The Organ (Postlude)

He that hewed timber afore out of the thick trees : was known to bring it to an excellent work

But now they break down all the carved work thereof : with axes and hammers.(Psalm 74: 6-7)

Unlike his brother Frank – who invented, among other things, ‘the Pips’ – Robert Hope-jones was, by all accounts, not only a poor businessman, in terms of control of costs, but also, in terms of getting on with people. Once in America, he allowed his own Unit-Organ company to founder, to be taken over by Rudolf Wurlitzer; after a while, because he was so difficult, he was excluded from the factory, and ended by taking his own life. Before he emigrated, he had tried to entice a young, up-and-coming Organ-builder to join his company, but this man preferred to work on his own, and in 1904 set up on his own: John Compton was to build not only 261 Theatre Organs, but a similar number of Church Organs (NPOR lists a total of 431). Many of the advances he used were freely-adapted from Hope-Jones’, not least ‘double-touch’, whereby, a further depression of the key can bring in another Register, so that an effect like changing Manual (or, indeed, Pedal), can be achieved without that move; he also made use of Hope-Jones’ ‘Tibia’ pipe, but whereas Wurlitzer almost exclusively made theirs of wood, Compton’s were predominantly metal, and tonally more in line with the sound of the Church Organ. Compton’s ‘Melotone’ was an entirely electric affair, sound being produced electrostatically by revolving glass discs on which wave-forms had been photographically reproduced, making a curiously ethereal and silky sound: it is said that, whenever Dudley Savage was away from Plymouth, he took with him the drive-belt of the Melotone from his Compton in the Theatre Royal/’ABC’, so that no visiting organist should be able to make use of it.

Here he is with some Khachaturian, on the rather grander Southampton Guildhall Compton:


1945 brought, not only the end of ‘the German War, pt. 2’, but, over here, a revolutionary Socialist Government, as intent on the stealthy Sovietisation of Britain as Ramsay McDonald’s had been – and as inimical to The Church, though minus Stalin’s dynamite (vide, ‘Labour &  The Gulag’, passim, for Socialism’s hatred and contempt of  Christianity). The Organ, even in its secular guise as Concert Organ, and latterly Theatre/Cinema Organ, harked back too much to the religious past of this Nation not to be offensive to right-thinking Socialists. Besides, just as a motorist is ill-advised to try and brazen it out against a double-decker bus, so the blaring power of Diaphones and Tibias threatened the Socialists’ desire for monopoly use of ‘the means of communication’: in the Cinema, the Organ could compel the audience to feel what was necessary to the narrative; in Church, the Organ could compel people to feel the need for Salvation.The microphone, Comrades, must be in the hands of Socialists’: I made up the entirely plausible statement.

But, being Fabians, rather than instantly demanding the abolition of them, they found a more subtle means: work through the musicians. So: encourage their youthful enthusiasm for all that is new, and their readiness to overthrow the idols of their childhood (Victorian = bad, even if  the term now illicitly encompassed Edwardian), while hastily providing a revolutionary alternative view: instead of an Albert Hall, modelled on Classical antiquity, a Brutalist Festival Hall… a Skylon!; back all the painters who can’t actually draw, encouraging ‘Modernists’; further the remunerative careers of approved architects and ‘developers’ in their work of subjugation and destruction of our heritage – and call it ‘progress’! Then, of course, enlist the Clergy: le trahison des clercs being the ultimate weapon; get them to feel that they must succumb to the zeitgeist.’Who does not want Peace?’ – we made a mess of it in 1918, so ‘Let’s not be beastly to the Germans’: let’s go back and find what was good in Germany… ah! The music of Bach! Bach did not play on a Hill Organ, or a Willis Organ – still less, did he play on a Hope-Jones (knowing titter from audience), or a Compton (pause)- nor yet… on a Wurlitzer! (delirious applause; several audience-members carried out on stretchers; chairman breaks his gavel in trying to restore order). Thus was that man’s great name harnessed to effect the obliteration of a native organ-building tradition.

In 1951, the Socialists had ‘The Royal Festival Hall’ built (spot the Fabianism) and, amazingly, it included an Organ: but designed by someone who’d been an Organ Scholar (Keble), Organist at Southwark, and had become interested in Baroque music while in America. There’s a picture of him at work on a pipe with a singularly unimpressed-looking Tuner standing by. Because of the ‘clout’ afforded him, and by the ‘following wind’ of that revolutionary ‘out with the old’ zeal that saw ‘slums’ demolished and whole communities moved into old market towns like Bracknell, or new ‘garden cities’, he was accorded magisterial status for decades, despite the acoustic and other problems that beset this hybrid monster of a machine. Ralph Downes’ influence can be traced in quite a number of the strange decisions made about Organs in the 1960’s and thereafter. It seemed that it was only enough for the proposal for the new Organ to be ‘on the model of North German Baroque’, for Advisory Committees to fall into line. Organists themselves found that they could exploit the Samuel Sebastian Wesley effect – but now, rather than merely working for a commission, they could be partners in the firm whose wares they were promoting. And, if the general public said, ‘I/we don’t like all this ear-piercing, scratchy sound.’, the experts would assuage their concerns by telling them that it was the latest thing… (and that they could think themselves lucky, not to have even more unholy sounds assaulting their ears.).

Wells lost its Organ in 1643 (Cromwell’s troopers) and having had its remains Willisised in 1857, was ‘updated’ by Harrisons in 1910, who later, tellingly, cast a veil over the years before 1973/4, when they were called in to right the wrongs perpetuated by the radical work done in the late 60’s. My own Oxford College had its Willis destroyed in 1969 – together with its Gilbert Scott case: now, largely, amended, in many respects.

Meanwhile, the commercial world, having first seen the opportunity to save money by supplanting a pit Orchestra with a one-man band plus Organ, now ruthlessly began to get rid of first, the Organists (many of them were kept on only as Assistant Managers’ – as was Douglas Reeve at The Dome – and then the Organs, often preferring to smash them, rather than entertain any pleas for leniency or delay, aided and abetted by the American insistence that only their synthetic (i.e. compounded of African-American and other ‘New World’ styles) music could be modern.

Add to this the Evangelicals’ determination to be ‘Modern’ and to do away with an Organ and Choir, and it is not hard to see why there are so few bread-and-butter Church organists now and ever fewer decent instruments for them to play. Here’s a misty glimpse of what some of it was…


© Jethro 2018

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