Report on CLESO visit to St Mary’s Birchanger on 09/08/2008 - by David Sutton

IMG_0557One early evening a small but courageous band of seven CLESO types braved the summer rains and arrived at a typical smallish (about 200 seats) Essex country church just off the M11 to be welcomed by members Geoffrey and Ruth Martin. As we arrived at the north door and emerged into the body of the church from under the west gallery and looked back, the organ was displayed in all its glory. There was not a pipe to be seen as the instrument is totally enclosed with shutters allowing the sound out. The drawstop console is also on the gallery so placed with the organist facing the chancel and his back to the casework.

With this very intriguing prospect we first listened to Geoffrey who gave us a potted history of the organ and August Gern the builder. Gern, originally a Prussian moved to Paris and was employed by Cavaille Coll and he when got some English commissions Gern came over here as his chief foreman. The Franco-Prussian war erupted and Gern chose to stay in England and work on his own account. The installation date of the instrument is 1884 and was mentioned in Musical Opinion of this date. Because of its unique qualities and condition it is Grade One listed by BIOS. It appears to be the only Gern left both unaltered and in good playing order thanks to a faithful restoration by Saxon Aldred in 1983.

A mystery for the writer is how did a fair-sized three manual brand new instrument by a relatively unknown continental builder get installed in a smallish Essex country church? The money was apparently put up by a local land owner, Mr. Harrison. Some clues here in that a Mr. Harrison of Birchanger Place had a Gray & Davison installed in the 1860’s (according to the NPOR). Anyway the Gern organ sports a rich selection of 24 speaking stops spread over three manuals and pedals. A summary of the specification is:-

Great: 8,8,8,4,4,III mixture, Trumpet 8

Swell (enclosed): 8,8,8,8,4,2,1, Oboe 8, Vox Humana 8
+ Tremulant

Choir: 8,8,4, Clarionet (sic) 8

Pedal: 16,16, Cello 8, Trombone 16

Usual couplers + Swell Sub-octave to Great

The sound is extraordinarily rich and exciting – particularly full organ. We were extremely lucky to have had the tuner in on that day. Geoffrey Martin commented that so far as he was concerned that with the box shut and playing on the swell strings he was transported to the Notre Dame! The flutes are a delight and it is not often you get a real triangular flute these days! Again the diapasons are full and satisfying – very French. The pedal trombone really made its presence felt. Because of the total enclosure it has not suffered from the ravages of dirt and, despite its age, it gave a marvellous account of itself. We all had our statutory “go” and were all surprised and delighted with what emerged. Some of us had troubles with the “kick” swell and were confused with the pedal which controlled the main enclosure shutters, but this was a small “niggle”.

It is very unusual to have an instrument of this kind in a place such as this and at the time (1884) it must have been one of the largest organs in that part of Essex, certainly rivaling the largest organs in nearby Bishops Stortford. Due to the current situation the future of this unique instrument must be watched very closely. Unfortunately this historic church at the moment is not well attended and lacks many facilities which we normally take for granted such as running water (and loos!). It does have electricity but the beautiful wall-candelabra were all kitted out with candles.

After being refreshed by drinks and delicious biscuits Geoffrey and Ruth played their trump card! Would we like to go to Bishops Stortford URC and see where Ruth officiates? This suggestion was accepted with relish and we trooped off down to Bishops Stortford (about two miles away). Here was a typical English instrument, originally a late 19th Century two manual Hill, the product of late Victorian tonal ideas, which has been brought up to date with a rebuild of 1995 by Hill Norman and Beard with electro-pneumatics and a detached stop tab console. The organ was again put it through its paces and we all agreed it was quite a different organ to the Gern, both in tonal range and power. I wonder whether it will still be fully functional in a 100 years time as the Gern is after its installation. However we were very appreciative of the re-ordering of the church building particularly the warm colour-scheme and the excellent facilities on a wet and somewhat unseasonably chilly evening.

Heartfelt thanks were expressed to Martin and Ruth for an extremely interesting and worthwhile visit and for the refreshments at Birchanger.     

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