Cambridge

Magically warmed by gentle sunlight, the delicately pinnacled architecture of King’s College Chapel could be seen across the meadow, appearing like a fine Canaletto painting as we arrived for our day in Cambridge.

   Three venues with four organs of contrasting tonal colour and scale had been arranged for our visit on 2 June and Sam Hayes, the Director of Music, welcomed us at our first destination, the church of St Mary the Great, normally known as Great St Mary’s. The church has a dual function: as well as being a parish church, it is the University Church, used for some official University functions, and has been so since the foundation of the University in 1209. It has two organs to match its two functions: the parish organ and the University organ. The parish organ, in a traditional Anglican location on the south side of the choir, was built in 1991 by Kenneth Jones. The organ has 33 stops, spread over 3 manuals and pedal, with mechanical key action and electric drawstops. It is an eclectic instrument with continental tonal influences. Andrew Reid (Organist of Peterborough Cathedral) had joined us for this part of the day, and showed the versatility and power of the instrument with a stunning performance of the fugue from Parry’s Fantasia and Fugue — with extempore contributions from his 2-year-old daughter Sarah!

Great St. Mary's, Father Smith 1697

   The University organ, which is in a west end gallery and started out in 1697 as a Father Smith instrument, has been rebuilt and restored many times, most recently by Mander, and is now a 34-stop, 3-manual and pedal organ, of which about a third dates back to Smith, the rest being either Hill Norman & Beard or Mander ‘in Hill style’. It gave a rich and full sound, as demonstrated by Sam Hayes with the rarely heard Pièce Solennelle by Ibert, a composer few of us would have associated with organ music.

   We scattered to find lunch, meeting afterwards to head for Trinity Hall. The summer sun had clearly proved warm enough to bring out the naked cyclist encountered by some of us en route in Senate House Passage! Trinity Hall — not to be confused with Trinity College — is one of the smallest but friendliest of the thirty-one colleges making up the University, with some 300 undergraduates out of the total student population of some 22,000. It is a picturesque corner of the city, largely undisturbed by tourists despite its central location, and on a short tour, we appreciated the charm of the buildings, ranging from 14th to 20th century, the beauty of the gardens and the balcony overlooking the punters on the Cam.

   Trinity Hall is the fifth oldest college of Cambridge, and was founded in 1350 by Bishop Bateman of Norwich, for the education of the clergy needed to replace the many priests who died in the Black Death. From those beginnings, the emphasis on canon law shifted to law in general, for which the college is still known. Well-known alumni of the college range from the poet Robert Herrick and the writer J.B. Priestley, to former Archbishop Robert Runcie and the Communist spy Donald Maclean!

   The chapel is the smallest college chapel in Cambridge but has its own charm and intimacy. It was built in 1366, but the interior was entirely remodelled in 1730, so that it is really an 18th century chapel in a 14th century shell. Richard Baker, the Director of Music, spoke to us at some length about the history and construction of the new organ, a two manual instrument with 17 speaking stops, plus 3 extended stops, tremulant and mobile ventus (a device to simulate historical winding). The new instrument was built by Carsten Lund of Denmark, his first in England, with David Sanger as consultant, and the inaugural concert was given by David in October 2006. The organ was demonstrated for us by the Junior Organ Scholar, Oliver Sullivan, who played the Karg-Elert Nun danket, the 2nd movement from Bach’s 1st Trio Sonata, and Franck’s Cantabile. This wide range of pieces admirably demonstrated the instrument’s versatility and palette of colourful sounds, the responsive mechanical action allowing perfect control of the organ’s open tip unnicked voicing, full of character but perfectly balanced for the small Trinity Hall Chapel. The effectiveness of the swell box is apparently derived from its being lead-lined, reducing the volume, when shut, to an absolute minimum, an ability members were later able to sample for themselves. The appearance of the pipework is striking, with its hammered tin finish and the spiral twist of the central pipe.

Carsten Lund Organ, Trinity Hall

   After tea a short walk along Trinity Street took us to St John’s College, where we were met by the Director of Music, Dr David Hill. In the much grander surroundings of St John’s chapel (built in 1869 to George Gilbert Scott’s design), he talked to us about the organ, a four-manual Mander of 1994 incorporating some of the earlier Hill pipework, and then gave a marvellous demonstration of its colours and power, including the shattering en chamade Trompeta Real, with an improvisation on themes by Elgar. We could appreciate his criticism of the instrument, from the point of view of its coupled heavy tracker action and lack of penetration further down the nave, although from our vantage point this did not seem to detract noticeably from its grandeur.

   We sat in on the choir rehearsal — fascinating for David’s scrupulous attention to detail — and then stayed for evensong, at which the canticles were the splendid St Paul’s setting by Howells. The lengthy anthem was Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs (reduced to four due to strain on the soloist’s voice), which provided both thrilling moments and ethereally calm passages from the versatile choir. The baritone soloist was John Herford (son of Henry) of whom I am sure we will hear more. Walton’s Orb and Sceptre proved a most exciting end to the day, and echoed in our minds as we walked back to the coach after a most varied and interesting outing.

   St John’s are experimenting with webcasts of their services, and those of you with internet access might like to hear the very service we attended, which is available on:

http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/chapel_and_choir/listen_online/

   We must especially thank Kevin Grafton for arranging such a spectacular day, providing this unique opportunity for us to visit these fine organs and Cambridge College Chapels.

 

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