Any thoughts that 2021 would be a normal year were quickly dashed by the Christmas 2020 lockdown. I am sure as a consequence we all started the Year in a sombre mood. Once more I sat behind my desk unable to make plans and quickly took the decision to furlough the majority of our staff. Only my colleagues in engineering and the warehouse worked full time keeping goods on the move.
The first quarter of 2021 was ominously quiet with forward church work inaccessible due to travel and work restrictions. There was no sign of another surge in home sales seen in 2020 which had taken the sting out of an otherwise depressing landscape. Even hire bookings were deferred as work on pipe organs was also delayed.
To cheer our spirits at this time we decided to live stream a concert from my home ‘organ cave’ on a very cold February evening featuring 4 different instruments. It made for a moment of light relief in the depths of a bleak winter trading period.
And then with the summer there seemed to be a ray of sunshine finally poking through an otherwise cloudy sky.
2021 finally turned out to be a better year than 2020 and if I may be allowed a small brag, a year of quality more than quantity.
Multiple prestigious venues install Viscount Organs in 2021
Starting this run of prestigious venues was our sale of an instrument to Peterhouse in Cambridge. The historic and important Chapel organ removed for restoration by Flentrop and the threat of the chapel reopening, meant an organ was needed. Peterhouse decided to purchase an Envoy 35-F and hire the audio required for use in the chapel.
Once the pipe organ is back the Envoy will become an additional practice instrument to be relocated elsewhere in the college.
Leicester Cathedral had also earlier ordered a small instrument for use in St Martin’s House when the Cathedral closed for major interior repair work. Planed for March this instrument finally was required in August, a further indication of the delays all projects were experiencing.
A very short notice requirement did emerge on Easter Sunday at the Old Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich.
A BBC evensong broadcast was taking place the following Thursday with rehearsals on Easter Monday. The pipe organ proved too unreliable over Easter for that important event so we got a 3 manual hire instrument in place by 4.00pm on Easter Monday. This is a credit to the amazing team I am so lucky to work with.
This ‘heroic work’ paid dividends as later in the year with the pipe organ now scheduled for an eventual major rebuild Trinity Laban purchased a Regent 356 for permanent use in the Chapel. This is now set up on a larger speaker system than we managed for the Easter Monday emergency. It also led to another major bonus which I will tell you more of later.
Many significant Organ Hires
2021 turned out to be the year of more significant hire requirements.
Derby Cathedral are blessed with two organs, a small 2 manual in the retro choir and a renowned Compton on the west gallery. Sadly, the instrument is renowned as much for its long expected rebuild as for the ingenuity and quality of the Compton design. But it was failure of the retro choir instrument that summoned us to Derby, again on pretty short notice, this hire organ being set up relatively slowly by our standards, 2 days after the call for help in time for the evening choir rehearsal.
Later in the year we supplied an identical Regent 356 hire instrument to Radley College, a project delayed by over a year. Next came the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks where the pipe organ is also due to be rebuilt.
If I may be excused a small poke at those of our musical community that are vehemently opposed to digital technology. Besides sound authenticity which is a valid area of debate, the main argument is that a digital instrument will only last a relatively short period of time. Perhaps 15 years is speculated, but the reality is much nearer to 30 years or more.
A pipe organ on the other hand these opponents say lasts for 100 years plus. While considerably more expensive the effective cost is therefore much less than a digital instrument when looked at in this longer time context. While this may be true for mechanical action instruments it is clear that a great many pipe organs require rebuilding between 30 and 60 years of age. The cost of these rebuilds or replacement instruments as is the case at Radley and the Guards Chapel will be close to £1 million. That sum invested sensibly today would produce an annual income that is greater than the cost of its equivalent digital alternative. For smaller less expensive pipe organs and reuse of redundant instruments, the argument becomes a little less definitive but digital instruments still compare well in relative cost terms.
I rest my case on this element of the cost argument against digital instruments! Please excuse my brief Victor Meldrew moment, its been another tough year.
