The Early English Organ Project

Tudor Organs


We have now made three Tudor organs, all based on the early 16 th century fragments found in Suffolk and other connected pieces of evidence. The first two were made for the Early English Organ Project, now administered by the Royal College of Organists and the third for the Bangor University International Centre for Sacred Music Studies project “ The experience of worship in late medieval cathedral and parish church”, re-creating and re-enacting British church services of ca1540.

THE STORY OF THE SUFFOLK FRAGMENTS AND THE MAKING OF THE TWO TUDOR ORGANS
 

In 1977 a door was removed from the service area of a 16th century house, behind a partition wall which was being demolished at Meadow Farm, Blacksmith's Green, Wetheringsett, near Stowmarket in Suffolk, England. It was kept because of the intriguing rows of holes (on one side) and the equally intriguing series of grooves (on the other side). It was not identified as part of an organ for some years, but remained in the custody of Timothy Easton, an artist and historian of vernacular buildings. He identified its significance for the organ world, and asked the opinion of the late Noel Mander, who suggested calling in the expertise of the historian of the English organ, Stephen Bicknell. Stephen collaborated with Timothy Easton in writing an article for the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History vol34 no3 (1995)and included a description in The History of the English Organ (Cambridge University Press 1996).

The Wingfield soundboard was re-discovered in February 1995, by Dominic and Antonia Gwynn at Wingfield church in Suffolk, in the coffin-house in the churchyard, with assorted lumber. It had already been described in the organ press by Frank Eglen, a tuner for Hill, Norman and Beard, who found it in the church in 1951. The earliest mention was by the Lowestoft historian, Edmund Gillingwater, in 1799, who was shown old wooden pipes, “part of the ornamental front of the organ”, and some other parts, and was told that the organ had stood “on the N. side of the Choir”, possibly in the loft which still exists. It was described briefly in an architectural dictionary in 1855, and M.R.James, ghost story writer, pioneer cyclist, palaeographer and Provost of Kings College Cambridge and then Eton College, saw it in the 1890s, and described it to the historian of Suffolk churches, Munro Cautley, who mentions it in his book of 1938. The two soundboards were measured and drawn by Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn in 1996 and the results published in the Organ Yearbook vol26 1996, an expansion of the article by Stephen Bicknell and Timothy Easton.

The two soundboards are made of grooved boards, the Wetheringsett soundboard four pieces of Baltic oak, and the Wingfield soundboard a single piece of walnut (or possibly chestnut). They probably date from the 1530s, though they could be later. Tree-ring dating showed that the wood for the Wetheringsett soundboard could not have been felled before 1525. They are the only physical remains from this time, apart from the famous case at Old Radnor, which unfortunately reveals very little about the original organ inside it. Before their discovery the only clues to the nature of the organs of this time had been provided by the two famous contracts, for the organ made by Anthony Duddyngton for All Hallows by the Tower in London in 1519, and the one by John Howe and John Clymmowe for Holy Trinity in Coventry in 1526. It was the correlation between the Wetheringsett soundboard and these two contracts which stimulated the possibility of a reconstruction, which the smaller Wingfield soundboard on its own would not have done.

These fragments do not provide all the answers of course, but soundboards do indicate the specification and layout of the organ, the overall size, the shape of the pipe front, and various other clues. The point of the Early English Organ Project is that this is the first opportunity we have had to reconstruct the organ of those times, and recover lost musical worlds. The discoveries aroused the interest of Professor John Harper of the University of Wales in Bangor, Director of the Royal School of Church Music, and historian of music and liturgy in the English church. Our ambitions to make reconstructions based on the two soundboards was only made possible when Timothy Easton met Michael Bowers, a retired City solicitor and indefatigable fund-raiser, who agreed to raise money for the Early English Organ Project, as it came to be known. By a cruel stroke of fortune, Michael died in February 2000, just as the funding for the project started to appear. His role was taken over by Dame Anne Warburton, a retired diplomat, who has been instrumental in gathering the funds, and in administering the Early English Organ Project, before responsibility for the project was made over to the Royal College of Organists in 2005. For enabling the project to take place the trustees of the Early English Organ Project are particularly grateful to their sponsors, especially the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.

