Visit to Chelsea Hospital on 17/01/2015 by David Sutton
It was one of those bright shining winter days that saw what was possibly a record number of CLESO folk and friends (27) visit the chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The buildings looked glorious in the sun.
Inside we were met by Will Vann our host (+ young son) and his organ scholar. Also our company was graced with two residents, resplendent in their scarlet (especially for us) – Percy (Charles Whitham’s “adopted” relation), and his friend Geoff. These two redoubtable gentlemen were quizzed and they interacted most wonderfully with us fielding questions and comments like veterans (which of course they were!). Their presence really spelled out what the whole purpose of the Chelsea Hospital is all about. So much so that Eric, one of our number, asked how he could join them! All the necessary information was forthcoming. Maybe Eric will don the scarlet. Who knows?
After this our attention was drawn to the two-manual organ on the gallery. Will Vann director of music gave a small introductory talk which was very informative. None of the original 1700’s pipework remains. Will said that some had turned up in South Africa of all places. How is anyone’s guess! In the 1970s the then organ was scrapped and replaced by Hill Norman and Beard. Sadly it was not a complete success as the worn action made the instrument virtually unplayable by the late 1990s. It was replaced by Walkers and an opportunity was taken to make some tonal revisions. Trying to shoe-horn the instrument into the original 1700s case was difficult but wonders can always be achieved by careful planning and execution. To supplement the pedal organ, two electronic ranks have been provided as space was not available.
Will did not do a short introductory recital but just demonstrated the various choruses and individual ranks with a chord or two. This left more time for the players to have their go and make it speak for themselves. Perhaps this is the best way of doing things because a player can only get the feel of an instrument by playing it for some time. From what I gathered, reactions were mixed. For me the new action was heavy compared with delights of the new Kenneth Tickell organ at St Mary-le-Bow. Being on top of the sound did not help either. The chapel space is large and the organ is finished to suit. That said, it produced some lovely sounds.
The visit was enjoyed by all attendees and it was tremendous to witness one of Britain’s most venerable institutions at work and to converse with some of its inhabitants. Our sincere thanks are due to Will Vann, his organ scholar, Percy and Geoff for making our visit so memorable, and to Charles Whitham for arranging it in the first place.