Tales from the cathedral organ loft

by Alistair Curtis

Over the weekend of the 20th and 21st of October last year, The Oriana Singers of Tunbridge Wells provided music for the services at Gloucester Cathedral.

Arriving on the Saturday afternoon for my arranged 2.00.p.m. half-hour practice, the cathedral was strangely quiet, there was not a verger in sight. We had already guessed that this might not be the most organised of places with the music being changed right up until the Thursday before, but now I couldn’t practise. Eventually, at 2.20.pm, a rather flustered verger appeared. He had been attending to an unseemly collection of youths in the grounds and had called the police. We had seen them as we came in, sitting on the war memorial, pleasing themselves. So it was not his fault after all, and with the flick of a switch and quickly passing over the notes for visiting organists, I started setting general pistons for Evensong.

In many cathedrals the organ console is fitted with a CCTV camera and speakers, so that the organist can both see and hear the choir and conductor for rehearsal and the service. Here at Gloucester there was only a TV monitor, which I eventually managed to get switched to the right camera, and Peter (our MD, now in the loft too) having to instruct a lady of the choir to stand in the ‘new’ position, to make sure I could see him conducting.

Evensong went well — Stanford in B flat, (with lots of 32ft reed) and “Ye shall dwell in the land” by Stainer — how Victorian! For a voluntary I played Psalm Prelude No.1 set 1, by Herbert Howells, but in my haste I had not set a general piston for the start of this piece and, although I am sure I pressed Swell 2 (Salicional and Gedackt), I got CelestÚ and Salicional! Perhaps Herbert had a hand in this. (Third party, from the horses’ mouth: “You only use the CelestÚs in special moments in Howells”)

This was the Saturday of England’s rugby, so we thought dinner might be a little difficult, but a quiet pub called The Fountain served us some nicely done cod and chips, amongst other things.

Sunday services in the nave started with the Eucharist. We used the Darke in F setting, which has some big moments for the organ. Again a good work-out for the 32ft reed and full swell. The very French character of the reeds sounds harsh in the loft, but I am assured it was awesome below. I played Bach’s E flat major Prelude from the Clavier ▄bung at the end — not withstanding the out-of-tune West Positive Mixture.

Our lunch was catered for at The Grill near the cathedral, giving time for Evensong, which started at 3.00.p.m. Not the normal service, as it was especially for Trafalgar Day, attended by the Severn Area Sea Cadets. Suitably, I played Nimrod before the service and started at exactly 2.50 p.m. on Swell 2, the box a little open, and immediately…….. a hush fell over the congregation; they were listening intently to my playing, perhaps they had been primed? But impressive none the less.

As the more important people were escorted to their seats there was the rhythmical sound of studded shoes coming and going on the cathedral floor before the congregation stood for the entrance of the choir, clergy and the Sea Cadets’ colours. For this service we performed Psalm 107 vv. 23-30, Brewer in D, and The Halleluiah Chorus by Handel, not using any trumpets I’m afraid as they were a bit thin, and it was troublesome jumping to and from the top manual. For the voluntary I played “Maestoso” by Edward MacDowell, which has a wonderfully lilting two in a bar, building to full organ and coming back to nothing at the end; very appropriate for the sea, according to my dad.

The highlight of this service for me was playing the National Anthem, starting on literally full organ, a scale from D down to G when the manuals join with the tune, and not being able to hear any singing.

After the service, we were imprisoned in the close while the Cadets and their band paraded and marched onto the High Street, spick and span in Bristol fashion, before we could escape to the motorway and home before nine o’clock.


Alistair at Gloucester Cathedral

Alistair Curtis has been the accompanist to The Oriana Singers for four years, working with them at weekly rehearsals and playing on their many cathedral visits. Alistair has been a KCOA member for ten years since the age of thirteen, following in the family tradition with both his Father and Grandfather before him long standing members. Alistair obtained his music degree at Guildford (University of Surrey) and was the organ scholar at Guildford Cathedral during his first year.

He is now Director of Music at Goudhurst Parish Church and, following a Post Graduate Certificate of Education at Canterbury Christ Church College, is now pursuing a teaching and playing career.





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