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Pipe Organ-free Zone

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The (pipe) organ in the Town Church [ http://www.npor.org.uk/NPORView.html?RI=A00535 ] was bizarre, underwhelming and underpowered for the building and its role in the community. I'm sure there was a core of quality, but it was most skilfully hid ! 

What of the plans, now more than ten years old, to raise funds to have a new pipe organ built ? This town is not poor. 

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The pipe organ is one of the few musical instruments (are there any others?) that is so large and so expensive that it is rarely possible for an individual to own one. Now that churches are low on members and funds, it is hardly surprising that many feel unable to justify spending large sums of money on one. Given this situation, and the lack of public knowledge about, and interest in organs, organ recitals and organ music, quality is surely better than quantity. In the past there were far too many substandard, mass produced organs which deteriorated quickly and not worth maintaining. Organs and organ music is very much a niche market within the niche market of classical music. Towns like Aylesbury would benefit from having one decent, properly maintained instrument that was available to promising young keyboard players to learn how to play, regardless of their family or financial background. Sadly, I can think of no influential organisation in this country which campaigns on a day to day basis for organs and access to them in the wider community. Access to organs and organ teaching is therefore likely to remain the preserve of independent schools with chapels for the foreseeable future, unless someone comes up with a viable national plan for getting organs and organ teachers into state secondary schools and local authority music services.

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I think there is a broader issue underpinning the points made above and it concerns the dynamics of business.  I can't call myself a businessman or accountant but have had sufficient exposure to those worlds to see that pipe organ builders are probably coming up against what I call a critical mass scenario.   Basically this means that if their customer base continues to contract, they will go under, possibly quite suddenly.  This is not unique to pipe organs of course as it affects all businesses which have to sell to survive (i.e. all of them outside government-funded organisations which simply rob the taxpayer regardless of their intrinsic efficiency), but for pipe organs there is an additional factor which comes into play.  These instruments can only be built while the necessary craft-pool continues to exist.  They are not mere commodities such as cars or toothbrushes which can be thrown together by large numbers of semi-skilled workers who need little training.  The vast range of deep skills necessary to construct a pipe organ means that there is a sort of catch-22 situation in that the skills can only be nurtured within those firms which continue to survive, yet they cannot survive if the market gets too small (i.e. below the critical mass level).  Once this happens the skills are in danger of being lost for ever, as you could not then just recruit off the street to build an organ whenever a customer just happened along from time to time - the necessary workers would simply not be around, and moreover it is doubtful whether their former skills could ever be resurrected once lost

I have put some numbers into these arguments and played with them on spreadsheets to the extent I have become increasingly alarmed for the future of the instrument.  Although there is currently a belief that some sort of long-term survival will exist within the ranks of a few well-heeled customers such as independent schools and some cathedrals, I am not convinced by this.  Critical mass is critical mass and it is a sort of cliff-edge.  To avoid it requires a much larger customer base maintained by large numbers of instruments needing tender loving care and maintenance, and it is this vital fiscal underpinning which is now disappearing rapidly.

Not everyone will agree with this analysis and I won't bore you any longer, but some years ago I published an article containing a few basic numbers which might conceivably be of interest:

http://www.pykett.org.uk/statusoforgan.htm

CEP

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Sounds pretty much like a lot of British industry. Meanwhile, German organ building has been declared by UNESCO to be part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, following efforts made by the Federation of German Organ Builders:

“Organ craftsmanship and music: Germany

Inscribed in 2017 (12.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Organ craftsmanship and music has shaped Germany’s musical landscape and instrument-making for centuries, and there are a diverse number of related traditions in the country. Organ craftsmanship and music are closely related since each instrument is created specifically for the architectural space in which it will be played. The highly specialized knowledge and skills related to the practice have been developed by craftspeople, composers and musicians working together throughout history, and the specialized and mostly informally-transmitted knowledge and skills are significant markers of group identity. Transcultural by its very nature, organ music is a universal language that fosters interreligious understanding. Though mostly associated with church services, concerts and modern cultural events, it is also played during important community-building festivities. There are 400 medium-sized craftspeople’s establishments in Germany, which guarantee its viability and transmission, as well as some larger family-owned workshops. Knowledge and skills related to the element are transmitted through a direct teacher-pupil experience, which is complemented by training in vocational schools and universities. Apprentices gain practical experience in organ construction workshops as well as theoretical knowledge in vocational schools, and efforts to safeguard the element also include teaching in universities and music academies, conferences, and presentations via the media.”

