Report on visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral on 6/1/2011 by David Sutton

St Paul's CathedralThis event is believed to be a CLESO ‘first’ so far as St Paul’s is concerned – a ‘hands-on’ evening. Simon Johnson had managed to squeeze us in to his and the cathedral’s mind-boggling complicated schedule. We had only 90 minutes for the whole thing and this had to be shared between 13 scheduled aspiring and eager players whose names had been drawn by ballot.

But what a time we had! Two us managed to attend the Epiphany Eucharist beforehand and therefore got attuned to the ‘ambiance’. After the service, we joined the other 20 or so who had been gathering in the fresh winter’s evening at the re-installed Temple Bar. This monument previously spanned Fleet Street and was removed to widen the road and ‘dumped’ in parkland somewhere in Hertfordshire. When the Paternoster Square Development was revamped (thankfully!!), it was relocated back to the City and now is the entrance between the Square and the Churchyard. Simon Johnson met us there and led us in to the cathedral via a passage used only by the staff and artisans working on the fabric – a fascinating glimpse of the unseen, essential (and unsung?) work that goes on from day to day. We entered the crypt, passing tombs bearing the names of historical figures, political and in the services, and ascended the steps to the floor of the cathedral and the dome area. We emerged, mouths agape, viewing that enormous space which was lit only very dimly.

We also saw the new mobile five manual console which was to be our ‘home’ for the next 90 minutes or so. We were so fortunate to be using this brand-new acquisition, which was the magnificent gift of the son of Harry Gabb who was sub-organist from 1946 to 1974. This arrangement enabled us to have an unrivalled view of each player. The player also can now hear the instrument in quite a new way – from a different aural perspective.

Where does one start? First things first! Simon gave us a quick résumé of the history of the organ, stating that what we had before us was essentially an 1872 Willis with add-ons. The developments of organ mechanisms – notably pneumatic action – enabled the keyboard to be ‘divorced’ from the soundboard or pipe-work in that it no longer needed a direct mechanical connection. This enabled the organ (up to this point on a screen blocking the view from east to west) to be split and moved to either side of the chancel. It also allowed the deployment of pipe-work in the more remote dome area. In due course the action was electrified and Willis improved his original tonal scheme between the wars. In the 1960s the organ was becoming somewhat unreliable and unwieldy, so Manders were entrusted with a complete revamp using the most modern techniques/ideas available.

In 1977, apart from a complete re-modeling of the dome diapason chorus sections, the new West End Section was installed (the diapason chorus a godsend to a musically bereft congregation stranded at the west end of the nave) as well as sundry adjustments to the tonal scheme, all true to the spirit of Father Willis. It is rumoured Her Majesty the Queen has vetoed use of the West End Royal Trumpets (en chamade over the great west doors) when she is present as they do create something of an overbearing aural presence when you are close by! They are certainly VERY LOUD but possibly the tone has been ‘modified’ since installation in 1977 – they do not sound to the writer to be so brash, but they have not lost their capacity to thrill!  And in 1977 a new console was positioned on the south choir screen. Up till then it had been situated in the depths of the North Case and had obvious drawbacks for the player!

2008 brought a further refurbishment/updating and the new mobile console. In particular the dome heavy pressure reeds have been re-modelled and are very fine. 

Now how did we fare in 2011? The console has 137 drawstops of which 108 are speaking. Naturally it is equipped with all the playing aids you could wish for, but Simon was on hand helping with the selection of just that right one from the forest of lettering which flanked the player on either side. Each player had only five minutes ‘to do their thing’ and had been hard at work preparing themselves to use their slot to maximum effect.  The result was amazing. We had a range of grand pieces involving the use of the inevitable 32 reed and tubas – not to be found on your modest two manual 15 stop instrument at home.  We enjoyed a rip-roaring play-through of ‘Luckington’ – Let all the world in every corner sing - with a final climax using the big reeds on the pedals on the last four chords. The quiet stops were explored in an improvisation on a theme using that wonderful pedal 32 Contra Violone en route. Offerings from JSB, Rheinberger, Langlais, etc etc followed in an eclectic mix produced by the players. In fact, you name it and we seemed to get it! We had planned originally for 13 players to have a go but, as luck had it, those present who were on the reserve list also got to play as there were a few spare minutes at the end.

How on earth can a player do justice to an instrument of this stature in five minutes? The short answer is you can’t – particularly when going in ‘cold’. But nevertheless, the opportunity was seized with eagerness and great anticipation by everyone who played. One of us said the whole experience ‘was surreal’. One cannot cast aside the humbling privilege of being allowed to make music in such a place. All of us in some way feel we have joined the ranks of famous musicians who have graced the bench in years past and present - composers and performers. Those of us who did not play came away with a sense of awe at just being there – as a special and privileged group, going where ordinary members of the public cannot go and getting close up to things and observing what is normally hidden away or so far away you need a telescope!

Simon Johnson cannot be thanked enough for his generosity in giving up his valuable time in his hectic and demanding life, especially as he is a father now, and family time is precious. The City of London and Eastern Society of Organists had an event which will figure prominently in the annals for many a moon. We had a ‘hands-on’ on the instrument situated at the heart of our nation and the world – AND – it is in the CITY OF LONDON!

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