A visit to Westminster Abbey

by Roger Gentry

As I had a special birthday last November, my son, Andrew, arranged an outing to London for Mary and me in April this year. This was a visit to Westminster Abbey, not just an ordinary visit, but an invitation to the Organ Gallery.

   Having travelled to London by train and had a lunchtime snack, we were met by Ben Chewter, their organ scholar for one year, and taken into the Abbey. Incidentally, Ben was at one time a scholar at Canterbury and, at the end of his year in London, is going as deputy organist, to Lincoln Cathedral.  Leaving Mary to her own devices, Ben took me up into the Organ Gallery where choir practice was to take place at 2.00 p.m.  As the regular choir was on holiday, Evensong was to be sung by the City of London Chamber Choir, numbering around 24 singers, and the practice was to last 30-40 minutes. The music was: Introit, Christ the Lord is risen arr. Field; Responses, Rose; Canticles, Goss in E; Anthem, Most glorious Lord of life by Harris.

   After a break we reconvened in the Organ Gallery for the service where the only contact with the outside world was by CCTV, although we did have a loudspeaker up there! The choir sang superbly and the service was very enjoyable.

   After the service had finished and the congregation had dispersed, Ben demonstrated the organ for me and then allowed me to “have a go”, a mere 20 minutes!  That was a long time considering the amount of time allowed at our normal monthly meetings but 20 minutes on such a big organ is “nothing”!  I took some music with me but, in the end, decided I would waste too much time setting registrations etc. and so I played “out of my head” (as usual)!

Roger Gentry at the Westminster Abbey console

   I can only summarise the scope of the organ but full details can be seen on the Westminster Abbey website. The organ, (Harrison & Harrison) has 5 manuals and pedals, with around 100 speaking stops (some of which were “borrowed” from other sections). The manuals are Great; Swell (enclosed); Choir; Solo (enclosed); Bombarde.  The Choir is divided into “Upper” (enclosed) and “Lower”. The Pedal Organ is divided into 2 parts, one part on the screen and the other in the Triforium; the Swell is also in the Triforium and is quite difficult to hear – it has to be supplemented by the Choir. There is an abundance of couplers and accessories including 512 levels for General Pistons.  The sound the organist hears is much louder than the sound that people hear in the body of the Abbey because the majority of the pipes are immediately in front of and behind where the organist is sitting.

   Having taken our leave of Ben, we ended our day with an excellent meal provided for us at “Rules”, the oldest restaurant in London, near Covent Garden. This day is one of the best birthday presents I have ever had and my thanks go to Andrew for this wonderful day.



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