Almost Perfect?

by Malcolm Hall

Some time ago, I was asked to take on the tuning at Broomfield Church near Leeds Castle. I always get a slight sense of anticipation when I visit an organ for the first time; who had built the instrument? What space (if any) was left for tuning and maintenance? What condition is the organ in now? Well, as I discovered, this small village contains several interesting features; notably, a row of old cottages built as a Garrison for the Castle, and an old tradition of well-dressing: the decorating with flowers of an ancient well (in this case, next to the churchyard entrance) to celebrate notable historic occasions. And of the Organ? Well, that turned out to be a little one-manual and pedal instrument built by Henry Jones, still for the most part cone-tuned, and also hand blown! (Is this the last one in Kent I wonder?) The stop list from memory is Open, Clarabella, Dulciana, Principal and a Pedal Bourdon. Due to lack of space, the player must sit on a sort of fold down flap of wood. Tuning of course was very difficult, me kneeling in the space previously occupied by a few front pipes, with my head in the swell-box, trying not to kick my assistant, who had to keep moving to the rear of the instrument to maintain the wind pressure!

Some years ago, a member of a church where I had been working questioned me about my work and said, “I suppose organs are your favourite instruments?” I think my reply surprised them when I said, “Well, only sometimes.” The problem with all organs is that, by their very nature, they are imperfect; all organists dream of another department, or at the very least another stop, and much of the repertoire sounds wrong on English instruments. I suppose if I were questioned further I would say that to me perhaps the most ‘perfect’ instrument has to be the violin, its only real limitations being those of the performer. Yet even Bach in his sublime Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin can only imply, through double stopping and harmonic structure, the contrapuntal nature of a fugue (something of course, he did not have to do in the works for solo organ!) I would also add that there are times when, given the right organ in the right acoustic and a sensitive performer, a pipe organ can be ‘almost perfect’.

So what of the little instrument in Broomfield Church? It needs two people to operate it, and much of the repertoire is impossible to perform on it, and yet in its own way, one hundred and twenty-five odd years later, in almost unaltered condition, it still performs the same task for which it was originally created: the simple accompaniment to Hymns and Psalms - to help those who sing them, through the power of music, come closer to our Lord; and may that long continue.

 

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