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Vox Humana

Buckfast Abbey

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First of all can I apologise if I have caused any offence to any member with my comments concerning the new organ at Buckfast Abbey.

 

Secondly I need to say (firstrees) that I have absolutely no connections at all with the Abbey at Buckfast except that I happen to be a convert Roman Catholic – but there are 1.2 billion Catholics so that doesn’t count! I have never been to Buckfast. I know it is in Devon which is in the southern direction of the M5 but would need my sat nav to find it – and I find my way around Europe without a sat nav pretty well! I also think that I may have met Philip Arkright, the Director of Music at Buckfast, on one of the many occasions I conducted in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool but I could not say that we know each other. In short I can declare, absolutely, no interest in the project at the moment being undertaken at the Abbey.

 

I agree with the website mentioned by Colin Pykett that doesn’t allow discussion of stop lists. On this forum I think it is where we are at our least good. At our best we are simply excellent. We share information and knowledge and are helpful to each other and, collectively, we advance the knowledge of the instrument and its repertoire among our membership. I can think of threads, started by members, that I have thought were simply excellent. There is one contributor whose encyclopaedic knowledge of instruments and repertoire makes him always an interesting read. Equally I have seen threads that I know, from the very beginning, are going to bring out the worst in us – and, I have to say, those threads have often been about discussing stop-lists!

 

My feeling about this forum is that one way we advance our cause is by being professional, being seen to be professional and behaving towards each other in a professional manner. If I have failed, in this regard, by my comments then I apologise. Sometimes we don’t behave very well towards other members of our profession. In the past I have found some of the comments made, for instance, about performances and the persona of Cameron Carpenter offensive and I complained to our hosts who agreed and removed posts and, indeed, whole threads. Likewise I find some of the comments about the professionalism of those who have a vision of the instrument at Buckfast a little too close to the bone! I‘m not against criticism but I think there are ways of doing it, politely and professionally. I do have a sense of humour! I don’t think it is helpful to use inflammatory language and I don’t think it professional to openly and sometimes anonymously, criticise the work of another professional. I don’t think it professional to justify opinions with comments about another, supposedly esteemed but, of course, anonymous member of the profession agreeing with your premise. I’m afraid that smells too much like the Primary school classroom! I apologise if my retort was also infantile but it annoyed me!

 

I don’t believe that, because someone is a ‘solid and long-standing’ member of the board they are, in all matters, correct. I make no apology for disagreeing with the way pcnd5584 expressed himself but I will apologise if I appeared to be petulant. I don’t have an opinion on the scheme at Buckfast, I have some thoughts and I will admit that the lack of a 32’ flue was one of them, and I mentioned this in my very first post but I accepted that those who had drawn up the scheme would have given this consideration and there is, presumably, a good reason why it hasn’t been included. I will admit to being a little confused about the cornet de bagpipes, the drum, nightingale and so on – but I am not sure that it is for us to speculate and I am not going to use emotive language to justify my confusion.

 

We are at our best when we are informative and when we share our knowledge. We are at our worst, I believe, when we ‘nit-pick’, on bits of paper, stop-lists drawn up by other professionals who have a vision that we might not share or a vision we might not understand!

 

Enough!!

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It would be a pity if we couldn't continue to discuss here what must rank as one of the most interesting new British organ projects in recent history. I know from my own experiences that one's sense of humour can sometimes be an unwitting barrier (I would claim to have one, but am equally aware it isn't universally shared!). This problem is probably more acute when conversing in writing rather than speaking face to face.

 

I wonder whether Philip Arkwright is a member of the forum? If not, that's our loss. But if he is, or if he feels moved to join, I for one would be extremely interested in what he might say, and would treat his contributions with the greatest respect of course. I'm sure that would go for all of us.

 

CEP

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I agree with the website mentioned by Colin Pykett that doesn’t allow discussion of stop lists. On this forum I think it is where we are at our least good...

Equally I have seen threads that I know, from the very beginning, are going to bring out the worst in us – and, I have to say, those threads have often been about discussing stop-lists!

 

I beg to disagree.

I find the discussion of stop lists, organ design and such matters of prime interest on here.

 

Admittedly, as I am not an organist (but having a lifelong interest in the organ), I tend not to post on a forum populated in the majority by organists, but I do visit every day to glean information and knowledge about the organ and, should stop lists ever be outlawed for any reason, I should find that a great loss.

 

Surely, it should be possible to discuss choices of stops and so on without anyone feeling offended!

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Well, I am hardly anonymous, SL.

