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Sidney Campbell on Organ Reform

Vox Humana

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I have just come across a printed letter by Sidney Campbell that was new to me. I think it sums up rather well the general position of the organ reform movement in 1950s Britain, at least from the players' perspective. It was part of a discussion in the pages of the Musical Times that ran for several issues in 1958. I have not yet traced the start of the debate, but clearly someone had asked in February 1958 why modern British organs lacked  “the sonorous diapason grandeur” of older instruments. An answer was supplied in April by a correspondent who claimed that “It is because this is the ‘age of enlightenment’ and a handful of cranks are doing their best to bring about a ‘reformation’ in British organ building by getting Continental-type tonal schemes introduced into this country” in disregard of the fact that the organ had to be used for worship and not just for recitals. Campbell’s reply followed in May:



This ‘Age of Enlightenment’ had better be described as one of transition until the ‘handful of cranks’ becomes an army. The question is not whether the organ is going to be used mainly in public worship: even if it were, the matter of cathedral music would arise because very few English cathedral organs possess the resources essential for accompanying the music written before the time of S. S. Wesley or that which will follow the Stanford School.

Today the organ has at least the chance of being taken more seriously as a musical instrument. The ultimate verdict will depend upon the extent to which it is developed as an instrument in its own right by composers, organists and builders alike.

Already the full repertory is beginning to oust arrangements. It is known how the music of Bach and the early French composers sounded, as well as that of Franck, Widor, Tournemire, Vierne, all of whom indicated precisely the registrations. A full range of necessities can be incorporated in an instrument of moderate size. An imitation clarinet or cor anglais is no substitute for a Tierce en taille.

The specification of Tomkins’ organ at Worcester is known. John Stanley required certain effects and the Wesleys had something to say about them. Parry, Stanford and Harwood specified no tone colours except Full Swell and Solo Tuba. Herbert Howells asks once for solo reeds and (in brackets) solo oboe, but has otherwise followed in the steps of his predecessors. Indeed, he suggested to Harvey Grace nearly twenty years ago that his conception of a certain passage could be best realised by recalling its effect if played by a string quartet.

I have been trying to register the opening and closing sections of an otherwise excellent new Toccata alla marcia by Robin Orr. Even with sixty-seven pistons here (!) I cannot make an independent pedal follow the general dynamic indications, but the writing rules out the use of couplers and the phrasing renders impossible the alteration of manual and pedal stops simultaneously.

The future seems clear. Tonal design is being studied by a few people with success. Published stop lists suggest that builders are attempting to adapt themselves, but most of them need to pursue a lot of intricate research. Idiomatic writing for the organ is being developed elsewhere: genuine organ effects are being fully exploited, the several departments, including the pedal organ, displaying their true and effective identity without muddle. British composers may soon cease vaguely to write down ineffective impossibilities, hoping for the best. The player of solo and concerted works will then be freed from the task of arranging and making up composers’ minds for them. Independence of all departments, the ignoring of couplers, and a more economical layout, are the keynotes.

It would be foolish to remove the ‘beautiful organ in the centre of the City’ and perhaps unwise to tamper with it. Probably it must be accepted that certain types of music cannot attain their full effect upon it: this need not silence the instrument. Improvers have done widespread damage in the past, and the fate of countless organs in this country demands the vigorous attention of an armed guard. The design of new instruments is quite another matter.

Sidney S. Campbell,  5 The Precincts,  Canterbury.”

Musical Times, vol.99, no.1383 (May 1958) pp.263-4.


The correspondence witnesses two opposed schools of thought that to some extent are still alive today, although not, I think, among builders. A major aim of the reform movement was to enable the main schools of organ composition to be heard with something approaching their "authentic" tonal qualities and, as Campbell hints in his letter, there was a belief that this would enhance the music itself and, in turn, help the organ to be accepted as a mainstream musical instrument in no way inferior to any other. In the event this never happened and the ‘handful of cranks’ never did become an army, although whether there really was any link between the two is debatable, to say the least.

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