published in the December 2007 edition of the IBO newsletter
20 December 1957 - 18 August 2007
The practice of organ building attracts from time to time a few not hewn from the stony stuff that mostly constitutes the mills and offices of our calling. Some of these are out of time, some are out of place, some are out of step - and some are out of another world. From this last and infrequent group came the late and much-lamented Stephen Bicknell.
Born the youngest of four into a cultured upper middle-class family not without eccentric antecedents, Stephen came to the craft late by traditional standards. After Winchester and Durham University, equipped with a sense of history, an appreciation of music and architecture (his brother Julian is a well-known London architect), a distinctive skill at drawing, and the licence usually accorded to youngest sons of such families, he joined N P Mander Ltd towards the end of 1979, having previously spent two summer vacations there. He was then approaching 22 years old. It is easy to see why Mander's attracted Stephen. Noel Mander was then the only organ builder to affect an interest in studying and preserving or restoring instruments from the past, which perhaps then meant before 1850. However, Mr Mander had very properly attempted to dissuade Stephen from making a career in organ building. He then advised him that if he must pursue it to get training abroad. And when all advice had failed, Mr Mander allowed that the spark he saw in Stephen might yet develop.
By all accounts, Stephen went through the various departments of the Mander workshop with credit and came out with the practical knowledge necessary for any designer. Thereafter, he went into the drawing office as assistant to Ian Bell, then chief draughtsman. Among the important projects of that time were the reconstruction, after years of silence, of the organ in Chichester Cathedral and the new instrument for Magdalen College, Oxford completed in 1986, for which his brother Julian designed the new casework.
In 1987, supposing that there might be a greater opportunity to exercise his artistic skill and historical knowledge, Stephen made the move to J W Walker & Sons Ltd at Brandon, Suffolk. It was perhaps a strange thought as Walker's then had on their staff David Graebe, the still unsurpassed designer of casework in any style. Nevertheless, Stephen reasoned with some justification that Walker's needed a sound artistic basis for their instruments. From their modern factory, equipped with modern machinery and staffed by woodworkers of the highest quality, Walker's was turning out some 220 stops a year, mostly for the US market. There was a feeling at the time that the Walker product was good-looking, but tonally lacking, and that no consistent train of artistic thought ran though their opus list. His time at Walker's started propitiously enough for both sides. To their slight surprise Walker's had been awarded the contract for the new organ for Oriel College, Oxford. The style of the work was to be contemporary with the existing 18th-century case. Whilst Walker's were not exactly at a loss how to proceed, they did need someone to assemble and present the historical data necessary for the work. This Stephen did with a dazzling display of knowledge, particularly of pipe scales and console details. Differences inevitably arose during the course of the work with the melding of Walker's modern production methods and Stephen's assertions of ancient practice, most of which sparked little interest.
Other specifically Bicknell projects at Walker's were the small 1990 one-manual organ for Carlisle Cathedral in supposed 18th century style, and the small two-manual at All Saints' Kesgrave in modern style. Through these small instruments he tried to show Walker's another line, but the ground was stony and Mammon unimpressed.
In 1991, Stephen returned to Mander's to be in the place and with the people he knew and, more importantly, who knew him. There he was involved, along with Didier Grassin, in a number of important projects, including Chelmsford Cathedral and St Ignatius of Loyola, New York City. Whether it was the strain of that work or a delayed reaction to his disappointments at Walker's, Stephen's health broke down in 1993. While returning to some semblance of normality, and hoping to return again to familiar ground, he went to see John Mander. Mr Mander rightly perceived that if Stephen was to recover he needed peace and quiet as well as something to occupy and concentrate his troubled mind. Thus came the inspired suggestion that Stephen should write a book.
"This is a work of interpretation rather than of primary scholarship", Stephen wrote in the preface to The History of the English Organ (Cambridge 1996). That was a rare understatement. From a mind freed or in flight from all other concerns and wonderfully concentrated on the subject, there flowed in prose unsurpassed the whole history of the English organ, from the past immemorial to the present indefinable. With the minimum of technical terms and the maximum appeal to the general musical public, and with impeccable research, new material and abundant references, the facts are engagingly presented, released from the myths and fallacies that have confused scholars for more than a century. This extraordinarily fine work is surely the prose equivalent of Dr Hill's two great folios of the 1880s.
And then, two years ago, Stephen gave us all up Š virtually every last matter concerned with the organ. He took a sensible job in a sensible office doing worthwhile work, and did it well enough to receive recently an important advance. Evidently he had identified the Organ and all that and those associated with it as the root cause of his unhappiness. Few are unfamiliar with disappointment in one or other of its many forms, but for the most part we can shrug it off. At least in matters concerning the organ, Stephen was incapable of shrugging. He saw with awful clarity features of an argument of which we were only dimly aware, or which simply passed our understanding. His enormous erudition was born on a slender frame, much garlanded with a complete comprehension of his world, but little buttressed with the wisdom and habits of ours.
There were windows into Stephen's world through which we peered with wonder at the creator of iridescent cocktails, the designer of Easter Eggs, the skilled drawer of plants, objects and people, the issuer of illustrated on-line bulletins on the development of the garden at Lavender Grove, the left-handed calligrapher, the Francophile who probably placed Andre Citro‘n above Dom Bˇdos in his Pantheon, the designer of a curious line in hair-styles (or should that be hair architecture?), the devotee and proponent of anytime fireworks and the creator of the finest bread-and-butter pudding that ever there was, which now can never be surpassed.
Stephen had abandoned the organ, but only after he had done all he could for it. "The careful tending of the nursery of learning will ensure that the English organ has a rich future", he wrote as the last sentence of his great work. It is implicit that without that careful tending the English Organ will probably become out of time, out of place, out of step and part of another world.
THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH ORGAN