John Milton, one of England’s finest poets, played a small organ as a young man with his family music consort and was considered to have “a most tuneable ear”. Organs are reflected in his poem Il Pensoroso: There let the pealing organ blow, to the full voiced quire below. Considering his musical background Milton would surely have appreciated the evensong service at Portsmouth Cathedral we were privileged to attend in June. He could, quite possibly, have been familiar with the canticles, The First Service – Thomas Weelkes, with men’s voices and organ continuo, as Milton lived until 1674, surviving Weelkes by some fifty years.
Of course, Portsmouth is principally noted for its maritime connections and history, but our visit revealed a much broader cultural palette, discovering organs and music of consummate quality. The Cathedral Church of St Thomas, together with its 20th century extensions and embellishments, is an aesthetic delight. The modern Romanesque nave in no way overshadows the essence of the original 1185 Quire with its historic warmth and all-enveloping acoustic that musically enhances and blends voices and instruments into a silken whole. Speaking into this acoustic, the 1861 Nicholson organ, rebuilt with new soundboards and actions, is a delicate yet colourful delectation of English tonality. Providing a contrast, we also visited St Mary’s Church Portsea, which offered a thirty-eight-stop J W Walker organ, built and installed in 1886; an organ for those who enjoy more tonal weight, richness and excitement.
We are fortunate to have access to venues and instruments not normally accessible to the public, which made our January meeting at Tonbridge School particularly rewarding. Following the disastrous fire, some twenty years ago, the school’s rebuilt Edwardian chapel still retains an impressive grandeur, although the Marcussen & Søn organ, completed in 1995, is a very different animal from the chapel’s original 1909 Binns organ. However, Julian Thomas, the Chapel Organist, gave a revealing demonstration with music by Bach, Vierne and Howells.
Nothing can compete with Canterbury’s grandeur as we were reminded when we attended evensong at the Cathedral in February. Here a number of members were free to explore the organ following the service, bestowing that extra frisson of excitement.
In May, Canterbury came to us in the guise of Dr David Flood, who had so kindly agreed to adjudicate at our Organ Festival at Maidstone. Candidate numbers where down on last year, but not in quality and David Flood’s mini master classes and adjudication added to a successful day.
Many members enjoy our visits to smaller churches, with their unique character and wealth of history, if not particularly large organs. There was much enthusiasm for Minster Abbey, Queenborough and the Ashford villages this spring; and with time to chat and compare notes, these are often the meetings where members unwittingly spread their enthusiasms, the airborne pathogens of contagious excitement circulating amongst the assembled gathering.
The rewarding interest and pleasure to be derived from such meetings is boundless and our committee commits time, thought and effort to arranging some fascinating visits for us; if you haven’t been to a meeting for a while why not sample what is on offer in the coming months?
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