The 1965 Frobenius organ in Queen's College Oxford, an instrument that set the standard for the classical revival in Britainy

Bach or Bauhaus?
Organs and organ-building in Britain today

(No.4 of 6 articles published in Choir & Organ in 1997 under the heading 'Raising the Tone')

Roy Massey and Paul Derrett (see Letters) have written to say that my treatment of Huskisson Stubington and the 1947 rebuild of the Milton Organ at Tewkesbury Abbey was unfair. I agree that it was one-sided - for their assessment of the magical tonal properties of this instrument is absolutely correct and it was, in truth, capable of producing quite bewitching sounds. Unfair? I think not. Those musical qualities were the result of an interesting (if inflated) stoplist, good voicing, and one of the most forgiving acoustic environments one could hope to imagine. One glance at the interior of the organ showed that it had no right to sound so good. Everything about the materials and layout spoke of chaotic improvisation, and though the pipes sounded beautiful at a distance, the techniques used to create that sound involved the total loss of the voicing left by Willis in 1848 (also renowned for its beauty and charm).

Post-war shortages were indeed part of the problem, as they were in other work of the period. The 1953 Walker in the Brompton Oratory is another instrument of peerless tonal quality, perhaps the best of all the organs designed by the late Ralph Downes. As an example of organ-building it is in a different and much less distinguished league. Second-hand soundboards are arranged haphazardly; the organ is winded by a chaotic spaghetti of cheap zinc trunking; access to the upper levels is ill thought-out and in places dangerous.

These two examples happen both to come from the stable of the old Walker company (and I should say in passing that J. W. Walker's move to Brandon in the 1970s brought a complete and welcome revolution in standards of design and layout). It must be added, therefore, that this problem bedevilled all the major firms in the 1940s and 1950s, and lowered prices and expectations to a nadir from which it was very difficult to rise. Obvious was the tendency to describe as 'new' material that clearly wasn't: the 'new' 1949 dome chorus at St. Paul's Cathedral, installed by Willis, was mostly by Lewis. Even as late as 1967 the 'new' Hill, Norman and Beard for the Royal College of Organists was largely made up of soundboards and pipework from the previous organ. In a period when this kind of approach was accepted even amongst well-respected companies, their lesser rivals sank even further. One of the last works of the old firm of Gray and Davison was their rebuild of c1965 at St. Marylebone in London: a conflation of second-hand organ material widely regarded as a total disaster (and now replaced by an exceptionally competent Rieger). Work of this kind was, mercifully, not typical - but we must be brave and admit that it was frighteningly indicative.

That many of the post-war instruments sounded well, even (as in the case of the Oratory organ) 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. When it came to adopting the further disciplines of the neo-classical organ building - mechanical action, tight layout, and formal casework - we were all at sea. When the Frobenius arrived at Queen's College Oxford in 1965 it demonstrated quite clearly just how far we had fallen. Set aside for a moment the fact that it was a strict 'organ-reform' instrument and therefore completely different: the standards of design and workmanship were carried through, at every level, to a standard that no British builder could then imitate.

I would not dare draw attention, in apparently unpatriotic manner, to this crisis of quality if it were not for the fact that things have now changed. Those builders who, in the 1970s and 1980s, repeatedly lost valuable contracts for new organs to Frobenius, Rieger, Klais, Marcussen, Flentrop and others were obliged to make drastic changes. Standards of rebuilding had to be radically improved; standards in the building of new organs had to be revolutionised. That revolution is now an established fact. Organs in the 'new manner' are being built by all the leading British firms, and the notable success of Walker. Mander, Harrison and Collins in exporting new organs round the world is the only completely reliable evidence that their work is once again up to world standards.

My further comments will doubtless cause more readers to consider taking up their pens as correspondents and I welcome the prospect of a wider debate. I would ask them to bear in mind, however, that the full scope of my argument will not become apparent until this series of articles (this is the fourth of six) comes to its end. My subject is not the past, but the future. Now that the best of British organ-building has been restored to its former and rightly prized standards of quality, it is time to ask how those standards may be maintained and in what areas we need to make further improvements to ensure a successful future - and perhaps even a decline in the number of imports. I am sure that this aim will be loudly approved by all.

