which guarded its music jealously, was that I expected visiting organists to be able to demonstrate their competence. And that meant holding an organ diploma or playing weekly or even by just a telephone conversation - 'one gets the feeling about these things' It was rare for us to refuse to allow a visitor to play - in fact I think it happened twice in ten years - and, on both occasions, we discovered afterwards, it turned out to be the right decision! When we did have a visitor I didn't get a fee.  

I'm sorry but I think petulance is the province of children and not professional people - I'm glad, however, that you enjoyed your little victory!!!  

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