Bear Up The Chapel of Culham Organ in St Thomas!

Building An Organ For A Small Oratory That Would Be Able To Play Music From The 17th To 19th Centuries Called For Considerable Ingenuity. The project’s adviser, William McVicker, reports about The Chapel of Culham Organ in St Thomas!

on a hilltop within a deer park overlooking the river Thames and the Culham Court Estate in Berkshire stands the Chapel of Christ the Redeemer. This new public chapel, with an astonishing design by architect Craig Hamilton, performs an important role as an oratory to the Roman Catholic Church of St Thomas More in nearby Twyford.

the Roman Catholic Church of St Thomas
the Roman Catholic Church of St Thomas

A subtle blend of historical and contemporary architecture, the chapel holds regular public events including Mass on the last Sunday of the month and on Holy Days of Obligation. When I became involved in the provision of an organ for the Chapel, the first line of enquiry was in respect of the nature of the liturgy which would grace the elegant, classically informed architecture.

Initially, the situation suggested an orgue de chœur, but space was at a premium in the loft and I suspected that a two-manual organ would have to be so modestly proportioned – especially if one division (or both) was enclosed – that it might consist of only a handful of foundational stops. The prospect of the Chapel being a place where music was made professionally (and where visitors might play a wide range of repertoire) encouraged me to think more creatively about what kind of pieces could be presented there.

I suggested an instrument which looked to 18th-century examples of English organ building, in which the stops were often divided between treble and bass. Once Mander Organs had been appointed, John Mander and I worked together on a scheme that would allow the single manual keyboard to play host to two sets of sounds, with some stops divided between b and c1.

Several other European repertoires have explored the use of solo registers in many different and sophisticated ways: for example, in the music of composers such as Telemann, a simple manualiter bicinium would have one solo line in the treble, and a single-voice melodic accompaniment in the bass. In Iberian 17th- and 18th-century music, the right-hand solo parts could be in two voices (de dos tiples) or in three (de tres tiples). The Culham organ has been constructed to allow such music to be performed.

The instrument can, of course, be used in more conventional contrapuntal (fugal) repertoire with pedals – in the German baroque style, for example, for the music of J.S. Bach. Although many trio textures are not possible on a one manual instrument, a handful of such pieces can be reproduced on a split keyboard with some forethought.

Split keyboards did not always divide at b/c1, as was the case in 18th-century England; in some areas of Spain (but not all) the division was at C1/c#1, while in Italy the division could be as high as f1. In addition to the prospect of performing a plein jeu or a grand jeu on the limited selection of stops at Culham, some other possible registrations might be as follows:

  • Right Hand (RH) Solo Trumpet (treble) – for trumpet voluntaries, known as dessus de trompette in the French repertoire, or medio registro de mano derecha in the Iberian trompería style;
  • Left Hand (LH) (accompaniment) Diapason / Stopped Diapason bass.
  • RH (accompaniment) Diapason / Stopped Diapason treble;
  • LH Solo Trumpet (bass) – known as basse de trompette in the French repertoire, or medio registro de mano izquierda (or baxon or baixo) in the Iberian manner. RH Cornet décomposé 8, 4, 22 /3, 2, 1 3 /5 treble (for Cornet or jeu de tierce voluntaries);
  • LH Diapason / Stopped Diapason bass.
  • RH (accompaniment) Diapason / Stopped Diapason treble;
  • LH Cornet décomposé 8, 4, 22 /3, 2, 1 3 /5 bass (for French tierce en taille or English 18th-century LH Sesquialtera voluntaries).
  • RH Diapason / Stopped Diapason, Twelfth 22 /3 treble (for Iberian Nasardo, French Récit de Nazard, or 18th-century English ‘Twelfth’ voluntaries1 );
  • LH Diapason / Stopped Diapason bass.

While the so-called classical French repertoire is perhaps more familiar to English players, music of our own shores has become much more accessible in the last decade, especially through the wide-ranging catalogue of Fitzjohn Music Publications2 .

One problem is that in 17thand 18th-century music English players tend to stick religiously to what is written on the page, without recognising the extent to which the music was improvised or adapted to the circumstances (e.g., organ or harpsichord).

The detail of English 18th-century performance practice can be found in the treatises of Marsh, Blewitt, Linley and Ludlam3 , or in the prefaces to some scores: left-hand parts would often be played in octaves, except where quicker passages precluded such an approach; trumpet voluntaries would be concluded with both hands on the trumpet stop, to make for a dramatic ending.

Where parts crossed over the division of the stops at c1, a certain amount of judicious, improvised rewriting is necessary to prevent the solo and accompaniment parts accidentally passing into each other’s domain. The opportunity to provide ‘short octaves’ with low AA and GG was seized at Culham, as was the inclusion of the split key, to provide C# to allow for later repertoire. Such elements of performing style would have been common currency to 18th- and early 19th-century performers.

These days we are too readily bound to the score to feel that we have complete freedom over the music, and we are consequently unnecessarily cautious in our approach to the performance of our own repertoire.

The organ has several unusual features, including a Drum or Thunder pedal; this plays the bottom six notes of the Bourdon (when drawn), adding notes progressively as the pedal is depressed.

It can be used in late 18th-century classical French repertoire (e.g. Balbastre) as well as for 19th-century storm effects. Apart from providing an element of sheer enjoyment (or perhaps guilty pleasure), the Cymbelstern and Nightingale suggest other European repertoires, the latter featuring in the charming music of south Germany, as found in the Ochsenhauser Orgelbuch, where the dance music of the court (minuet, gavotte, bourrée, gigue, etc.) was very much in vogue in the Catholic liturgies – as distinct from the chorale-based repertoire of the Lutheran tradition, which characterises the music of the Hanseatic composers as well as that of J.S. Bach.

The Nightingale is worked by the usual inverted pipes in liquid, but based on a 17th-century Italian model, which is far more compact than the usual nightingale mechanism. The Cymbelstern employs the traditional construction, with small clock bells, but is believed to be the only one in the UK that is driven in the traditional way by wind, rather than electric motor.

An appropriately engraved stop-knob causes a gilded bear silently to appear at the top of the casework from the centre of the broken cornice. Once the bear has emerged from the façade it can then be heard to growl, making the sound as long as the stop is pulled out. This was a gift to the patron from one of the project team.

The bear is made up of two elements: the pipe is a largish wooden Regal with a hole covered by a pallet, which gradually opens, giving a slight crescendo as it sounds; the motor for moving the bear is a pneumatic piston, all designed and manufactured in the Mander workshop. The switching on and off of the Nightingale, Bear and Cymbelstern are done pneumatically.

Not all organs have to be the same; one hopes that those visiting the Culham instrument can enjoy something a little different – the opportunities a small but versatile organ affords.

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