reproduced from The Telegraph obituary 31 viii 20007
Stephen Bicknell, who has died aged 49, was a leading pipe organ designer and builder and an authority on the history of the instrument.
Churches, cathedrals and stately homes anxious to discover the history of a long-forgotten and dusty organ would call upon Bicknell's expert opinion, both for provenance and quality of tone.
After inspecting the instrument in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace in 1989 he expressed his horror at the scene of "destruction and vandalism" he discovered. "From the outside, everything looks fine," he said. But inside the woodwork and pipes were "broken, dented and collapsing"..
His dismay was all the greater because a survey in 1953 had reported that the instrument had survived the bombing of the Second World War. The organ, reportedly once used by Mendelssohn to entertain Prince Albert, was finally overhauled and recommissioned in 2002.
Bicknell's concern for the organ and its legacy stretched far beyond royal palaces, though he sadly acknowledged that the great organs of the municipal concert halls were destined to remain "a Victorian phenomenon". Among the more important projects he designed were the two instruments in Chelmsford Cathedral, completed in 1994. He also led the team responsible for building the organ in Gray's Inn Chapel, London, in 1993.
From an early age he gained a reputation as a purist, courting controversy within the narrow, largely under-funded, and predominantly Anglican organ-building fraternity. He advocated a return to traditionally-based methods of organ building, upsetting a number of high-profile colleagues who, he suggested, were too willing to accept electronic compromises.
In a series of articles published in Choir & Organ under the heading "Raising the Tone", he demanded improvements to building standards and forthrightly explained why some instruments considered to be exemplars could, in fact, have been of far better quality. "That many of the postwar instruments sounded well, even embracing new classical balances with complete success, should not be allowed to obscure the fact that standards of design in British organ building had collapsed," he declared. Today his proposals have largely taken hold and, particularly among younger organists, his theories are considered sound.
When the organ at the Royal Festival Hall was refurbished in 2001 Bicknell - described as an "organologist" - gave a lecture on the character of the instrument. He also wrote A Concert-Goer's Guide to the Organ for visitors to the South Bank Centre.
He was a deeply thoughtful, some would say tortured, soul who, despite his prowess, was perhaps somewhat in awe of the instrument, its symbolism and philosophy. On one occasion he wrote: "The organ is a continual reminder to us that learning and 'wrought objects' are God-given mysteries and part of the human struggle for Heaven on Earth."
Stephen Bicknell was born in Chelsea on December 20 1957. His grandfather had been a gifted amateur violinist and his mother played the piano. His stepfather, Leonard Miall, was a BBC correspondent whom he admired greatly. Stephen was educated at Westminster School and Winchester College before reading English Literature, History and Philosophy at Durham. He began his career in pipe organ building with Noel Mander, the famous London organ builder, at the age of 22.
He occasionally collaborated with his brother, the architect Julian Bicknell, for example on the casework of an instrument in the chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford, completed in 1986. He was also an active member of the British Institute of Organ Studies, contributing to its journal and conferences, and reporting enthusiastically on instruments he encountered on his travels - for example on a visit to the Organs Historical Trust of Australia in Tasmania in 2002. He lectured in organ history at the Royal Academy of Music and contributed to The Cambridge Companion to the Organ and the latest edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music.
Bicknell's magnum opus, The History of the English Organ (Cambridge University Press, 1996) is widely regarded as the leading authority on the subject, covering in great depth the history of the instrument in this country from AD 900 to the present day. The Times Literary Supplement observed: "There is no organist who would not appreciate Bicknell's fresh style." The book won the biennial Nicholas Bessaraboff Prize in the United States for the best publication on musical instruments in 1996-97.
Bicknell, who was diagnosed HIV positive in the early 1990s, otherwise enjoyed good physical health. However, the peripatetic and uncertain life and finances of the freelance did not suit his personality. He craved stability, structure and certainty.
Two years ago he all but abandoned the milieu of the organ and joined the Association of Accounting Technicians as an administrator. He found working in a modern, multi-cultural, office-based environment a refreshing tonic after the decidedly narrow world of organ music.
He had a passion for architecture of all eras, in particular modern architecture, and travelled around European capitals indulging his interest.
In the garden of his house at London Fields, Hackney, he created a delightful mixture of cottage garden and formality.
Stephen Bicknell was found dead at his home on August 18; he had been suffering from depression. He is survived by John Vanner, with whom he entered into a civil partnership 18 months ago.
THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH ORGAN