Report on visit to St Michael’s Cornhill 13/06/2011 by David Sutton
Sixteen members assembled to reacquaint (in many cases) themselves with the revitalised organ.
St Michael's church building has had a long, long history as it was founded on the original footprint of the Roman basilica. It may possibly have had an organ in situ in the 15th century and already had a thriving musical tradition one hundred years before that with no less than three sung services a day! Affected by the usual ups and downs of history, this rich musical heritage has continued to the present day – some six centuries later.
Turning now to the organ, the present instrument still has pipe-work going back to Renatus Harris who installed it in 1684. Other builders have made their marks, Green, Robson, and Bryceson (one of the first tries at electric action) and Hill and Son in 1886 who were brought in to make the organ playable again (as the Bryceson action had 'died') and carried out minor tonal adjustments at the same time.
However it was in 1926 that Rushworth and Dreaper were invited to carry out a major rebuild and the organ we have today is essentially this instrument with minor tonal adjustments. As the years wore on, various problems started to surface – one of which was the wind supply and associated wind-noise. The loud hissing more or less obliterated the quieter ranks or severely compromised their effect. The problems have now been addressed and everything shines through without the hissing. Particularly fine was, in my view, the 8’ stopped flute – magical with the box shut. Nicholsons who carried out this most recent work have done a fine job in their own inimitable way.
Jonathan Rennert talked about the general history of the organ and the church and then proceeded to demonstrate the varied tonal qualities with music spanning many centuries - from the quiet, gentle medieval to the brash (and very loud!) modern. Jonathan has continued the tradition set by his predecessor, Harold Darke, of the Monday lunchtime recitals – continuous apart from a well-earned summer break – either playing himself or inviting guest recitalists.
The organ was originally in a gallery at the west end but was moved to its present position in the north chancel area in 1860. The gallery was removed many years ago. The chamber has a very open aspect and nothing obstructs the egress of sound into a warm acoustic. As a consequence the writer feels caution is the byword for use of the chorus and climax reeds, as the effect can be devastating on the ear-drums if you are sitting in the wrong place! For the flue-work, you do not have the brilliance of the continental but the richness of the English tradition in the voicing. The quieter ranks have a fluency and flexibility perhaps lacking in the examples from Europe. As always when trying to assess organ tone, you just cannot adequately (and without personal preferences and prejudices) give full justice to the effect which is generated and experienced.
Thank you Jonathan for giving up your Monday evening (after 'a hard day at the office'! – recital and all). We all had a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile visit. Thanks also Jonathan for the booklet, entitled Music, Musicians and Organs of St Michael’s Cornhill. When writing this report I have shamelessly drawn from its contents and I hope that I have not misrepresented the obvious scholarship contained in it!