Other notable installations and hires
June finally saw us install a small instrument in Lambeth Palace Chapel, an order taken before the very first lockdown in 2020. The pipe organ there is unplayable but will hopefully eventually be replaced with an appropriate new pipe instrument in the small west gallery. While our speakers are in this space, there was no room there for our organ console which sits on the south side on a plinth between stalls and chancel steps.
A small number of less notable churches were also completed in 2021 dominated by Non-Conformist and Catholic places of worship.
The Anglican process of faculty application and decision has been almost shut down by the pandemic. PCC’s have not met and have understandably been battling far more fundamental issues than the need for new or updated organs.
Churches outside this Anglican planning process are pretty much free to make instant decisions and it was encouraging to see some of those back for normal business in the latter half of 2022.
We see continued strong demand for Home Practice Organs
Home sales continued but as in 2020 with most customers choosing not to visit, buying based on recommendation for us or other owners of Viscount instruments.
It was with this change of behavior now set for a second year that we sadly said goodbye to our receptionist Annette after 8 year’s service. She took the opportunity to move to Scotland where she is now happily resettled.
Organ Concert – Selby Organ Battle
In September we arranged what turned out to be a really exciting organ concert with a twist!
John Scott-Whitely and Martin Baker put on a great show which included a lovely arrangement by John of the Poulenc Organ Concerto for 2 organs and Timpani played by Barnaby Archer hot from a London Prom Concert the night before. About 120 turned up with one energetic audience member driving all the way from Devon, a round trip of 600 miles!
Another Regent Classic Installation
Just before Christmas Derby Cathedral took the decision to purchase an instrument as their requirement would be long term and might also need to cover the eventual ever anticipated failure of the Compton. Plans are emerging to deal with that along with other major building issues but it will be many years before the possible £1.5 million needed for its rebuild will be raised in full.
Derby decided on a ‘used’ Regent Classic 3 manual drawstop organ which was fully refurbished with new keyboards and sold with a new 10 year warranty. This was installed just before Christmas on speakers in the retro choir with plans to add west end speakers later in 2022.
The immediate run up to Christmas saw a last-minute surge for hire organs at churches and at home. While we had instruments available for all these needs it was only Ealing Abbey that were able to proceed as the other churches sadly could not get their required committees to meet in time to authorise the expense. Home hires were more than likely driven by fear of further lockdown restrictions which at the time of writing this review have mercifully so far not materialised.
Looking ahead to 2022
The start of 2022 will see a 3 manual drawstop instrument installed in Bristol Cathedral, another project delayed from 2020. Manders were due to rebuild the pipe organ there but went into liquidation before the contract was placed.
A new builder is being sought but such is the work load in the UK pipe organ world, a factory slot will not be available for some years ahead. This hire now anticipates the need to cover the potential days when the current instrument ‘fails to proceed’ (Rolls-Royce motor car fans will know that’s their ‘official term’ for a breakdown!) and the eventual 2-3 years when the instrument is out for restoration.
I start the New Year on a major high as we film our 2022 tutorial video series. It is the most ambitious we have ever undertaken and will be set in the wonderful Old Royal Naval College Chapel with the Choir of Trinity Laban students Directed by Ralph Allwood MBE and accompanied by Mark Shepperd.
We aim to cover the issues presented by the performance of psalms and if time allows some anthems as well. Much nail biting preceded this as we waited for the UK threatened post Christmas lockdown to scupper the plans but happily this did not happen.
Writing today it seems our country’s policy is to ride the storm of Omicron. At some point, we will have to come to terms with the dangers of this virus and its future mutants. If not now then when?
Running a business has never been so difficult. I sincerely hope we are through the worst and our lives, especially musical ones, can return to normal.
God willing a year from now I will be writing another reflection on the past business year. I hope the dreaded virus will be an insignificant factor in that story. To all our customers and supporters, we wish you a happy and healthy year ahead.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Viscount Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.