The first step was a research project, searching for and then examining the sources to make the design as persuasive as possible. This research has been written about elsewhere (see RCO website, Oxrecs CD booklet by Magnus Williamson, and publications). There are reports available from the builders with full technical information.

The soundboards were to be copied, and the specification they provided, and the style of the earliest surviving English organ pipes, suggested an analogy with southern European organs. The main source for information about the mechanism (including the oldest organ bellows and organ keyboard in the world) was a derelict organ in the Old Cathedral in Salamanca, dating from about 1530. The information about the pipework led us to the earliest surviving English organ pipes in the chest organ at Knole in Kent (wooden pipes) and an early 16th century organ in Paniza Aragon (metal pipes and regals). The ca1630 Dallam organ now at Stanford on Avon provided information about the stopped wooden basses, added details about the metal pipes and the pitch.

The sources of information for the casework were provided by surviving East Anglian church woodwork. The decoration of the cases, superimposed on the basic structure provided by the original soundboards, was designed by Timothy Easton. The intention is to have the cases of both cases painted. The research for the painted decoration of the Wingfield case was carried out by Timothy Easton and Madeleine Katkov. Madeleine is a restorer of painting on fixed surfaces (e.g. mediaeval wall paintings); she painted the case, and a report of her work is also available.

The two organs were constructed in 2000 and 2001, in the workshop of Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn, with assistance from the harpsichord maker Bernd Fischer in the neighbouring workshop at Welbeck, and Chris Wells of Stannington near Sheffield, maker and restorer of furniture and decorative woodwork. The first concert of the Wingfield organ was appropriately at Wingfield church in October 2000. The first residency of both organs was at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich in May and June of 2002.

The organs are designed to be heard rather than merely seen or read about. It was John Harper’s idea that the organs should travel and encounter the public, rather than wait for people to come and hear them. A provision was included for the funding for residencies, paid for by the Early English Organ Project in exchange for a full programme of events and education at the residency. By the end of 2007 they will have appeared together at 14 residencies at Norwich, Dublin, Worcester, Cambridge, Oundle (twice), Edinburgh, Durham (twice) Aberdeen, Greenwich, Exeter, Truro, and Oxford. They have been the focus of two international conferences at Aberdeen in 2004 and in Oxford on April 12th – 15th 2007 (organiser Katie Pardee, see website). They have been recorded three times (Oxrecs, Atma and Guild) and have been the focus of concerts at Worksop Priory, the Victoria & Albert Museum (as part of the Glory of Gothic exhibition) and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 30th 2007 (when they were also heard briefly on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and on BBC TV.

The organs will be resident at Durham Cathedral for a year from April 22nd, while funding is sought for a further series of residencies. Offers of funding from future patrons would be eagerly welcomed by Andrew McCrea, Director of Academic Studies at the Royal College of Organists.

Without charitable or public funding, projects such as this would not happen. In this case, what is being revealed are the lost worlds of English church music up to the death of Henry Purcell, the music of the pre-Reformation church, the psalmody of the early reformed church, and the verse anthems and services of the later 16th and 17th centuries. Without these organs the story of English church music is missing a vital part. It would be nice to think that this is not the end of the contribution that the organ can make to re-discovering these lost musical worlds. With the experience gained it should be possible to make a larger early 16th century organ, a reconstruction of the organ housed by the Old Radnor case. And enough survives from the 10 foot double organ made by the Dallams for Magdalen College Oxford in about 1630 to provide the evidence for a reconstruction of an organ from the Golden Age of English music.

For information on future residencies and to support the Project in any way, please contact the Project Administrator of The Early English Organ Project, Andrew McCrea, The Royal College of Organists, PO Box 56357, London SE16 7XL (05600 767208 andrew.mccrea@rco.org.uk )

Click to open Barn door Picture
Barn door Sound Board
Wingfield sound board
Wingfield sound board