Why the organ really is king of musical instruments
Listening to Llandaff Cathedral's new organ has converted me to the instrument's thrilling possibilities
Organs: the king of instruments, according to some. To be honest, the cult of the organ has never turned me on, with its cloistered virtuosos plying their trade in darkened cathedrals, reading their copies of Choir & Organ and fiddling with their stops, pedals, keyboard racks and 16-footers. But there's also a combination of servility and megalomania that puts off all but a charmed circle of organophiles.
As so often with these preconceptions, built up over years of misunderstanding, it's only when you confront them head on that you learn the error of your ways. My Damascene moment came on a journey to Llandaff Cathedral near Cardiff, where I was going for this week's Music Matters on BBC Radio 3 (on which, by the way, you can also hear more about the composer Carlo Gesualdo). Over Easter, Richard Moorhouse will play the cathedral's brand-new organ for public worship. Built by Nicholson's of Malvern, this is the largest organ to be unveiled in the UK since Coventry Cathedral's in the early 1960s.
As I entered Llandaff's grand gothic nave, the giant instrument was being tuned by James Atherton, a Metallica and Mozart-loving former drummer and now expert organ surgeon. There's a fantastic physicality about working with organ pipes – 4870 of them, in the case of Llandaff, distributed on either side of the choir. To reach them, you have to walk inside the organ's 10-metre-high cases, up ladders and through passageways, navigating the labyrinthine bowels of the instrument. Each pipe has to be precisely calibrated by moving strips of metal or wood – with all the delicacy of a jeweller for the tiniest and highest pipes (each the size of a pencil), and by tearing off leaves of lead and tin for the lowest notes. These low, 32ft pipes make an extraordinary sound, more like a pneumatic drill than a musical note – a celestial farting at the very bottom of your hearing range.
The fact that Llandaff has a new organ, rather than an endlessly repaired and renovated one (as with the majority of Britain's cathedrals) is down to decades of bad luck. Bombed during the war, the organ fell victim to years of make-do-and-mend before a lightning strike in 2007, which destroyed what was left of it. The cathedral and the community around Llandaff raised the £1.5m needed for a new instrument.
It's been worth it. Moorhouse described the organ as unashamedly of the tradition of Romantic English instruments, but hearing him play one of Widor's symphonies for the solo organ (from the grand French tradition of organ music) was thrilling. His performance made me forget about the arcana of the organ-playing world and converted me to the majesty of the instrument.
Date: 2015-02-03; view: 525