|Huskisson Stubington Syndrome
Organs and organ-building in Britain today (No.3 of 6 articles published in Choir & Organ in 1997 under the heading 'Raising the Tone')
Who was Huskisson Stubington?
Despite the improbable name, he was not a fictional character. He was, for many years, the organist of Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire. He was an intelligent and sensitive man.
His awareness of the wider world of music was demonstrated in series of articles he wrote many years ago for The Organ, describing organs in Britanny. It was already known that, at the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, members of the Dallam organ-building family escaped across the Channel to exile in the north-west tip of France: to the lonely, wind-swept sandy heaths of Finistere; to the 'end of the world'. What was not widely known then was that many of the Dallam organs still stood. Stubington described the mostly ruinous survivals with understanding and with an historian's eye. His alarm, in the 1930s, at the rebuilding and modernising of the Thomas Dallam organ at Guimiliau showed a conservationist spirit in advance of its time.
However, back in Tewkesbury he seemed to be on a quite different tack. There stood the remains of another Dallam instrument, the famous 'Milton Organ': built for Magdalen College Oxford, appropriated by Oliver Cromwell for his own personal use at Hampton Court Palace, played on there by the poet John Milton, moved to Tewkesbury in 1737, and rebuilt by the young Henry Willis in 1848. This was an instrument of fascinatingly complex historic pedigree. Also in Tewkesbury Abbey stood the equally famous - perhaps notorious - Grove Organ: a complex and mechanically flawed masterpiece of a company who built no other significant organ - the ill-starred partnership of Carlton Michell and William Thynne.
After the Second World War, Huskisson Stubington embarked on a rebuild of these two instruments. Times were tight and organ-building was almost on its knees after two great wars and a savage period of depression. The scheme was never executed in full: the Milton Organ was rebuilt in 1947, but the Grove Organ remained untouched (until its sympathetic restoration in more recent times).
Huskisson Stubington's scheme was fatally flawed. What he had was two organs of great individuality and importance. What emerged, at least as far as the Milton Organ was concerned, was of catastrophically poor quality. The new consoles were fine in their way, the 5 manual-console with its grinning sweep of 200 stop-keys especially so. But they were of course also sad, in being the only part of the scheme that was thought through in detail. The poor organ-builders concerned, handed several pages of densely annotated stop-list by Stubington himself, did best they could at a time of biting economic austerity.
The Milton Organ, enlarged, electrified, spread around the building, with its cinema-inspired remote divisions and strangely wonderful range of exotic sound-effects, was now made of a truly dazzling array of second-hand parts. Old slider soundboards by various builders, pipework from here there and everywhere, individual unit and off-note chests jammed into any available corner, swell-boxes made of hardboard and nails, and a dreadful tangle of home-made electrical equipment. Finally, that extraodinary organ-builder's apology for wiring - tendrils of nasty-looking , sticky, black, fungoid, cabling wriggling round the building frame. What old pipework remained to serve again was given the full voicing-shop treatment. I remember one innocuous-looking 18th century chimney flute, which, like all its brethren, must once have been a charming voice: in the new scheme of things it had been drastically revoiced, every part of its delicate features cut, bent or modified. Though the tone was still fairly innocent in the swimming acoustic of the building, heard at close quarters there could be no doubt that it came from a factory not fom the workshop of a craftsman. It had been converted into a hooter; the reeds were now klaxons.
We may be thankful that funds ran out at Tewkesbury. The Grove Organ was never subjected to the planned enlargement and modernisation. Huskisson Stubington virus is a terrible thing; we must be on our guard.
Please understand that in introducing HSS as a name for the disease I do not wish to criticise the man, who was completely genuine in his intent to do something wonderful at Tewkesbury, and who produced a paper scheme which was in many ways ahead of its time (bristling, for example, with mixtures and mutations). It is elecricity that is to blame.
The real problem with electric action is ultimately not touch: we all know that great performances occur on organs of quite different types regardless of their key action. Nor is it quality or reliability: the finest electro-pneumatic actions are, in craft terms, easily the equal of more traditional systems. It is not that electric action is in itself somehow 'bad', nor that it is any way more difficult to build a good organ with electric action.
