Towards the end of September we were making another DVD in Selby Abbey and staying near York so it was too good an opportunity to pass by visiting some of the very fine churches in the city. Also never having played York Minster it seemed an ideal time to see if we could have some time on the Minster organ and to my very great delight a private hour was available after prayer on Monday evening.
The anticipation of being allowed to play on such a large instrument in a huge acoustic is impossible to exaggerate. A very special privilege indeed. Arriving at the west door as instructed at 5.30pm you will imagine my dismay to find it firmly shut and no amount of knocking caught anybodies attention. So a smart sprint round to the south side with heart racing was rewarded with the signs of a door through which people were leaving and which it was possible to slip in. Great relief all round.
A few minutes later we were met by assistant organist Jeremy and guided up the stairs to the loft console. I had been advised that playing the organ was more interesting from the nave console and so after a few minutes experiencing the full drama of the loft console, contemplating the many great and good that had made the very same climb, an offer to explore the instrument from the nave was taken up.
The nave console duplicates exactly the loft console and sits on a massive plinth that is initially a little disconcerting as it moves very gently from side to side. The first challenge is just where to begin exploring such a large array of voices and with time limited I expect most would do what I did and rely on the pistons as set. With of course a detailed listen to the three tubas available! Imagine that luxury, with the big tuba on a scale that might suit a small cruise liner as its fog horn. The Cocker Tuba tune could have been written for it! With all this an hour passes very quickly!
The other abiding memory will be the acoustic. As an average player I was delighted how the building helps cover up the lack of legato touch and slips that I will inevitably make. I initially felt more accomplished but you soon realise that putting the musicality into performance in the space requires infinitely better technique than at first is apparent. What a great evening out. Thank you all for the opportunity to experience the wonderful Minster and its Organ.
Our next two visits were arranged by Maxamillion Elliot who was turning the pages for our DVD recording. Max is researching the organ makers of York in the 17 and 18 hundreds, apparently a time where there were over 40 different organ builders in the city. He is also the organist at St Olaves which boasts the next largest organ in York after the Minster and which we visited next. The current St Olave’s dates from the 1460 rebuilding of an earlier church on the site.
This too is a Walker instrument from 1907 so very much the same era as the core of the Minster organ. Max is a very enthusiastic organist and while St Olave’s instrument is in good condition there are plans to improve and extend the versatility the instrument brings to the choral works performed at St Olave’s. As you see this is a nice 3 manual instrument with versatility improved with some sub/super octave couplers allowing some stops to be used at different pitch with the unison off feature.
Our final visit was to All Saints North Street which is renowned for its medieval glass windows. These are truly magnificent as is much of the church woodwork some of which was sadly lost in a fire that damaged the east end of the south aisle. You can see a wooden angel badly blackened by fire in the roof structure where the fire was finally stopped before taking the full extent of the south aisle.
The organ here is a sweet 2 manual freestanding tracker instrument at the rear of the church recently built by Principal Pipe Organs of York. It speaks well into the building and is perhaps a little unusual as it is fitted with a cymbelstern.
Image of York, courtesy of: davidionut / 123RF Stock Photo
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.