Portsmouth Cathedral & St Mary’s Portsea

Jean de Gisors was a wealthy merchant and landowner from Normandy, owning property in Sussex and Hampshire as well as France. In 1180 he founded the settlement of Portsmouth taking advantage of its ideal topography and proximity to the sea, creating a safe haven for his trading ships on their passage from France. Once established, one of his first acts of benevolence was the donation of land to the Augustinian Canons of Southwick Priory in 1185, enabling them to build a chapel dedicated to the martyr Thomas Becket of Canterbury. The church, which still retains its original quire and chancel, came to greater prominence in 1927 when it was chosen to be the Cathedral for the newly created Diocese of Portsmouth. Work began in 1932 adding new transepts and a nave west of the central tower, its sympathetic Romanesque architecture being completed in 1991.

    The Cathedral’s 3-manual and pedal, forty-nine stop organ was installed in 1994 by Nicholson & Co of Worcester. Although all the soundboards and mechanical actions are new, the pipes are from the John Nicholson organ of 1861 built for Manchester Cathedral, which was subsequently moved to Holy Trinity Church, Bolton, in 1874; it was rebuilt by Jardine & C0 in 1905. Nicholson has also retained an original 1718 William Jordan case at Portsmouth, painstakingly restored with gold leafed front pipes and cherubs.

William Jordan 1718 Case Detail

   Nicholson & Co were required to add a new Great Tierce and Larigot, voiced to an 1860 style, to restore the original John Nicholson 1861 specification. In 2001 Nicholson also added a completely new west facing Great Organ, together with a case of contemporary design. The main organ has tracker action, although the new west Great Organ and some pedal stops have direct electric action.

 However, before reaching Portsmouth, we were expecting to explore the delights of St. Mary’s Church, Portsea, but our coach had mysteriously devoured the miles between Kent and Hampshire with an unexpected alacrity and our forty or so members were greeted by a locked building. Nevertheless, St Mary’s organist, Michael Stoddart, responded swiftly to our plight. St Mary’s is a Victorian church of grandiose proportions built in 1886 to a design by the architect Sir Arthur Blomfield, who also designed the organ case; the thirty-eight-stop organ is by J W Walker, built and installed in 1886.

   The interior of this majestic church is as lofty as it is wide, the Walker organ high up on the north side of an impressive chancel with its marbled steps and pulpit. The organ was rebuilt in the 1960s when its original sharp tuning was lowered to modern concert pitch; the actions were also updated and electrified. Nevertheless, this is a formidable instrument with three open diapasons on the Great Organ, together with two 4-rank mixtures and chorus reeds. The Swell is equally endowed, also with two 4-rank mixtures and chorus reeds. However, it is not all muscle and brute force as there are some beguiling flutes and strings in the Swell and 8ft and 4ft Dulcianas on the Choir. The Pedal is typical Walker with a bold Open Wood 16ft and resounding Trombone 16ft.

St. Mary's Portsea, Walker

   Michael Stoddart demonstrated the organ for us with Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV543 by Bach, which showed a beautifully clear Great diapason chorus; then Dupré, Te lucisante terminum from Le Tombeau de Titelouze with singing mutations; and Vierne Symphony N0. 1 Final.  Here the character and power of the instrument was immense, the Swell Organ roared like a caged animal behind a full diapason Great department. Although, such was the vastness of the building that the organ seemed at times to struggle, the Walker voicing lacking real warmth or colour. Our members were then free to try the organ, discovering some of the larger Great diapasons. We were grateful to Michael Stoddart who had obviously selected the best from the organ’s specification and provided a varied demonstration programme enjoyably played.

   Our coach driver, KCOA member Mike Freer, was ever responsive to our needs and took us to within a short walk of the Cathedral and Portsmouth’s new iconic Spinnaker Tower. After a quick lunch, the Tower was too promising to be missed and many members took the lift to the viewing galleries. On a sublimely clear day Portsmouth was laid out in Lilliputian detail below, with countless small craft and ships about their maritime business sailing in from the Solent with the Isle of Wight beyond.

   Awaiting our attention was the Old Town of Portsmouth with its fashionable waterfront houses, cobbled streets and its Cathedral Church of St Thomas, expectant with Arcadian promise. A conducted tour of this ancient church had been thoughtfully arranged and two charming and knowledgeable Cathedral guides revealed a fascinating history. We learnt of the original foundation in 1185; French incendiary attacks during the 100 Years War and damage by Cromwellian cannon during the English Civil War in 1642. The town’s continuous Naval presence has shaped Portsmouth; Henry v111 built four breweries in the town, which is now home to HMS Victory and Mary Rose. Old Town’s cobbled Broad Street, although now desirably respectable, once housed the women who provided that special shore-leave comfort sailors required after arduous months at sea — a “Broad”, a woman of easy virtue, is an expression still used in America.

   We were eager to hear and try the Nicholson organ, but first tea was provided in the cathedral rooms before Choral Evensong at 5.00 p.m. Although evensong is normally said on Saturdays, ten cathedral Lay Clerks sang in the 1185 Quire, and we heard: Gloria by Duruflé, Rose Responses, Psalm 66 set to plainsong and the Canticles sung to The First Service – Thomas Weelkes. In the Weelkes the men’s voices, with chamber organ continuo accompaniment set at Baroque pitch, blossomed in the ancient acoustic; an ethereal beauty spanning the centuries exemplifying English church music’s greatest period, an age which suffered the loss of both Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd in 1623, both men dying in the same year.

Portsmouth Cathedral Nicholson 2001 West Great

   The Nicholson organ came into its own during the Duruflé and also the Voluntary, Litanies by Jehan Alain, which was stunningly played by the Sub Organist Marcus Wibberley. The Master of Music, Dr David Price, directed the choir and, following the service, gave us an insight into the workings of the organ and the musical life of the Cathedral, before inviting us to explore the instrument for ourselves. Although the organ is delicately voiced, predominately in its original 1860 style, there is a richness of ensemble available from the 17-stop Great Organ, 13-stop Swell Organ and 9-stop Choir Organ. The Pedal Organ has ten stops and the new 2001 west facing Great has eight stops. This is a fine organ, with an engaging English tonality, which was only momentarily marred by some out-of-tune Great reeds. A number of members were able to try the organ — with some in the Quire, also trying the new one-manual 3-stop chamber organ, by Kenneth Tickell, producing strains of Sweelinck sounding just as it should.

   We were particularly pleased to welcome our “foreign correspondent”, Nigel Durrant, on our Portsmouth excursion — whilst over on a visit from Eindhoven — to enjoy what had been a remarkable day of Portsmouth’s delights. For those who might like them, full organ specifications are available on both the Cathedral and St Mary’s websites.



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