The Joys of Austria

by Kevin Grafton

When ‘Kev the Rev’ made a proposition to me in the gents’ toilet of a store in Innsbruck, I little knew where it would lead.

By way of background, I should point out that my wife and I were on our first trip to Austria, and that the primary reason for the trip was to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau in Bavaria, which, you will no doubt be aware, only takes place once every 10 years. 1990 was such an occasion, and we had decided to go on a package, which gave us 2 days in Oberammergau (the maximum possible in play years), preceded by 10 days in a resort a little way over the nearby border with Austria. This resort turned out to be a village called Söll, of some 3,500 inhabitants. As the coach from the airport wound its way through the narrow streets, between the chalet-style houses with wooden balconies festooned with hanging flowers of all colours, we were immediately captivated by the place’s typically Tyrolean charm. The next 10 days flew by, as we packed in walks, cable-car mountain ascents and coach trips, not knowing if we would ever return to the area.

The church in Söll, outwardly quite plain, is a riot of paintings, statues liberally covered with gold leaf, and ornate altars inside. Like most Austrian churches, it was ‘baroquised’ in the 17th century, and the wealth of decoration is quite alien to those used to the relative austerity of English churches: you either love it or hate it. I find the wall and ceiling paintings, executed by one of the acknowledged Tyrolean master painters, Christoph Anton Mayr, and mainly depicting events from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul (to whom the church is dedicated), wonderful to behold. This church is deservedly known as the ‘cathedral of the Tyrol’.

We were with a group bound for Oberammergau, with a priest in tow, who had, for reasons now totally lost to me, become known (although not to his face) as Kev the Rev. The reason for his accosting me in the loo was the fact that my wife Sylvia had happened a little earlier to mention to him that I was an organist. On the evening before our departure for the Play, a service was to be held for the group in the village church, and he wondered if I might be persuaded to play for a few hymns. I was obviously glad of the opportunity, but a little concerned as to the problems of playing a very different style of organ from my Spurden Rutt in Otford. In the event, I had all of 30 seconds between gaining access to the organ gallery and playing for the first hymn, so there was no time to worry! I managed to find suitable stops for a couple of hymns, and dredged Karg-Elert’s ‘Nun danket’ march from my memory, to close the service. There was no chance to play anything more, as the church was then closing.

We went off the next morning to see the Play (a wonderful experience, though in some ways surpassed for us in subsequent years by the less well known Passion Plays at Erl and Thiersee); then home after a marvellous holiday.

Söll now had us in its grasp. In 1991, we felt impelled to return, and I approached the nuns who at that time ran the church, explaining that I had briefly played the organ the previous year, and wondering if I might have another chance; Sister Eleonora was very helpful, and I was allowed access, giving me time to get to know the instrument properly. The organ was built in 1986 by the Austrian organ builder Pirchner, within the existing ornately painted case (probably 17th century), in the upper of two galleries. There are no registration aids, and no enclosed division. The pedal board is flat and straight, and the manuals comprise Hauptwerk and Rückpositiv, with the following specification:

Kevin Grafton at the 1986 Pirchner organ. Söll

Hauptwerk:  Prinzipal 8, Gamba 8, Metallkopl 8, Oktav 4, Rohrflöte 4, Quint 22/3, Oktav 2, Mixtur 11/3 (15.19),
Trompete 8

 Rückpositiv:  Gedeckt 8, Prestant 4, Holzflöte 4, Flöte 2, Sesquialter 22/3 (12.17), Quint 11/3, Scharff 1 (22.26), Krummhorn 8

Pedalwerk:  Subbaß 16, Gedecktbaß 8, Oktavbaß 8, Choralbaß 4, Bombarde 16, Posaune 8

Tremulant and usual couplers.

 We continued to spend our holidays in Söll, and each year I made myself known to Sister Eleonora and spent some time playing. One year she asked if I would mind playing for a wedding, as they still had no organist, so I was pleased to supply ‘in’ and ‘out’ music, the rest of the service being a Tyrolean folk mass beautifully performed by three singers. Later, the sisters left, making way for a priest, and an organist, Werner Reidinger, was appointed. We met and became friends, and my privileged access to the organ continued. I have even played for a funeral, to help out!

Having heard me play, Werner was kind enough to ask me to give a recital in 1999, and he wanted me to play a  programme of English music; I produced an hour’s worth of pieces from Byrd to Leighton, via Purcell, Wesley, Elgar, Howells etc., and have followed a similar pattern in further recitals in 2003, 2005 and 2007 with another planned for September 2008. My recitals are but a small part of the annual series of a dozen or more concerts, ranging from chamber music to Russian choirs, organ recitals to gospel choirs, which take place in this village church every year.

We have now spent 17 holidays in Söll. For some years now I have driven there, so that we can explore further afield and see the rich variety of valleys, lakes and mountains which make up the Alpine scenery. Söll has become part of our lives, and we have many friends in the village. The icing on the cake is that I can play the organ there every year, and revel in its glorious sound and the church’s cathedral-like acoustic: Kev the Rev, whoever and wherever you are, thank you!

1986 Pirchner Organ Söll

Go to Next Page

Go to Previous Page

Go to Index Page