The problem with electric action is that its very flexibility allows the organ builder to do the most horrible things much more easily than any other system. When it arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, it was a godsend to every charlatan, hack, bodger and cheat. It brought detached consoles that removed every last mite of initmate contact between player and instrument. It allowed poisonously unmusical extension, fatuous and illogical duplication. It allowed bits to be added here there and everywhere. It allowed gadgetry. It allowed organs to be placed in every conceivable inappropriate place: on a shelf, in a pit, in a hole in the wall.
The arrival of electric action completely shredded traditional restraints of design and planning. Suddenly anything was possible. While a few organ builders showed that the pinnacle of their craft still sparkled with quality and integrity (E. M. Skinner, Henry Willis III, G. Donald Harrison), the great mass of their contemporaries slid downhill into an abyss of cheap, lacklustre commercialism.
This is why Organ Reform really had to happen: the rediscovery of old music and the question of authenticity is only part of the story, and a part that really need not bother us too much. The real crisis facing organ-building, as Schweitzer tried valiantly to tell us almost a hundred years ago, was, and still is, a crisis of standards and quality.
The real value of the tracker revival has been in establishing a completely new platform of design standards. It is much more difficult to make a bad mechanical action organ; to make one at all is a matter so intricate and complex as to demand rigid discipline in design. At every turn it forces the hand: stop lists have to be carefully thought out and economical; architectural considerations are paramount; the slightest untidness in layout is immediately apparent. In the old all-mechanical world, before even the Barker Lever was invented, all organs passed this first test of quality in order to exist at all. There were far fewer bad organs than there are today. The mind of the craftsman was concentrated on unity of concept; the results were guaranteed to have the quality of Art.
Electric action allowed HSS to take hold. It encouraged the notion that the console and its stop-knobs were the centre of organ-building. Meanwhile, in countless darkened organ-chambers, especially in the English-speaking world, the most awful acts were perpetrated. However splendid twentieth century organ building may have been at the top end of the market, at the bottom end it was of dreadful quality. These were not musical instruments like a Stradivarius or even a Steinway; or, even, for that matter a Yamaha. These were concertinas, penny whistles, calliopes and kazoos, thoughtlessly assembled by plumbers and electricians.
A new generation of organ builders found, in the Organ Reform movement, a recipe for restoring the status of the craft: a return to artistic discipline. Their work has been as variable as at any other time, yet the masterpieces of the new school stand proudly alongside the great organs of any period. In certain important respects they have challenged standards of quality everywhere and have raised our expectations.
Huskisson Stubington Syndrome is mostly definitely still a risk. Numbers of recent organs in the British Isles have been, by any standards, too big for their particular situation. Spreading my criticism without fear or favour, I would suggest that the organs at St. Martin's in the Fields, St. John Smith Square, St. Peter Eaton Square, St. Mary's Warwick, Kingston Parish Church, and Tonbridge School might all have been far more attractive for being smaller and more individually characterful. They are all different from each other, and yet none of them can be said truthfully to have had quite the special impact on the public that their grandiose stop-lists would seem to have anticipated. The law of diminishing returns has been demonstrated with some force.
Any attempt to be eclectic brings a risk, because it puts the stop list of the organ at the head of the list of priorities. This is simply not the right thing to do, for no stop can be placed successfully in an organ without consideration of its position and its mechanism, and of its contribution to an artistic whole. Eclecticism is the enemy of style and automatically the enemy of Art and Music.
No more of these machines please: no more organs on which any international recitalist can sit down and play a programme spanning the ages from Scheidt to Stockhausen. We have your recordings at home, alongside many others. We know what the real French jeu de tierce sounds like, what the choruses at Alkmaar sound like, what a real Spanish Trompeta sounds like. We do not want cheap imitations of these effects in every new organ.
What we still need, as much as we did when Schweitzer wrote at the start of this century, is organs of supreme musical quality: instruments that will take a further step towards the restoration of a noble craft. Such organs are being built today, in different parts of the world, and their individual qualities are gradually being appreciated. Far from being over, Organ Reform is still alive and is a profoundly active force. In the 1950s and 1960s the Classical Revival was perhaps concerned mostly with matters of design and mechanics; the debate has now widened again to encompass questions of subjective beauty; questions of style, character and tone. We are embarking at last on an Artistic Revival.
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