Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Church organs

click photo to enlarge
"Laudate eum in chordis et organo"
(Praise him with strings and pipes),
from The Bible (Psalm 150)

The sound of a church pipe organ is probably my second favourite organ sound (after the Hammond B3). However, whilst it's something I see a lot of during my visits to churches I remain fairly ignorant of the instrument. What I do know is that, as far as English church music goes, it is a relative newcomer. The unaccompanied plainsong of earlier times was superseded, in parish churches and elsewhere, by a consort, ensemble or small orchestra of instrumentalists. These players on their fiddle, crumhorn, flute, hurdy gurdy, shawm and other early instruments, accompanied the hymns of the medieval church and continued through into the nineteenth century, when their playing - on more recognisable oboes, trumpets, flutes, violins and so on - often took place from a gallery at the west end of the nave. A number of churches kept, and now display, the instruments of these earlier accompanists.

From the seventeenth century onwards organs started to make an appearance in churches, often cased in wood beautifully carved by the likes of Grinling Gibbons. The first instruments were hand-powered with bellows pumped by a boy hidden away behind the keyboard. In the twentieth century an electric pump replaced this method of raising wind, though the original hand levers often remain. The Victorians installed many beautiful (and often very large) church organs, bequeathing not only a magnificent instrument on the parish and future ages, but also the attendant large bills for maintenance, repair and restoration. These costs became too much for the declining church memberships of the second half of the twentieth century, and quite a few parishes substituted a cheaper electric or electronic instrument.

St Wulfram's church at Grantham, Lincolnshire, received its first organ in 1640, but it was destroyed in the Civil War in 1643. In 1736 a three manual organ manufactured by Byfield was installed. It was extensively rebuilt in the 1860s but was described as "quite worn out" by 1904 - a testament, perhaps, to the religious and musical enthusiasm of the intervening years! In 1906 it was rebuilt and enlarged with a beautiful case designed by Sir Walter Tapper RA. Further overhauls and rebuilds occurred in 1972 and 1993/4. Interestingly some of the original pipes of 1736 continue in use today.

I took my photograph of the keyboard of the organ during a visit to the church. It was being played by someone who was practising their craft, and its thunderous sound was the perfect accompaniment for our architectural exploration.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 22mm (44mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/15
ISO: 800
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On