Save our pipe organs
Oliver Condy takes a dim view of churches who favour electronic instruments
Last week an email circular from the Bristol & District Organists’ Association landed in my inbox. Did I, it asked, want to own a century-old one-manual pipe organ, set to be removed from Stapleton Baptist Church in favour of an electronic instrument?
The organ, built by the now-defunct Plymouth-based Hele company, is being offered free of charge to the brave individual who can come along, dismantle it and load it into the back of a van. Stapleton Baptist Church PCC is presumably desperate to remove what it regards as a space-consuming, dusty, wailing box of pipes. I can only assume the poor thing hasn’t been cared for or tuned for quite some time. And so, in the interest of storage space/a crèche/cheaper maintenance bills, it has joined the throng of organs in the sky. To get a measure of just how many organs have bitten the dust recently, you only have to take a look here.
Organs, of course, have to be rehoused when churches close for one reason or another, but there are increasing stories of instruments being actively removed by church committees who neither see or understand the role for them. The Church of England, for the past couple of centuries, has been fortunate enough to have developed the richest, most varied liturgical tradition of any world religion. We have something to be proud of in our hymns, anthems, canticles, psalm chants – much of which has been written by truly great figures. Howells’s output, for example, is almost entirely rooted in the church, and Elgar’s work started there and never quite left. Evensong is as valuable to our country’s cultural fabric as beer and cricket. Telling a church choir to function without an organ would be a bit like inviting a cricket team to bat with a wooden spoon. Just less funny.
I have an electronic organ at home. Without it, I’d be an ex-organist. But its sound barely covers the room it stands in. Even if it did, it’s a pretty rotten-looking piece of furniture (see pic on the left, complete with laundry basket). Next time you walk into a church or cathedral in the UK, Europe or the US, take a look behind you, or up at the choir area. In many cases, the organ is imposing and magnificent, in others it is quietly beautiful and unassuming. Now imagine it replaced with something like mine.