Perhaps I had ambitions to be an MP - or an undertaker!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

This is a photograph of the organ in Bristol Cathedral, taken in April 2005 by Adrian Pingstone.


During the time I was a church organist (probably around 40 years, though not continuously), there were only 3 or 4 times when I played at a funeral service in church. Nowadays it appears to be the custom to have a church service before going on to the cemetery or crematorium, and non-church members too seem to like the idea.

There was one occasion when I officiated at a crematorium, having been given 2 minutes notice. It was a very big funeral and Jean and I found ourselves in the crowd who were unable to get in. And then our daughter Lesley emerged looking for me. There was no organist and would I oblige? I did, but that was the only time I ever played an organ in public without having had a practice on it.

Pipe organs are not all the same and a diapason stop on one can sound quite different from one on another. And with electronic instruments, there are now so many manufacturers all creating their own specifications. So it’s always wise for an organist not only to check out an unfamiliar instrument, but also an unfamiliar church. This is especially important at weddings, when the organist must keep watching for the sign that the bride is ready to enter.

Now here’s story. I might call it “How I astonished myself at my brilliant musicianship!”

I was engaged to play for a wedding in St. Silas Church in Glasgow. The organ gallery is at the back of the building, and the organist needs to turn round occasionally to look down and watch for the important signal. When this was eventually given, I at once belted out the chosen entry music “Trumpet Tune” by Purcell. Of course I had to keep looking down so that I would stop when the bride had walked up the aisle.

The trouble was that she didn’t appear!

I played the tune again - and again, and that was when panic set in!

I decided to vary the tune a bit - using quieter stops, and adding little embellishments here and there.

Still no bride! (Perhaps she had changed her mind and gone home?)

It was then I really excelled. I couldn’t possibly keep playing the same tune over and over, so I began to improvise - the tune was still there somewhere, but now my variations soared, gradually building up the excitement (my excitement) until -

The bride appeared below! And I put Purcell back together again.

I didn’t ever find out what had detained the bride!


Now you can listen to that piece of music, played on the organ of Canterbury Cathedral.


(To be sung to the hymn tune AURELIA)

Our organ's firm foundations
Are diapasons fat,
Installed in nineteen twenty,
From that day since they've sat.
From Boston, Mass., we sought it,
The object of our pride.
For fifteen grand we bought it
When our old tracker* "died."

Elect from every family
Of pipes that give a toot,
Its great specification,
One string, one reed, one flute,
And leathered diapasons
At sixteen, eight, and four,
And sub and super couplers;
How could one ask for more?

Yet with a scornful wonder,
Men hear it sore oppressed
By ciphers rent asunder,
By windline leaks distressed.
Yet choirboys are listening;
Their cry goes up: "How long,
Before this hoot and hissing
Cease drowning out our song?"

Yet still we oil the swellshades
Each month with Three-in-One,
And grease the motor bearings
To quiet down its run.
O, miserable contraption!
Lord, grant us funds that we
May junk it for a tracker*
With pressures under three. (Source unknown)

*Tracker action was a form of mechanics which was once used in pipe organs


Verse 3 mentions the problem of ciphers. This is where a fault causes a pipe to sound continuously without a key on the console having been pressed. It’s something that can happen with pipe organs, but not with electronic ones.

I remember an occasion when I was faced with this problem during a service. At the end of every hymn I had to switch off the power and the offending sound gradually faded away.

The particular pipe at fault was not a loud one, but I realised the choir would be in trouble with that sound going on during the anthem. I decided that we could sing the item unaccompanied and that, as soon as it was announced, I would play the opening chord, switch off the power and come out in front to conduct.

Unfortunately I couldn’t have pressed the off-switch properly, for, after we had sung a good few bars, that intruding sound was still droning on. And it continued through the whole anthem. Full marks to the choir for coming out on top!


Finally, more organ music. This time it’s the Wurlitzer in the Tower Blackpool.


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