Hythe, Catholic Church & St Leonard's Parish Church  

Dover, Sandwich, Romney, Hastings and Hythe were the original Cinque Ports founded by William the Conqueror following his landing in 1066. He bestowed generous trading privileges on these ports although, with the later addition of Rye and Winchelsea, and other south coast towns, the benefits became gradually diluted. Nevertheless, the Cinque Ports’ Lord Warden was, until recently, a member of the Royal Family, although the present Lord Warden is Admiral Lord Boyce.

Hythe’s Parish Church of St Leonard is a church undoubtedly worthy of a Cinque Port. It is an impressive 13th century building standing buttressed on the steep hillside above the old town with an equally dramatic architectural interior, its imposing raised vaulted chancel reminiscent of Canterbury Cathedral. 

The 1936 Harrison & Harrison organ is renowned and its console had been wheeled out into the nave in front of the chancel steps in readiness for the afternoon’s demonstration recital by Dr Berkeley Hill, St Leonard’s organist.  

However, as a preliminary to this anticipated event, some forty of our members gathered at Hythe’s Catholic Church of the Virgin Mother of Good Counsel where we were to hear their 1900 Browne & Sons organ. This quintessential English instrument speaks clearly from its west gallery and was demonstrated for us by Canon J W Wright who played music by BoŽllmann, Buxtehude and Elegy by Paul Spicer. The simple Edwardian building, decked with ornate wooden Stations of the Cross, did little to enhance the organ’s tonality, although the warm diapasons, flutes and rich strings still successfully filled the building with character and colour. During a recent overhaul by Browne & Sons a new 4ft flute and fifteenth were added to the Great Organ, and the Pedal Bourdon 16ft was extended to 8ft and 4ft pitch, the new stops blending seamlessly with the old. Canon Wright’s playing was a pleasure, with its abundance of charm and musicality ably demonstrating this worthy, workman-like, organ. The specification is: Great Organ, 8 8 8 4 4 2; Swell Organ, 8 8 8 8 4 8; Pedal Organ, 16 8 4 with Swell Tremulant and charge pneumatic action.  

The Parish Church is just a short walk through Hythe’s narrow winding streets where, following our Catholic Church hors d’oeuvre, we were to enjoy the afternoon’s main attraction. Berkeley Hill, who has been the organist of St Leonard’s for thirty-seven years, gave a warm welcome to an audience of sixty to seventy people; numbers swollen by interested St Leonard’s parishioners. The afternoon consisted of an organ demonstration, revealing the history and the various sections of the organ and, following tea, choir and organ music performed by the Shepway Singers further demonstrating the accompanying abilities of the Harrison & Harrison organ.  

The first organ installed at Hythe was in 1500 and although none of it survives Berkeley played Ricecares by Vincenzo Galilei (1529-1591) replicating the sounds that might have been heard. A George Pike England organ of 1812 was installed in the west gallery and a few of these stops still survive, although now rescaled and revoiced in the main organ. The triforium chancel organ is a mixture of 19th and 20th century pipework by several builders, and their distant delicate sounds percolated down from the chancel vaulting, as we heard Air by Jonathan Battishill (1738-1801).   

A substantial 2-manual and pedal organ by J W Walker was installed in the chancel in 1875 and some of this was incorporated into the main 1936 organ and chancel triforium organ which produced sounds of distant majesty in Henry Smart’s Postlude in C.   

There is something of the loveable rogue about Berkeley Hill, with his genial introductions and knowledge of the organs and church history. He related the history of the Harrison & Harrison organ, which dominates the building’s West End with a case designed by Sir Charles Nicholson, built locally from fine English oak, reputedly from old sailing ships. Fittingly, Berkeley played Toccata by Percy Whitlock from his 1939 Plymouth Suite; the rich romantic diapasons and imposing solo clarinet, oboe and tuba stops exhibiting the organ’s tonal fullness. However, although the organ is basically unchanged since it was built, there have been a few tonal adjustments in more recent years, with a new 4ft flute added to the main Great in 1991. The major restoration in 1991 by Browne & Sons fully replaced the organ’s original electric action with a modern digital transmission and the moveable console platform was installed together with returning the wind pressures to the original settings and raising the pitch slightly to A440. The organ has 59 stops with a total of 2,440 pipes, 1,722 in the main west case and 718 in the chancel triforium section. 

The effectiveness and colour of the mixtures could be judged in John Travers’ Cornet Voluntary No 1 in C and also in Bach’s Prelude in C bwv 545, which was repeated, for comparison, using the triforium chancel organ with its lighter voicing, judged by many to be preferable for this period of music. Berkeley finished his demonstration with the Choral-Improvisation In dulci jubilo by Sigfrid Karg-Elert revealing the massive power of the full main organ. Exciting as this is, the nave, with its timbered roof and almost square dimension, has a dry acoustic that leaves the organ’s sound relying on its muscle power, unlike the triforium organ sections, which are lifted and enhanced by the chancel’s stone vaulting.

Hythe's chancel and console

This divergence of the building’s sound was very evident during the performance given by the Shepway Singers. Arranged standing on the chancel steps the seventeen singers, conducted by Berkeley Hill, sang a setting of Psalm 150 by John Marsh, which was composed to celebrate the installation of the new 1784 Green organ in Canterbury Cathedral. Tim Parsons provided the organ accompaniment using mainly the triforium organ played from the movable console now returned to its more usual south transept position.

For a cappella music of the late 16th century the choir moved into the raised chancel in front of the high altar where they sang two motets by Victoria (1548-1611): O quam gloriosum and Jesu dulcis memoria. Here the blend and clarity of the choir was tellingly embellished by the chancel’s stone architecture, the music’s parts magically unfolding, rising like wafts of curled smoke caressing the ancient vaulting. Returning to the chancel steps, the final part of the Shepway Singers’ concert was Ave Rex, a carol sequence of mediaeval words set to music by William Mathias; the fourth of the five movements is the familiar carol Sir Christemas. The choir had to work to project their voices into the nave, although assisted by the sympathetically balanced triforium organ accompaniment from Tim Parsons.

Hythe, Harrison & Harrison

This was an exciting finish to an enjoyable concert and we were most grateful to the Shepway Singers, Tim Parsons and Berkeley Hill, who had arranged the afternoon for us.

But for some, on reflection, the Harrison & Harrison organ had never quite equalled the sum of its many formidable parts. It is unquestionably an impressive instrument, a large scaled diapason powerhouse containing everything one could desire. Perhaps it is the building that dampens its tonality, muting that indefinable quality which engages the ear. In theory it is perfection, but in truth, we are offered the perfection of a Fabergť egg: wonderful to behold and beautifully executed, but sadly not more than that.


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