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The pipe organ in St Mary's, Aylesbury is still in place but has been unused for many years since a lightning strike fried the action (so I am told) and it was thought not worth spending any more on it.  I never heard it but it looks badly positioned as well as bizarre.  I think the 'long term project' for a new pipe organ is little more than an aspiration at present and won't have been helped by some falling masonry last year.  They use a 3 manual Viscount. 

Two youngsters, both taught by the music master at the grammar school, played at the Oxford Music Festival organ class last year, held in Merton College Chapel.  It was the first time either of them had played a pipe organ.  They were both very good (much better than me!).

I wasn't sure about the Walker Positif in Holy Trinity so emailed the church and they replied " Our pipe organ was removed about 20 years ago, it had woodworm and was scrapped I think."  I've passed on the message to NPOR so the record can be updated.

 

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13 hours ago, Zimbelstern said:

Towns like Aylesbury would benefit from having one decent, properly maintained instrument that was available to promising young keyboard players to learn how to play

When I lived there, I took one of my students to see and play the then recently-installed Walker in Exeter College Chapel (http://www.npor.org.uk/NPORView.html?RI=D01918). This is, as those of you who know it will well attest, an exciting instrument in a fabulous acoustic and wonderful architectural setting. It was a (sadly) vain attempt to broaden his musical horizons. He was not impressed ("It's OK." ! ! !), preferring his electronic theatre organ.

Colin's comments concerning 'critical mass' are doom-laden, to say the least - but, very possibly, accurate. We've seen many 'big names' vanish from the high street; with even M&S 'taking measures'. Do the largest organ builders make a healthy profit ? Do the smaller, 'one-man-bands' struggle ? These are questions I previously hadn't thought about.

Zimbelstern's description of the widely (?) different situation in Germany is salutary. In the UK, the more 'serious' (in the widest sense) Arts are rarely accorded national importance. When people talk about 'British culture', references are usually made to pop music and various TV soaps. This is hardly encouraging and will, given the view of the importance of the teaching of the Arts in the majority of what are now mostly academies, will not improve for a generation.

Organs, and organ-building, are now very much a 'niche market', with the numbers of church-goers (mostly) having seriously diminished in the last 50 years. Most of the population rarely encounter them. Is the situation reversible ?

 

 

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“Is the situation reversible?”

Yes I believe it is, but only if all the leading organisations and journals concerned with organs, organ building, organ music and organ teaching get together and set up a long-term campaigning umbrella organisation specifically to promote organs and organ music. I keep going on about this issue, but those organisations need to do far, far more in an organised and highly targeted way to interest the wider public, and especially the young. There are some very worthwhile projects at the moment (I just read about one in Salisbury Diocese), but they are very localised and few and far between. I’m afraid that many leaders in our field have never really stepped outside the independent school/ Oxbridge/ cathedral tradition, and have never been near a comprehensive school or local authority music service. Don’t get me wrong: I greatly value and admire what those august insitutions do (I have benefited from some of them myself in the past), but times have changed. It’s no longer enough. As a boy coming from a very poor family, I had a wonderful musical education at my local village (!) parish church between the ages of 8 and 12. The church had a three manual organ and the organist was an FRCO who taught me piano and singing. Every Sunday for four years I sang treble in Matins, Eucharist and Evensong. It was that musical education which later inspired me to take up the organ and get an Oxbridge Organ Scholarship. But that world, once available to children from poor families, has all but disappeared and nothing has been done to replace it. Organs and organ lessons are unavailable to the vast majority of young people. They have no access to organs and most of their parents cannot afford the £40-£60 per hour for lessons. It’s time our leaders got off their backsides and did something.

