Visit to the Crown Court Church of Scotland, Covent Garden, on 14/01/2012
by David Sutton
The writer worked for 14 years in the near vicinity and didn’t manage to find the church during that time, although on the day it was no problem! Dr David Knight, organist of the church, who used to be a member and office holder of CLESO, was our host.
The size of the building is surprising considering it is so hard to find. It must be at least 50 feet from floor to ceiling and seat hundreds. David told us there had been a Church of Scotland building on this site since the beginning of the 17th century and it then occupied a much bigger area than now. Sadly this building had its problems and had to be demolished in the late 19th century. The area in previous times had a somewhat dubious reputation and it was felt perhaps now they should up sticks and go elsewhere, but representations were made to the effect everyone should be welcome so the new church was erected on the existing site. The new church was smaller, the rest of the site was relinquished and sold-off. The Fortune Theatre now stands on the sold-off portion.
The new church had a new organ generously given by Andrew Carnegie and was made by Bevington and Sons in 1909. The architect, it seems, overlooked where the organ was to go and, as a result, it was squashed under the gallery at the pulpit end. Not only that, but David pointed out that originally the organist was actually hidden totally within the casework! So it must have been a nightmare to play under such circumstances with the sound of the instrument on top of you and also being almost totally cut off from the congregation (and choir?).
In 1961 Kingsgate Davidson were engaged to renovate the organ and rebuild it on modern lines. Immediately the organist was ‘released from his prison’ and placed on the opposite side of the sanctuary area and armed with a detached drawstop console with ‘all mod-cons’ of the time. The usual opportunities were taken to extend the tonal range to bring the organ into line with the modern trends of the times but sadly it still remained ‘shoe-horned’ under the gallery. If there ever is the luxury of starting again, perhaps it might be possible to locate it in the gallery allowing it to speak more freely.
David gave us a very interesting and humorous introduction to the instrument, a brief history of the building, illustrated the range of tones and then let us have a go. Kingsgate Davidson has not been in business for quite a number of years now and were known for doing jobs with a competitive edge on price. So the remarkable state of preservation (i.e. everything worked) must be considered rare for a Kingsgate of over 50 years of age as it is believed nothing has been done of any significance apart from the regular tuning. As regards tone, the writer could not discern much of the original Bevington (apart from one or two individual stops) having known several untouched examples which have quite a gentle feel – particularly with regard to the higher pitched ranks. Quite possibly advantage had been taken to ‘open up’ the flue choruses. Certainly the original organ did not have a Great Mixture or Twelfth and no mutations on the Choir. One wonders whether any lessons had been learned from the collaboration with Ralph Downes over the rebuilding of the Chigwell School Chapel organ some 5–6 years earlier. Here a modest unassuming ‘solid’ Speechley was transformed into a dynamic versatile instrument. Perhaps the same ideas were incorporated at Covent Garden but with not quite the same impact. Anyway the overall sound of the Great diapason chorus is bright and carries well into the body of the kirk. The Bourdon rank has been extended (as always) and has a Twelfth as part of the range of footages available. Possibly this is a product of Chigwell School work because they have one there and very successful it is in providing a pseudo Violone tone when added. There is no 16 ft. open metal stop in the pedal department at Covent Garden. The Choir Organ has the ‘statutory’ mutations of the period of Nazard and Tierce but they are not nearly as bold as the Chigwell equivalents. A Trombone/Trumpet unit has been added and it is huge both in sound and scale – extremely loud and to be used with caution?
Twelve of us braved the winter air to attend this event. Thank you David for turning out on this cold day and to the church authorities for allowing us free access to this instrument and the fascinating building in which it is housed. There are several windows of stained glass – so colourful even in the dim light of a January day. And (a naughty thought!) what will happen to that gigantic royal crest on the sanctuary wall if the vote for devolution goes a certain way? Enough of the frivolity! We had an illuminating time revisiting some of our history and in particular our connections with Scotland here in London.