 

Neither do I accept that my post was inflammatory, or that it used 'emotive language' - if that remark was addressed to me. A great deal of money - someone else's money - is involved in this venture and my thoughts regarding the stop-list were not merely armchair criticism.

 

I am uneasy about your initial reaction. You appear to be trying to mould this forum to accord with your perception of what it should be. This is not your job, or mine, or that of any other contributor. It is the business of the forum owner and moderator. If you object to anything posted here, the proper channel of remedy is to contact the moderator, as you mention having done previously.

I do not recall ever stating that I was always right - nor that I expected other board members to think this, or to defer to my opinions. I have in fact learned much from a number of contributors (such as David Drinkell, to whom you allude, and Vox Humana, to name but two), and I am grateful for their erudition.

 

To be strictly accurate, I was not criticising the work of the incumbent musicians at Buckfast - but I was (and still am) concerned that the scheme appears to be too large for the building (I have been to Buckfast on a few occasions and I have played the former instrument, so I am also reasonably familiar with the size of the building). Furthermore, I stand by my comments regarding the stop-list.

 

I would also agree with John Robinson. For one thing, having an organ discussion board in which all debate regarding stop-lists was banned would be like having a discussion board about cars and only being able to write about how to repair parts which had malfunctioned or where one had driven; all talk of performance and engine size being prohibited. In addition, having individual board members attempting to dictate to others what they can and cannot do is likely to be a recipe for disaster.

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"I must say I was going to post a new thread on the heavily restored organ at St Andrews Parish Church, Enfield, Middlesex, the work being undertaken by David Wells of Liverpool. I have the revised stop list to hand, having visited the new console yesterday. But given the ridiculous comments regarding stop lists, I'm inclined not to do it."

 

That's a shame!

 

A

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The discussion over stop lists has been interesting, but of course the final verdict must await completion in 2017. It is not just the stop list however, but also the scaling, voicing and tonal finishing within the Abbey. In my view it is to be celebrated that we have the first UK installation of a Ruffatti organ. The budget of £2.5m (is this actually true, or a rumour ?) is substantial. The final results will be the responsibility of Ian Bell, Philip Arkwright and Ruffatti. There have been some examples of foreign organ builders installing wonderful organs of their own style which have not been altogether too successful when judged for suitability as vehicles for accompanying the English choral tradition. Now Buckfast perhaps comes a little outside this 'tradition', but nonetheless the final verdict will be to judge how it delivers against the requirements of the build specification (this being a small 's' and not a stop list !). I wish the team well and look forward to 2017.

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What is a "Cor de Chamois"?

 

Is it The Voice of the Mountain Goat? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/chamois

 

Or is it The Voice of a Porous Piece of Leather? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/chamois_leather

 

And there will be a celeste of it as well! Of Course... An ethereal, heavenly mountain goat, or an ethereal, heavenly, shimmering piece of leather?

 

The whole specification is such a mad confluence of nomenclature it's difficult to detect what's going on, or what the objective of it all is. But I'm sure the resulting organ will be Very Loud.

 

Answers on a postcard please...

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May I remind everybody that personal comments or unpleasant remarks about others on the board, or their comments, is not acceptable. By all means disagree with what others have to say, but please do not make it personal in any way. Please treat each other with the utmost respect and keep the comments objective.

 

Thank you,

 

John

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There have been some examples of foreign organ builders installing wonderful organs of their own style which have not been altogether too successful when judged for suitability as vehicles for accompanying the English choral tradition. Now Buckfast perhaps comes a little outside this 'tradition'...

 

Somewhat, yes, but there is nevertheless a clear need for the organ to function effectively as an accompanimental instrument. A glance at the Music at Buckfast Facebook page reveals something of the range of concerts being given there, some of which include accompanied items, and the abbey's Sunday choir also sings accompanied items occasionally. Exeter Cathedral choir sang an Anglican Evensong there in February and there are lots of carol services every Christmas. The quire organ stop list does appear to have been designed accordingly (and has a proper Solo division, something the Downes/Walker lacked), but the voicing will be all-important. I hope it will not be too brash, but too bland an organ could be just as disappointing (not that I have ever heard that criticism levelled at Ruffatti).

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I think I may speak for many when I say that your comments pcnd5584 are taken with the utmost seriousness. Any criticisms you have raised down the years on this forum have always been constructive ones, and are clearly based on professional experience, whether first-hand or otherwise.

