Hay church organ project
PUBLISHED: 13:46 19 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:03 20 February 2013
Nigel Jarrett reports on the amazing story of the pipe organ about to enjoy a new lease of life at Hay-on-Wye
Nigel Jarrett reports on the amazing story of the pipe organ about to enjoy a new lease of life at Hay-on-Wye. Pictures by Jack Tait
Apart from some heavy lifting and the creation of a few clouds of long-settled ecclesiastical dust, the transfer of an organ from one church to another might appear to be nothing more than everyday furniture removal, no sooner decided than accomplished.
It depends on the organ, of course not just its bulk (there are mammoth ones that sound as big as they look) but the reason for the move and its musical or religious significance.
The instrument being switched from Holmer Church, near Hereford, to St Mary's in Hay-on-Wye is important enough for organ buffs to drool over its pedigree and for the British Institute of Organ Studies to have given it a Grade 2* listing, making it worthy of preservation as part of the national heritage. It has three manuals and around 2,000 pipes.
But as well as making it something inspiring to look at, the St Marys authorities do not intend to enshrine it as a museum piece. It is being re-built, re-voiced (adjustment of the pipes to produce the required tone) and will be used as an important recital instrument as well as for church services.
Father Richard Williams, of St Marys, can readily vouch for its musical capabilities, having already matched them with his own considerable ones as an organist while it was still lodged in its former home. He studied music at Trinity College, London, and is a specialist in the characteristic organ-loft skill of improvisation.
The instrument was built in 1883 by Bevington and Sons, the famous Soho organ-makers, and was gifted to St Mary's by Holmer, which no longer required it for its re-modelled services. As a mark of gratitude and appreciation, Father Richard gave a recital on the instrument at Holmer just before dismantling began, and has played it several times there.
It is being painstakingly re-built at St Mary's by Trevor Tipple, of Worcester, and the whole project is supported by a cash appeal which before zero VAT rating was for around 127,000. Fundraising continues. 'Re-voicing' of the pipes is a major part of the work, though the fascia of the instrument's impressive wooden casing is already in place in an elevated position at the back of the church.
St Mary's parishioner Rita Tait, who is the appeal co-ordinator and has researched the organ's history, says the instrument has attracted interest from all over the world. At the start, Dr Roy Massey, organ adviser for the Hereford diocese and formerly organist and master of choristers at the cathedral, was a prime mover in suggesting that St Marys might be the perfect home for it.
Rita says: There are organ society enthusiasts in New Zealand and Australia who know about this instrument. Its all so exciting. Mark Fisher, one of the designers of the grand organ at the Sydney Opera House, is doing a historical survey of the Bevington family business and will, we hope, be here for the Hay Festival. Hes seen the instrument before and played it.
The organ was commissioned for the music room of a private house. Initially, all we knew about its early story was the name of John Carbery Evans, of Hatley Hall, Cambridgeshire, and the subsequent owner, George Wright, of Olton Hall, Solihull, who took it with him when he moved in 1912 to Pudleston Court in Herefordshire."
Father Richard prefaced my interview with him and Mrs Tait by playing music by J. S. Bach at his vicarage piano to clear the head. Needless to say, it was an organ work transcribed for the piano. "Mr Tipple and I agreed on a building scheme with an eye kept on heritage," he says. "He is known as an extremely fine pipe-voicer. We wanted to make the organ capable of rendering the music of all schools, and for that it had to have additional pipework and stops, so that it would be a first class recital instrument. But I think it was Albert Schweitzer who said that the best stop on an organ was the building which housed it.
If you extemporise on the organ you respond to the sound being produced, and it multiplies, but when I played the Bevington at Holmer it was not an inspiring sound because a lot of the pipes were choked with dust and the organ had never really been re-voiced for church or recital use. It was intended for a library in a big house. The sound was really fine beef dinner... without the horseradish!
Before the dysfunctional previous organ at St Marys there was another even more unsuitable, a cinema-style job, on which Father Richard would play I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside as a reminder to himself and presumably others that it needed to go.
Father Richard says: So many churches are getting rid of their organs and replacing them with electronic ones, but we are travelling in the opposite direction.
Trevor Tipple, who has been an organ technician and restorer for more than 50 years, formed his own company in 1974 and has three workshops in Worcester employing eight people of his own generation. He says Bevington was an organ-builder who did some excellent work of very fine quality. He and his team are providing a completely new action, 300 new pipes and a new portable console (keyboard) so that players can sit anywhere in the nave rather than directly in front of the instrument and possibly out of sight of a front-facing congregation or audience.
I think Bevington would have done exactly the same things, he says. When I first met the St Marys people, I told them they were going to have a magnificent organ so we would prefer not to be rushed. Everyone at the church has been patient and co-operative. I have been marvellously impressed with the way Father Richard has been able to generate so much enthusiasm and interest. We get totally bound up in our work and we are very proud of it. At the end of the day, the church will have an instrument that will go on for centuries more.
Apart from Father Richard, other notable musicians being lined up to play the Bevington in public include Roger Judd, formerly Queens organist at St Georges Chapel, Windsor, who has just retired to the locality. Next year an inaugural William Lloyd Webber Recital is planned, commemorating the father of Julian and Andrew. (Julian is the organ appeal patron.)
The aim is to lure people in initially with these big events and get them to spread the word about the fantastic musical experience they had at St Marys, says Rita Tait. We are also planning to set up a Friends of the Bevington Organ group for long-term management.
Father Richard aims to use the organ for tuition and is planning a scholarship that will offer the holder a weekly free lesson in extemporisation for a year, and free access to the instrument for practice. Sadly, extemporising is not heard much these days, yet it was such a great thing with players and composers such as Bach, he says.
The churchs acoustic is very fine. The interior becomes almost like a violin or a sound box. With so many cathedral organ recitals the organist is a million miles away and can only be seen on a screen. Here the sound will be a lot more immediate. And the other good thing is that the new console will be moveable so that the organist can be seen in the centre of the building.
Mrs Tait says the organ was looked upon as a gift to the people of Hay-on-Wye, although it obviously belongs in the church. You could not stick a Victorian pipe organ in the local library or the council offices. The council, in fact, has contributed to the appeal, alongside charitable trusts, businesses and individuals, one of this last group emptying the contents of a swear box into the coffers.
Transfer of the organ began last year. The whole project from start to finish will have taken about 18 months. The original cost of the project was reduced to 107,000 after Mrs Taits photographer husband, Jack, worked on and procured zero VAT rating. Money is still coming in. At the time of writing, around 15,000 was still needed. It was also hoped to have the organ partly playable to coincide with the Hay Festival.
Those first notes, whoever plays them, will sound sweet. If organs could speak, and to some they do, the sentiments of the Hay Bevington will probably be the musical equivalent of a bolder, but no less charming, celebration of its new life.
Anyone wishing to speed the organ appeal towards its target should
visit the St Mary website at www.wayonhigh.org.uk or contact Mrs Tait at Elm Cottage, Bronydd, Clyro HR3 5RX (01497 821132).
You can sponsor a pipe for 10, 25 and 50, or alternatively donate a