Members of the ISO inspect the Kenneth Tickell organ at Oakham Parish Church
Have we got it right?
Organs and organ-building in Britain today

(No.1 of 6 articles published in Choir & Organ in 1997 under the heading 'Raising the Tone')

If you had been standing on the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge in the middle of July this year and had a penchant for eavesdropping it would not have taken you long to realise that a group of organ builders were in town. From those speaking in a variety of foreign languages you would have learnt that the group was an international one, and if you had a good eye for faces you might have recognised some of the most noteworthy exponents of modern organ building strolling across the sun drenched courtyards of St. John's College.

This was in fact the biennial congress of the International Society of Organbuilders (ISO), representing the profession round the world, and visiting the British Isles to see what we are up to.

The ISO has visited us before, in 1963. Now the British organ building scene thirty-three years ago was an altogether different animal from today; the delegates then were greeted by an organ building establishment who, despite a handful of recent classically-influenced organs, included many who were not afraid to voice their opinion that the Organ Reform Movement was some kind of a joke. Even where classical influence was welcomed, perhaps especially at that time in the workshops of Harrison & Harrison and J. W. Walker, the most obvious point of comparison was the electro-pneumatic American Classic organ developed by Aeolian-Skinner (under the ex-Willis employee G. Donald Harrison) and by Walter Holtkamp, a style developed in the 1930s. There was little enthusiasm for the idea, by then widespread on the continent of Europe, that mechanical key action should become part of the recipe for the future. To outsiders we must have seemed insular and conservative. With relatively few new organs to show for ourselves and isolated in our attitudes we may actually have seemed backward, even possibly ignorant.

The words of one commentator seem at first aptly to summarise the prevailing mode of thought:

'We well remember that, not more than thirty years since, it was the settled habit of organ-builders, professors, and amateurs to think and speak of the merit of foreign organs as a complete delusion. Not that they had any proper means of forming an opinion on the matter. They were at no pains to see and hear for themselves what the continental artists were doing at the time. They were simply content to believe that their own performances were the best in the world, - that no German could equal them - especially, that no Frenchman could make an organ at all, - and to put down all accounts to the contrary as the result of travellers' ignorance. This was in the days when one heard of nothing but fine diapasons and monstrous pedal pipes; and, beyond these, not the faintest notion existed as to what truly constituted the plan and characteristics of a large organ.'

Before we go on I should alert the reader to the fact that these words were in fact not written in the late twentieth century but in 1863, appearing in the Musical World (and republished in modern times in N. J. Thistlethwaite's 'The Making of the Victorian Organ'). In other words history has repeated itself. Just to hammer the similarity home, let see what else the Musical World had to say:

'Within the last few years, however, English opinion on this subject, as on many others, has undergone a vast change. A flying speed by land and sea, cheap fares, and all manner of voyaging facilities, have sent Englishmen by shoals to the Continent ... Our organ builders, unfortunately, have not generally availed themselves of these privileges; but our organ players have, and it is interesting to watch the effect of experience as reflected in their totally changed habit of thought. From the more enthusiastic of these, indeed, it is now very common to hear the avowal that an orgn-hunting expediion to the continent has satisfied them that there is not an English organ worth playing on! Now, allowing for the dazzle of novelty and some trifle of exaggeration, there must be a little truth in all this.'

Though these remarks summarise the state of play in the middle of queen Victoria's reign, they might just as well have been written today. Victorian organ-building was stimulated by continental recipes and driven to new heights of excellence by the arrival of instruments by Schulze and Cavaille-Coll; in the late twentieth century we have had a similar incursion of instruments by famous contemporary builders from overseas, such as Flentrop, Frobenius, Klais, Marcussen and Rieger, and there are more on the way. Their arrival has been promoted by well-travelled organists and, quite naturally, has been viewed with suspicion by British organ builders and their supporters.

The arrival of imported organs causes considerable debate with partisans arguing the pros and cons along more or less predictable lines. However, the organs themselves are no longer the hard-line neoclassical instruments we saw at first: new organs in this country by Marcussen, Klais and Rieger are avowedly eclectic, well able to handle the romantic repertoire on their own terms. At the same time the 'International Modern' style they represent has been successfully adopted by British builders, with notable new encased mechanical action instruments being built by Walker, Mander, Harrison, Collins, Tickell and others. The status quo has clearly changed completely since 1965.

If we did indeed lag behind a generation ago, can it be said that we have now caught up with the organ world at large? Members of the ISO who visited this country in the summer certainly saw enough to impress them considerably, and it was particularly heartening to hear a very clear consensus from congress-goers that British organ building seemed to be regaining its old reputation for quality. However, it is quite possible that some who attended will still have found something missing. Is the standardised eclectic tracker organ the only answer? Possibly not.

Since the 1970s several new movements have emerged in organ building. Over the next few issues I propose to try and describe some significant changes of emphasis apparent today; changes that have had considerable impact around the world but have yet to be fully understood by the majority of organists and consultants in this country. After a generation of rapid progress and significant success, British organ builders are keen to consolidate their progressive stance and are well aware of what their overseas competitors are offering. A younger generation of organists have been brought up with neo-classical organs and are now asking for something more. The illustrious continental companies listed above all made their reputations in the first wave of the classical revival in the 1950s and 1960s: are they the right firms to be entrusted with the organs of today and the future? Are organ-builders in this country ready to grasp the challenges of a further period of change, a second wave of organ revival?

The classical revival is now well understood in this country and a degree of consensus in the building of new organs, whether home-grown or imported, is obvious. Meanwhile there has been a further revival and it is again time to learn, digest and apply the lessons of new learning and new knowledge. Choir & Organ has already introduced its readers to the work of some of the world's most progressive and imaginative builders, examples of workshops for whom the classical revival has been a vital stimulus. More importantly, however, this younger generation of craftsmen has found it neccessary to move on from the Modern Movement principles that inspired Organ Reform and consider a further stage of development. An Artistic Revival is abroad in which the emphasis is not on dogmatic principles of neo-baroque tone and functional construction but on quality and art; several of its gurus were to be seen amongst the ISO delegates in Cambridge this summer. Over the course of this year I hope to give some idea of what is happening in the world of organ building as we approach the millenium, and to ask whether there are not elements of new thinking long overdue for introduction to this country.

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