 

I must say I was going to post a new thread on the heavily restored organ at St Andrews Parish Church, Enfield, Middlesex, the work being undertaken by David Wells of Liverpool. I have the revised stop list to hand, having visited the new console yesterday. But given the ridiculous comments regarding stop lists, I'm inclined not to do it.

 

Well, now we are uncertain about the work going on at Enfield. We can argue for or against a well expressed opinion, but what can we do when we are unsettled by an ambiguity and left in doubt by an unremark?

 

MF

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I am inclined to agree MF.

 

In some respects the work at Enfield is tinged with a little sadness, in that funds were extremely tight, and the contract was 'limited' to the sum of £250,000. I cannot help but see the irony when this situation is compared with (may I say with guarded reservation) the 'flamboyant extravagance' at Buckfast Abbey.

 

Buckfast is stinking rich. Pass the "Buckie" please.

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It probably deserves another thread of its own, but if you were the music director of a fairly large church and an anonymous benefactor sent a cheque for £5 million with the stipulation that it be spent on a grand new organ, what scheme would you come up with (even allowing for the fact that you would want to allocate a significant amount of the capital to an endowment fund for maintenance and musical development)? I can imagine many people would have a field day designing such an instrument. Dare I say it would be an even harder challenge to design something musical and coherent that it would be if you were given a budget of £50,000 for a new organ.

 

But it's not impossible. I have never had the pleasure of hearing the Wanamaker organ live for instance, but those who I have met who have heard it live or even played it describe it as a breathtakingly wonderful instrument. It certainly sounds absolutely ravishing in the recordings I've heard. The brief given to its designers, including one Marcel Dupré, was that money was absolutely no object, so long as he created an instrument that exceeded his wildest dreams. Cue six manuals and the best part of 30,000 pipes, and the inspiration of many celebrated pieces including his Passion Symphony and Jongen's Symphonie Concertante.

 

I hope that the Buckfast instrument, bizarre though its specification might seem, firmly puts Buckfast Abbey on the organ world map and may it lead in due course to its own significant contribution to the organ repertoire.

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It probably deserves another thread of its own, but if you were the music director of a fairly large church and an anonymous benefactor sent a cheque for £5 million with the stipulation that it be spent on a grand new organ, what scheme would you come up with (even allowing for the fact that you would want to allocate a significant amount of the capital to an endowment fund for maintenance and musical development)?

Dream situation. My scheme would be to find the best builder who has the best of voicers on his staff, answer all his questions about the music programme, and then see whatever scheme he comes up with.

 

Best

Friedrich

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Tangential, maybe, but for me hearing the Wanamaker organ in the building offered no extra insight into its tonal qualities or grandeur over that evident on the fabulous and readily available Keith Chapman/Peter Conte recordings. In short - the lavish sweeping orchestral, string and crescendo effects are remarkable - if not unique - but there the distinction ends.

 

Looking closer to home, however, there is the much smaller organ, of a similar vintage, in a school chapel in Suffolk, which for me offers a more compelling illustration of the possibilities of "blank cheque" organbuilding. The quality of construction and tonal integrity is stunning, and it is highly effective in the - admittedly rather smaller - building. The impact on the listener of the full chorus is grand to the point of overwhelming, in a way that Wanamaker, for all its vast resources, cannot manage.

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I recently had the opportunity to speak with someone who is reasonably close to what might be described as ‘the legacy of Ralph Downes’.

 

On mentioning the new Ruffati, I was assured that the pipes from the previous instrument were not particularly noteworthy and that the person was ‘easy’ with the possibility of their being recycled (my verb).

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I was assured that the pipes from the previous instrument were not particularly noteworthy

 

This is probably true. The organ was well known to be bit of a hotch-potch. It did actually sound very well in the abbey though (except for the virtually inaudible Great reeds). I would very much doubt that this was more than a minor factor in the decision to ditch it. I can imagine more significant considerations.

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I have a feeling that history will not be enamoured too much with Downes meddling. His Buckfast creation is now gone and his influence on the organs in the RFH, Gloucester and St Albans cathedrals has all but dissolved.

 

Michela Ruffatti tells me that they are very busy making the soundboards and pipework for the new Buckfast job. Incidentally, Ruffatti are holding an open day in Padova during October and when work on their Buckfast organ can be seen. I daresay that if any forum members are in the Padova region at the time they would be most welcome to attend, but it would be prudent to contact the company well beforehand.

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I have a feeling that history will not be enamoured too much with Downes meddling. His Buckfast creation is now gone and his influence on the organs in the RFH, Gloucester and St Albans cathedrals has all but dissolved.

