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Vox Humana

Did Handel Play Your Organ?

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You missed a treat then, David, for it has one of the finest Georgian interiors in Bristol and a very decent acoustic - though you would not guess this from its rather grim exterior. The HNB organ wasn't at all bad either, except for a wobbly and poorly integrated Positive division - it had been "got at" by Downes. The O&C position was something of a dream job in that the church survived specifically for its music and had no priest to screw everything up. This lack of a priest went back to the '50s when the diocese had tried to close the church. The congregation had refused to accept this and the result was a compromise whereby the choir and congregation were allowed to continue to worship "clandestinely". This was eminently practical since the church had a six-figure annual income and nothing much to spend it on except the music. I didn't actually spend all that much, except when I first arrived and I promptly bought a set of The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems, a set of Oxford Psalters and had a custom chant book printed. The choir numbered about thirty - an adult female top line plus twelve men in the back rows (2 of each, dec and can). Three of the men doubled as lay clerks at the cathedral and there was a husband and wife who also sang in the choir at Clifton Cathedral. As the notice board intimated, we only sang Sunday Evenings. Once a month we weaned a retired priest off his sherry bottle to celebrate a Communion Service, but on the other Sundays it was Choral Evensong. The diocese closed the church at the end of 1983 as part of the great closure of Bristol city centre churches that left only Christ Church and St Stephen's functioning. They did find us an alternative home at Cotham Parish Church where the Sunday evening slot was vacant, but it was a poor alternative to St Thomas's and never really worked. I left after about a year. The choir struggled on for a year or two, but eventually folded. The organ at St Thomas didn't survive either. One Christmas the diocese decided to open the place up to the local down-and-outs as a refuge, one of whom repaid their kindness by setting fire to the organ. I understand that the organ now in St Thomas's is a two manual instrument that was previously in St Werburgh's.

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Wow! I never even guessed at that! Bristol was rather short-sighted in its closure policy. My landlady went to St.. George's, Brandon Hill, which was reasonably supported but its congregation was coveted by the Cathedral and it was closed while still a going concern. I was a bell-ringer (one reason why I never got to St. Thomas), so I knew the organs in churches with bells. Oddly, I never played either Christ Church or St. Stephen, but the University Ringers kept the bells going at St. Michael-on-the-Mount-Without and would also prowl around others like St. John-on-the-Wall and St. Philip and St. Jacob (where the local band of ringers continued to function after the church went completely clap-hands-here-comes-Charlie and got rid of the organ).

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I did make noises about getting the organ renovated. There wasn't too much wrong with it, but the Downes absurdities did need rectifying. However, the PCC felt that it would be an irresponsible expenditure with the spectre of closure hanging over the church and of course they were right. It was a considerable frustration not being able to advertise ourselves - but to do so would have been strictly against the terms of reference by which we were allowed to operate. Nigel Davison did invite us over to the Lord Mayor's Chapel (where he was organist) to give a carol concert and that was as far afield as we got. In our last summer I also arranged a series of recitals (mostly organ). This was pushing our luck a bit and I did wonder whether it might have been some sort of last straw for the diocese, but I doubt it was really: the diocese had always intended to do what they did at some point. In announcing the closure of the city centre churches, the diocese said quite openly (but not very wisely IMO) that there were too many places of worship in Bristol. St Thomas's handsome income came from rents of properties it owned. Christ Church was rumoured to be even richer, so I don't doubt the other city centre churches were also worth a bob or two. I think basically the diocese looked at all this money, thought they could put it to better use and realised the only way of getting their hands on it was to close the churches. That was definitely the word on the ground, at any rate. To be fair, apart from St George's, Brandon Hill, I don't think any of the churches they closed had properly viable congregations, but I have never really forgiven them for dispossessing a close-knit "family" of 30 perfectly competent singers, whose number seems to have been ignored when assessing the size of the church's congregation. St Michael-on-the-Mount was one of the churches offered to us before we settled on Cotham. We thought the place had promise, but the organ, though quite decent, was a compromise too far for me. I doubt we could have done better than we did at Cotham, but after singing in such a lovely place as St Thomas I don't think anywhere else could ever have proved successful. I effectively washed my hands of the church after that.

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Here's a good photo of the church's interior taken from the west gallery. If you click the right arrow, the next few photos show what might well be some remnants from my old organ, the present organ (is that the old Renatus Harris case? - it looks remarkably similar) and a view from the altar looking west.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/matt_gibson/2610990423/in/photostream/

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I understand it's not the only place in recent times down the road in Bristol where a choir has been disposed of.

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How interesting; I hadn't realised how widespread this boast was.

A few weeks ago I attended Morning Prayer at St Mary the Virgin, Long Preston and over coffee I remarked what a pity it was that the organ was out of action. The kindly church warden assured me that it was only shrouded in plastic sheeting whilst the windows were undergoing some sort of restoration.

"We understand it was once played by a famous composer but we can't remember who - we just know it began with aitch."

 

I suppose it could have been Howells or Holst (all manner of things are attributed to Haille Selassie but although he got around a bit, I've not heard that he dabbled on the organ) but my feeling is they meant Handel.

 

I hope none of the regulars are reading this thread; they might not bother removing the plastic sheeting!

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I understand it's not the only place in recent times down the road in Bristol where a choir has been disposed of.

 

Indeed. Didn't the choir of St Stephen's put themselves up for sale on eBay three or four years ago? Is there still music there worth hearing?

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Indeed. Didn't the choir of St Stephen's put themselves up for sale on eBay three or four years ago? Is there still music there worth hearing?

 

It depends on your definition of 'worth hearing' I suppose! The church is the city's centre for 'City Spirituality, Arts and Faith'

 

On Monday there is a Piano Recital entitled 'The Banks of Green Willow' which will include music by 'composers directly affected by the Great War' - it includes music by Ivor Gurney, George Butterworth, Ernest Farrar, Frank Bridge's rarely heard Piano Sonata and Maurice Ravel.

 

Sunday seems to be celebrated with 'Contemplative Eucharist' - now I can think of lots of very worthwhile music that would be highly appropriate for that, and that would be well worth listening too ................................................... but that's perhaps not what you mean ........................... or perhaps it is!!!

 

What is 'music worth hearing'?

 

Sorry to, possibly, open up a 'can of worms' - and I apologise for straying from the point of the thread - this is nothing to do with Handel playing any organ!

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I remember the St. Stephen's incident.

 

The St. Michael-on-the-Mount organ looked promising - quite a large old Vowles two-manual with a IV rank Mixture on the Great - but it didn't really live up to the stop-list.

 

Christ Church may well have been rich, but its bells were not widely admired (there are a lot of rings in Bristol, some of them very fine). There was a couplet going the rounds:

 

The bells of heaven go ting-a-ling-a-ling,

But Christ Church bells go Boink.

 

I thought that was a bit unfair.

 

I was organist at Henbury Church, which has a decent ring of eight and a satisfying two manual Daniel rebuild (very loud at close quarters). In the mid-seventies, it also had a respectable choir, which managed the Faure Requiem and the Byrd four-part Mass.

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