Are all organs the same…. or are some different?

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If ‘being an organist’ was all about just playing an organ, it would be fairly predictable, safe and uneventful! But, as most people who choose to follow this noble profession will know – uneventful it ain’t!

You get to meet people at important times of their lives, births, marriages and deaths, and that alone is a real privelige. As told before, our job on one level is just to advise on choices of suitable music for a special occasion usually a wedding, and you develop a certain rapport with the excited couple, (and, of course, the bride’s mother!)

Sometimes, I even get invited to the wedding reception. Many years ago a younger, slimmer and slightly gaunt version of stmarysorganist naïvely accepted the invitiation – in retrospect, I think the couple felt sorry for me and probably thought I needed a good meal!! So there was I, at a rather well-heeled ‘do’, sitting at an enormous circular table which was brimming with farmers and their families, who all knew each other, understood each other’s sustainable agricultural techniques, use of crop waste and animal manure, and conversations were flowing aplenty around the table.

I don’t know about you, but after spending minutes trying to pick out a thread of conversation I understood, I resorted to concentrating on my own feeding trough. I avoided extraneous eye-contact with any other fellow diners – a technique which worked for most of the meal, until a silence fell around the table. I realised I was being sympathetically scutinised by dozens of pairs of eyes, and after introducing myself as “just the organist”, a pregnant pause was waiting to be filled with some memorable or witty anecdote…

It was then that one guest, being extremely polite asked in all bumbling seriousness ” So – the organist, heh? Well now, tell me – are all organs the same…. or are some different?”

My chance to introduce the assembled bunch into my world had finally come. But at the crucial moment, images of the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ became merged with the Thomas electronic I had learnt on at home – how could I begin to explain the glorious variety that we encounter with every instrument?

So my answer, which still baffles me to this day, came out meekly –

“Yes, many organs are the same…. but some are different….”

I had blown it, there was no possible recovery. I had let down the ‘King of Instruments’ and this assembled group continued with “Anyway, Ned – where do you buy your horse-sh*t from?”

To experience the wide variety of organs around, you need to go on a choir tour! This will inevitably throw up all sorts of instruments and places, one worth naming is St Bartholemew in Sitges – a venue of romantic beauty with an instrument to match.

St Bartholomew Church in the dark

This organ was a totally unexpected gem (G Grenzing 1985), and I enjoyed this experience from rehearsal to the end of the concert! The only negatve was the abject pain I had when playing the ‘Trompetta en Chamade’ which were a row of horizontal trumpets perched within a foot of my head, and there was no means of protecting my ears from the head-shattering scream that came out of those pipes!

ad sitges

( I did manage to get a recording of ‘Danses et Estampes’ by Jan de Lublin from this concert – Listen to it here).

One moment when the instument completely underwhelmed my overblown epectations was on a visit to a Cypriot convent, where with great excitement I discussed with our organ scholar, which great pillars of the organ repertoire we would play on this anticipated ‘tour de force’ of the organ world. There was no internet back then, so prior research had been limited to some fruitless letters requesting specifications.

We had pretty much decided on a mixture of Bach before the service, and Vierne as a voluntary. So imagine our incredulity at being introduced to this beauty:

Organ

Once again, as with other tours, rehearsal time was almost non-existant, and the choir processed in as I found the ‘on’ button and selected with care a ‘churchy’ registration. What ensued was a variety of different buzzes at different pitches, all bound together with a constant droning hum of electrical interference of some kind. I managed to find a selection of noises on the Upper manual that were usable, so I played on them for most of the service.

At a moment that I was to later regret, I bravely plunged my hands onto the Lower manual for some much-needed variety. And variety was certainly in evidence, as the third verse of ‘Let all mortal flesh’ was now accompanied by a ‘Bossa Nova’ rhythm section with automatic chords!

It could be that some of the people attending that service could have been moved by this particular addition to a well-loved hymn, and if you were to visit the same convent now, you may find it a regular feature. But judging by the looks of imminent disfigurement that were being darted at me by the assembled throng – I very much doubt it. My voluntary was sensibly short, the organ scholar held the door open for me, as we both made an undignified dash for the coach after the service!

So, nowadays, if I ever find myself as the only organist at a wedding feast again, I shall proudly announce that “There are no two organs the same…anywhere!”