 

 

I have some difficulty with the term 'meddling' being applied to Downes's work. Views about organ advisers naturally vary widely, but he worked at a time when several (if not many) of his peers were not musicians at all - Cecil Clutton was an example, who could barely play a note. I have seen him described as "a boorish and independently wealthy dilettante with too much free time whose disproportionate influence and lack of social graces bore scant correlation to his actual talents". This too might be unfair, and it's a view which is unlikely to be universally shared, but it confirms that we all probably have our own favourites among both past and present members of the breed. Clutton's close buddy and another amateur, George Dixon, dismissed in print the sound of the instruments Bach played as "sausage frying". That sort of thing is not organ consultancy.

 

Looking at him objectively, Downes was highly qualified and experienced as a musician (unlike those just mentioned) and he also did a great deal of research to support his consultancy interests. Even today one can still learn much from his book 'Baroque Tricks' about the scaling, voicing and other organ building practices of great 17th and 18th century European organ builders. It is a testament to his dedication that he was able to discover so much about their work while the Cold War was at its height, with access to some instruments, and indeed to much scholarship, being so difficult.

 

So I would not say he was a mere meddler. His legacy is bound to be viewed differently today, if only because we are all experts with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight. But I venture to suggest that many will still pause to consider what he did carefully before forming a judgement.

 

CEP

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Looking at him objectively, Downes was highly qualified and experienced as a musician (unlike those just mentioned) and he also did a great deal of research to support his consultancy interests.

 

Although not really relevant to the point at hand, it is also worth remembering that, in the late '60s at least, he was a highly sought-after teacher at the RCM, indeed probably the most highly sought-after, at a time when the RCM boasted virtually all the big organist names on its teaching staff.* He was also much respected as a performer. Personally I didn't like his style, but that probably says more about me than him.

 

* In 1967 the only currently notable performers on the RAM's teaching staff were Simon Preston and Arthur Wills (and Preston, I heard, was rarely present). TCM had Harry Gabb (I think it was). Everyone else of note was on the RCM's list. How many of these could actually teach I don't know (and no doubt some lesser-known names were better), but names were undoubtedly a big draw then, as I am sure they still are - and they always looked good on a CV.

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There is a thread "Lt. Col. George Dixon and Cecil Clutton" on this forum which makes interesting reading.

 

I met Clutton a few times. He was, certainly, somewhat eccentric and tended to say what he thought without much consideration for tact. As a player (he only took up playing the organ relatively late in life), he was a competent hand at Baroque music, especially French, at a time when a lot of players of FRCO standard had no idea regarding its registration, interpretation or authentic sound world. I heard him play Guilain's second suite on his house organ at Blackheath. It was a stylish and convincing performance, although interspersed with the odd "Damn!" when he hit a wrong note. (The organ was like its owner - it took no prisoners but could do a lot more than its specification might suggest. It was, above all, fun, although not everyone would have liked it).

 

Whatever may be the pros and cons of the multum-in-parvo ideas promoted in their different ways by both Dixon and Clutton, it's worth remembering that, especially in his latter years, Clutton became convinced that traditional English methods of voicing could and should form the basis of instruments which could give convincing renderings of a very large part of the repertoire. In this he was, I feel, more sensible than those - and there are still some about - who would base their schemes on narrower, continental ideas.

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Whatever may be the pros and cons of the multum-in-parvo ideas promoted in their different ways by both Dixon and Clutton, it's worth remembering that, especially in his latter years, Clutton became convinced that traditional English methods of voicing could and should form the basis of instruments which could give convincing renderings of a very large part of the repertoire. In this he was, I feel, more sensible than those - and there are still some about - who would base their schemes on narrower, continental ideas.

 

That, actually, was the thing about the Downes/Walker at Buckfast. Possibly because of its origins and despite the appearance of the specification on paper, the voicing of the fluework was essentially English Romantic - or at least it sounded like it. It was bright, but not particularly incisive - and I don't think that was just a product of the detached console.

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....and his influence on the organs in the RFH, Gloucester and St Albans cathedrals has all but disolved.

Having heard two of these three since work has been done on them in recent years it would seem to me that neither has changed radically and indeed both still sound very much like Downes instruments. St. Albans sounds far less 'lean' from minimal revoicing and has gained stops that possibly would have been there originally had there not been budget constraints or had RD not had a seeming problem with 2' principal stops. The RFH is still as it was though to my ears at least sounding much better. In both these cases the consultants involved in more recent work have kept the basics of voicing and design etc. intact.

 

I can not comment about Gloucester.

 

A

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