In order to make any prognosis, we have to be clear about the immediate past and the present, and we have to be brave in assessing our mistakes. British organ building fell into the trap of believing that design and layout were of less importance than a good stoplist, careful bench voicing, and a well-made console. The Classical Revival showed us to what extent this was a mistake.

Of course the Classical Revival also brought with it a particular tonal dogma, and the difficulty of taking on board organs with no strings, no full swell, no high pressue reeds and no rolling diapasons ('toujours rosbif!', as CavaillĀ»-Coll is supposed to have described English instruments) has perhaps obscured the importance of the technical message. If we have been brave in identifying problems of the past, then we must also be brave in talking about those that face us now, and it is the question of tonal dogma that should now be of concern in the English-speaking world.

Let us face reality. Though it is easy to admire the beautiful planning and construction evident in many neo-classical organs, their uncompromising approach to tone has not been widely accepted in Britain (nor indeed, despite the pre-war work of G. Donald Harrison and Walter Holtkamp, in the United States). The tonal beauties that Roy Massey and Paul Derrett quite rightly referred to in their assessment of the old Milton Organ have not always been apparent in organs built in the strict 'Orgelbewegung' manner.

Bach may have been the stated aim of these organs (at least in the sense that the one word 'Bach' is capable of inferring the entire movement towards the rediscovery of early music and more 'authentic' performance), but in practice they are surely children of their own time. Nothing more clearly states the true thrust of the Organ Reform Movement than the undecorated modern cases in which many of them were housed. Depsite the apparent alleigance to forgotten traditions and to a quasi-imaginary 'Golden Age', most tracker organs of the last thirty years speak far more loudly of the Bauhaus than they do of Bach. Organ Revival was a sister to the Modern Movement in design and architecture; it was a style in which all decorative or 'pretty' elements were reduced to a minimum or eliminated altogether; it was a style in which the word 'werkprinzip' (coined only in the twentieth century) was used to describe a method of organ-building in which form followed strictly from function.

From all that I have written so far it will be clear that there are many aspects of contemporary organ building that are admirable. The design and layout of new tracker organs varies from the splendid to the marvellous; their mechanisms are ingenious and for the most part reliable; their cases are always decent and sometimes quite outstanding. In all this technical endeavour it is quite possible that we have lost sight of certain criteria of musical beauty.

The Organ Reform movement tended to play down the need for beauty of voicing, regarding the whole subject as tainted with romanticism and therefore decadent. This is a large subject, and one that I propose to deal with in more detail in the next article in this series, but for the time being I suggest that we ask ourselves some questions. In the eighteenth century an organ builder lavished enormous amounts of time and money on decoration. Casework was elaborate in form, with complex mouldings, elaborate carving and, in the most luxurious examples, smothered with colour and gold. Is it not the case that a craftsman who approached his work in this manner would have lavished just as much care on the voicing? Would he not also have had a similarly acute undersanding of tonal beauty? Where is that understanding today? We were led to believe that the organs of the late twentieth century were intended to revive the glories of the past; why then do so many old organs still sound far more beautiful than their modern equivalents?

The best organs of the Classical Revival are magnificent; anyone who has heard, in the flesh, the Frobenius at Queen's Oxford, the Metzler at Trinity Cambridge or the Marcussen at St. Mary's Nottingham will be left in no doubt as to their musical qualities. But are they not also very austere instruments? Are they not rather too rare in their tonal excellence? Are not the majority of neo-classical organs rather unlovely?

Those of you who have recordings of fine old instruments or who have made the pilgrimage to the great organs of continental Europe may already know what I mean. Have the beauties of the Schnitger at Norden or the Silbermann in Frieberg Cathedral really been recaptured in our own generation? Is there any contemporary reed voicing to match the Clicquot Grand Jeu at Potiers? Do modern organs contain sounds as beautiful as the grand jeu de tierce at St. Maximin-la-Sainte-Beaume? Have the Diapasons of John Byfield or George Pike England ever been equalled? Why, if all the organs associated with Bach had string stops, do so few appear in instruments built on modern neo-classical lines?

Is it not the case that the neo-classical organ has given us organ music translated into a language based on Modern Movement ideals, in which decoration, beauty, expressiveness and indeed magic have been sacrificied to a hard and unyielding functional dogma?

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