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I don't disagree with anything that 'Zimbelstern' has written. I came from a very 'ordinary' family, my mother had been offered a place at Girton but was unable to take it up because 'they couldn't afford it'!! And I was lucky in that the 'comprehensive' school I went to had an amazing music department, the rest of the school was pretty dreadful, that encouraged me to apply to the Junior RCM and eventually to Cambridge where I won a scholarship (not an organ scholarship I hesitate to add!).

I spent part of my life as a schoolteacher and had a student of mine go up to Oxford to read music. He told me that, at that time, he was the only student in the faculty to have been educated in a comprehensive school. All the rest were from the private sector of education. I can't, in truth. make up my mind whether that is a dreadful condemnation of Oxford or the comprehensive system - or both! He got a first but the comment, from one of his peers at Oxford, "how did someone from a comprehensive school manage to gain a place here", he said was demoralising and typical of a system that he had hoped had disappeared.

 

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13 hours ago, Zimbelstern said:

Sounds pretty much like a lot of British industry. Meanwhile, German organ building has been declared by UNESCO to be part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, following efforts made by the Federation of German Organ Builders:

“Organ craftsmanship and music: Germany

Inscribed in 2017 (12.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Organ craftsmanship and music has shaped Germany’s musical landscape and instrument-making for centuries, and there are a diverse number of related traditions in the country. Organ craftsmanship and music are closely related since each instrument is created specifically for the architectural space in which it will be played. The highly specialized knowledge and skills related to the practice have been developed by craftspeople, composers and musicians working together throughout history, and the specialized and mostly informally-transmitted knowledge and skills are significant markers of group identity. Transcultural by its very nature, organ music is a universal language that fosters interreligious understanding. Though mostly associated with church services, concerts and modern cultural events, it is also played during important community-building festivities. There are 400 medium-sized craftspeople’s establishments in Germany, which guarantee its viability and transmission, as well as some larger family-owned workshops. Knowledge and skills related to the element are transmitted through a direct teacher-pupil experience, which is complemented by training in vocational schools and universities. Apprentices gain practical experience in organ construction workshops as well as theoretical knowledge in vocational schools, and efforts to safeguard the element also include teaching in universities and music academies, conferences, and presentations via the media.”

Somehow, I can't imagine that happening here, and it's not due to a lack of a federation of British organ builders.

I'm afraid the organ world here will never have that status and support, not until far many more members of the general population become interested in the instrument and its music.

If only the organ had the same number of aficionados as does football, we'd be world leaders in organ building (some would argue we already are!) and music.

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I've read Colin's article and see little to argue with.  We use an ex-HN&B tuner who set up after HN&B were shut down. He has recently taken IBO accreditation and does an excellent job. It's not a near-term problem, but who will follow him?  Whether anyone will need to, given the shrinking and ageing congregation is a different matter.

Perhaps the biggest problem is summarised in Colin's intro: "digital organs will never sound as good as pipe organs into the forseeable future".

I'm sure most of us agree, but (1) a lot of very good players locally have accepted that a digital solution is good enough and fits the (inevitably tight) budget and (2) most listeners - who pay the bills in the end - can't tell the difference. 

Another question Colin has touched on in his articles  is a pipe organ's reliability and longevity.  One of the big supposed practical advantages of the pipe organ compared to the digital is its reliability and longevity.  It's one thing for a large and well funded institution to take on a complex EP action instrument which will need a major overhaul every +/- 50 years and perhaps replacement electronics more often.  It's another thing for a minor parish or country church, where those of us with bomb-proof Victorian tracker instruments must count ourselves increasingly lucky.  There have been too many examples locally where expensive works have been short lived.  St Peter's, Berkhamsted have been brave enough to put details on their website but others have been brushed under the carpet as embarrassments:

https://www.stpetersberkhamsted.org.uk/music/organ/

The word does get around and for all the successful projects, it only takes a few failures for pipe organs in general to get a reputation as money pits.

The Bucks OA visited Wolvercote and St Peter's. Bedford earlier this year.  I wasn't able to go to Wolvercote but those that did were most impressed.  We had a good turnout to visit Bedford and the new instrument is magnificent.  They are wonderful examples of what can be done where there is the will.

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