From the Organ Loft: England, and the Church Music Tradition

From the Organ Loft: England, and the Church Music Tradition

The organs of England

Edwin Kwong
Melbourne, Australia

From the Organ Loft: England, and the Church Music Tradition

The organs of England

In the second instalment of this three part series about the great tradition of European organ music (and by extension, choral and church music, which I place greater emphasis upon in this particular article), we travel to England, home to the wonderful tradition of Anglican music, which is still continued in many Australian Anglican churches today.

English organ and choral music has an extensive history, but perhaps counter to expectation, not all of it was entirely illustrious. One starting point for this brief journey into English organ and choral music is the Tudor period. Whilst the Christian church had been established in England as early as the 2nd century AD, there were no particularly well known English composers for the organ and choir until the Renaissance period. The three large Choirbooks (Eton, Caius, and Lambeth) from early Tudor England, however, document some of the choral works of a few of these criminally under heard and underappreciated composers – such as Peter Philips, Robert Fayrfax, John Browne and Walter Lambe. English choral music mostly suffered from a dearth of quality composers after the Renaissance – perhaps with some notable exceptions such as Henry Purcell and George Frederic Handel (a German!) – until the Romantic and Modern eras, and so was not regarded highly at all for over two centuries.

On the other hand, English organ music and its composers have almost always suffered from a lack of attention, and for the pipe organs themselves, a lack of quality, up until the Romantic and Modern eras as well. After the flourishing of the English Renaissance keyboard composers from the Virginalist School – including William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, John Bull, and Thomas Tomkins – there were no significant English compositions for the organ for the next 200 years or so. Not only was this due to a lack of composers for the instrument, but also because of the tardiness and hesitance of English organ builders to catch up to contemporary continental organ construction practices, leading to a lack of appropriate quality organs on which to perform complex music. Indeed, many English organs did not have pedalboards until the 18th century, making the performance of many works of the great North German and French Baroque organ schools impossible in England. Without going too much into the historical details of English organ and choral music, it is sufficient to say that there was a period of incredible revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries courtesy of a great number of fantastic composers, and it is now held in very high regard.

Many of the great English cathedrals and churches are famous worldwide, such as Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit all three places over December and January, and had the chance to play the great organ at St Paul’s briefly. Similar to Germany, the organs and musical traditions in many English cathedrals, and indeed in these three places in particular, all have an incredible history behind them.

The current organ at St Paul’s Cathedral has been altered many times over the course of the cathedral’s history, from the first organ built by the German organ builder Bernard Smith in 1694, to the current incarnation after the major rebuild by Noel Mander in 1977. Again, the emphasis I wish to place on the significance of these pipe organs, and organ music, is that they are part of an unbroken tradition – a living and flourishing one today! Whilst I was playing the organ at St Paul’s, I used one particular stop on the Great manual which has been preserved from the original Smith organ from 1694 – a wonderful example of this continuing tradition. Indeed, it is this Smith organ that Felix Mendelssohn would have known and played when he visited St Paul’s in 1837. There is an amusing story which was told by a contemporary witness that Mendelssohn played the final pedal solo from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 543) for so long, apparently, that the gentlemen pumping the organ blowers were instructed by the Verger to stop, so that he could go home after Evensong!

A better known example of the English musical tradition is the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. Every year on Christmas Eve, millions of listeners around the world tune in to BBC Radio 4 to hear the broadcast of the service, and hundreds of devoted listeners line up outside the beautiful chapel hours before to ensure that they will be able to attend. Last Christmas Eve, I was able to cross this particular item off my personal bucket list, as I joined hundreds of others in lining up for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The service begins at 3pm, and although I arrived at around 8am, I found myself already one of the last people to be admitted onto the grounds of the college! Upon speaking to others in the line, I soon found out that many had been there since as early as 6am, and some of the most devoted had even camped out in front of the college over night…

The inclement weather on that particular day in Cambridge made the queuing process much more strenuous than usual, but I must say that it was magical when I was finally admitted into the chapel just after 2pm, as the organ scholars began to perform music by Messiaen, Bach, and Karg-Elert. The format of the service has remained unchanged since 1919, and sung services have been a part of the current chapel building since 1536. The Renaissance rood screen in the chapel, which still stands today separating the nave and altar, was erected by Henry VIII in the 1530s and now houses a part of the organ. As the service drew to a close after the first organ voluntary, which was Bach’s In Dulci Jubilo (BWV 729) as is the custom, one of the organ scholars began to play the second organ voluntary, ‘Sortie on In Dulci Jubilo’ by David Briggs, a former organ scholar himself at King’s and now a renowned composer and concert organist. In the 500th year since the completion of the chapel, it seemed apt to me that the service finished with a composition from a former King’s student.

To the average person, sometimes classical music can appear a little too esoteric or unapproachable. But occasionally, a piece of classical music will break through this barrier and enter public cultural awareness. The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s The Messiah is certainly one such piece of music, and I had the great pleasure of watching and hearing the Westminster Abbey Choir perform this in the Abbey. To be able to hear the Messiah in full from one of the world’s finest choirs, in the place where Handel is buried, was a truly mesmerising experience. However, to bring your attention back to the organ, I was able to attend an organ recital by Matthew Jorysz, the then-organ scholar of the Abbey and current assistant organist, on the last Sunday of December. For the Abbey nave to be packed with people intent on hearing a recital of organ music on a cold English night was nothing short of impressive. It certainly caused me to reflect upon the status granted to not just organ music, but perhaps music in general in English churches and society, compared to a rather different status quo in Australia. Whilst it certainly helped that the recital took place in such a famous venue, I noticed that many people that night were there purely for the organ music.

We have a long way to go yet in this country in terms of reviving the position of organ music within the classical music realm, and restoring the consciousness of the public about organ music. But I’m confident that we will get there – it seems to me a logical conclusion that such a grand and versatile instrument could certainly not go unnoticed for too long!