Visit to St John the Evangelist R.C. Church, Duncan Terrace, Islington on 10/03/2012
by David Sutton

David Bird + Lucia AicheAustere yet having a warm grandeur. Impressions! They can be so subjective when you have to impart them to others, particularly in writing. My impression on entering the church building!

The parish was established very soon after the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act and a grand new church was built which quickly gained a reputation for its music. Convert clergyman, Frederick Oakley, was appointed to the parish in 1850 and it was he who was the prime mover in this. The music has remained an important part of parish life, however the organ didn’t really match this aspiration and the history of the instruments installed perhaps reflects this to some extent.

Organ No.1

The first organ meant for the building (replacing a 'hired' Hill?) was a modest 1852 Bishop and Starr situated to the right of the altar and enlarged to a two-manual (17 stop) in 1858.

Organ No.2 (almost!)

Fr. Boyle, a very wealthy man, decided to upgrade things in the latter part of the 19th century and put in an order to Hill and Sons for a grand instrument to go in the west end gallery. However in the passage of time (as sometimes sadly happens) a dispute arose and Fr Boyle, the projected organ, (and Fr. Boyle’s money to pay for it) went to Arundel. St Johns would have had that magnificent organ which is now in Arundel Cathedral.

Organ No.3 (what we have now)

In 1963 – over 60 years later! - J.W.Walker and Sons were commissioned to install an organ which befitted the needs and status of the music performed there. The instrument was conceived in a neo-classical style and was part of the new breed of Walker which was born in that era – Brompton Oratory, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral etc etc. Its sound is magnificent – conveyed and enhanced by the very warm acoustic of the building. To my ears the Great Diapason Chorus topped with a 4-rank Fourniture is an aural firework display (sorry, impressions again!). Those French style chorus reeds make their mark giving colour and drive to the tone towards the fortissimo. There is also a remarkable recent addition to the Pedal Department of a 32’ reed rejoicing in the name of  'Oliphant' – a cross between an Ophicleide and an elephant perhaps? And, those flutes – ahhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anyway, Adrian Gunning – CLESO member and host for the afternoon - had kindly prepared a short recital and explanatory notes for us. After his short introduction outlining the history of the church and pointing out the various architectural features (chapel frescos and stations of the cross etc) he gave us the recital showing us how very well the organ coped with anything from De Grigny (late 17th century) to Tournemire (20th century) with J S Bach and Karg Elert en route. This was a demonstration par excellence whetting our appetites for the time when we could try it for ourselves.    

In time honoured fashion yours truly kicked off with some JSB. All of us found the instrument beautifully easy to handle – equipped as it was with all mod cons. Bach and the baroque era seemed to be the flavour of things, no doubt coloured by the neo-classical instrument we had. We should have brought along more romantic stuff as it was quite clear the organ had a lot more to offer. Fortunately Eric Doig had this foresight and gave us his rendition of 'Meditation' from Massanet’s Tha´s which was much appreciated. The writer also explored the other tonalities with 'one of his own' and was much delighted with what it sounded like. It really showed we must not pigeon-hole instruments but let them speak in their own individual way.

I have to say that a smallish number of attendees – players and observers (12) allowed the players each a longer go – much to the delight of the players - this organ is one of great distinction. We were joined by two organists of note that afternoon, David Gammie and Carl Jackson, and we appreciated their company.

CLESO is always grateful for the way busy people give up their spare time to give us so much pleasure. Adrian and the church authorities have a wonderful asset in their instrument which really stirs and encourages the soul. Thank you for the privilege of allowing us to share in your good fortune.

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