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He said “Whatever you do, don’t…” but I couldn’t understand the rest…

I often find myself regretting the fact that I spent a good percentage of my early school days longing for the weekend, dreaming of organs, impersonating the teachers, but not really engaged in the act of learning too much. (Nowadays, as a teacher, there are many who would say that nothing has changed!). But one of my main regrets is that I failed to pick up any traces of a useful foreign language.

My ability to speak French is pretty much limited to facts about my name, address, colour of my eyes, what day it is, the weather, (as long as it’s raining), and asking the way to a launderette. So during Choir tours abroad, my linguistic shortcomings have come back to haunt, amuse…and embarass me in equal measure.

As a teenager, I spent too much time reading about the fine organs on the continent, and would pore over organ photographs and specifications with exotic stop names like ‘Clarin Sordino’, ‘Hautbois d’Amore’, ‘Bauerpfeife’ – names that if you saw them on a menu would have you salivating at the very sound – perhaps not so with ‘Grobemixtur Unterchormass’!

But when the opportunity to play on some of these fine instruments arises, no amount of listening in Miss Alain’s French lessons, or learning all the stop-names off by heart could prepare me for the reality of THE FOREIGN ORGAN!

Orgue

I know that most organists would never dream of putting on a concert or recital without meticulous planning, rehearsing and getting to know the organ beforehand, but often, on a tour, this is not possible.

Take for example, my visit to La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer, where due to my appalling pigeon-french, I spent a good half-hour standing underneath this colossal organ, unable to gain access, next to a locked door with a local gentleman who unbeknown to me had the very key in his pocket!

We stood side-by-side in blissful Anglo-French ignorance of the fact that he was waiting for me and I was waiting for him. Eventually, thanks to a kindly interpretor, the door was unlocked and up the stairs I ran to encounter an immense instrument of sheer beauty and power, the craftsmanship of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll himself – but no visible sign of a blower switch ANYWHERE.

Worringly, behind the organ I did find this:

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer6

My page-turner started to look very pale and we both searched frantically, as down below in the cathedral, the audience started to take their places. We traced any visible electric cables back to their source and finally found the antique and, rusty hidden switch.We gave it a nervous bodge and fired up the big beast, just as the audience applauded the choir processing in to begin the concert!

The organ console was immense, very beautiful, comfortable to play, but full of things I’d read about and never tried out.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer4

Good fortune ( or great programming?!), meant the first couple of concert items were ‘a capella’ (unaccompanied), so I could ‘toot’ a chord or two on a ‘montre’ and as the choir enjoyed the acoustics below, I took a look at the ‘aids’ to registration, and then wished I hadn’t!

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I wasn’t expecting THAT!

Well, the concert went very well, and by the end I had fallen in love with an inaminate object. I was playing a historical instrument, unspoilt by progress, but an instrument that really had ‘soul’ and every note was a real joy!

…and then there was, MALAGA!

This was ground-breaking, in terms of a learning-curve that was pretty near vertical!

Malaga Cathedral does not have an organ – oh no, it has TWO! And not just a big one and a little one – but TWO IDENTICAL ORGANS!

I had done my homework for this ‘gig’and once again I thought I was prepared, but nothing could have prepared me for this:

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Malaga Cathedral

Two identical organs (one ‘Gospel’ and one ‘Epistle’), with Trumpets ‘en chamade’ all around. I have never seen so many! I was helped on this occasion, as the cathedral organist was there to speak a Spanish welcome to me.  I responded with suitably English appreciation. The language barrier was broken down by our superb translator, without whom I would have run away!

After spending much time translating all the technical intricacies of how the organ worked, (like how to switch the thing on), it was time for her to go and explore the local paella and sangria available in Malaga. She departed with the the foreboding advice “He said ‘Whatever you do, don’t ‘ …but I couldn’t understand the rest…”

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The stops were, as expected, pretty unreachable from the sitting position, so you needed an assistant to ‘pull out & push in’, and ideally they should be Spanish organists.

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With a baffling array of stops such as ‘Cornettas, Clarinos, Flautaudos’ and ‘Trompetas’ above us, to the left and right of us and even behind us, and a choir situated what seemed like a hundred miles away, this was going to be one-heck-of-a-gig!

However, I had my fiancee, (now thankfully Mrs stmarysorganist), on one side of the console and the Cathedral organist on the other. In a show of Anglo-Hispanic unity that would impress the EU, we managed to get our way through music which was not designed for instruments such as these!

So, Miss Alain, you were right – I should have listened in your french classes, and maybe, just maybe, one frenchman would not have wasted half-an-hour of his life waiting to meet an organist who was standing right next to him!

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