I do not expect that many of us will have a clear memory of the first organ we ever heard, or perhaps even played. I can be fairly certain that for me it will have been the Llandaff Cathedral instrument sometime in 1960, as from the age of 5 I was a pupil at the Cathedral School and a few school services were held there.
I was not a chorister so most of school services for me were in the school chapel and hymns were accompanied on a piano by the music teacher Mrs Legassic. It was therefore only for special occasions that I will have been in the Cathedral, perhaps the Christmas of 1960. I do have a clear memory being part of a conga of small boys (short grey trousers and red peaked cap) taking the private pathway through the school grounds that emerged by the castle ruins to get to the cathedral.
In those days Robert Joyce who only recently died was the organist. I also remember being concerned to get a seat that gave me view of the organist at work, placed as he then was in quite a small and low loft at the south west end of the choir. There was a door, always locked that allowed access and I remember passing the door hoping I would find it ajar and so allow me another view of the private world that lay behind.
A unique building
9 years ago now we provided the temporary instrument that was used for about 2 years while the new Nicholson organ was being built and installed. Long since having moved away from Cardiff I occasionally returned and one day took my late mother to see our instrument but did not even take steps to play that.
I have been fortunate to be able to play some of the great instruments of the UK, France and Holland but not until September 2018 did I eventually get organised to Visit Llandaff and play the instrument (or more accurately now the building) which probably sparked what has been a life long interest in the organ. It just took 58 years but I did finally make it back and what a treat the new instrument is.
It is said that Llandaff is the only UK Cathedral (besides St David’s Pembrokshire) where the entry steps are down into the building as you can see in the photo above. I certainly do not know of any others. Do you? You may also wonder why it is Llandaff rather than Cardiff, so perhaps Llandaff is also the smallest ‘City’ to claim a Cathedral Church. If anyone can shed light on these points then do let me know. It most certainly is a building set into a hollow. Not built as so many were to dominate its landscape, Llandaff is tucked away largely out of sight save the tip of it’s spire from nearly all the surrounding roads.
Attending Sunday Eucharist
I attended the 11.00am Sunday Eucharist and as the choir of 20 boys processed past my seat followed by the adult singers and clergy I had to wonder where the intervening years had gone. It seems but the blink of an eye. The boys were dressed in red cassocks and high collared ruffs varying in age from perhaps just 6 to 12 years old and in many respects that processional sight has not changed since my childhood. The brilliant organist for this service was David Thomas, a customer with a home practice Sonus 60.
It was a delight listening to choir and organist working so well together with music of the highest quality. David also has a skill I wonderfully envy being able to link interlude improvisation majestically and seamlessly into the hymns concluding with final verses richly harmonised adding a totally new colour to the accompaniment.
After the service I finally made my way to the loft, relocated now to a bay east of its earlier position to make way for the huge swell and choir departments of the instrument in the south case. The north case has the great pedal and solo departments. It has to be said the sound is huge especially the pedal 32 fts and David assured me that he did not use nearly all that was potentially available. Sub and Supers were never engaged and the unenclosed solo tuba heard only very briefly. David also refrained from using the 32 ft reed so when I have time to return for a ‘lock in’ I really look forward to hearing what the true full organ can do.
Experiencing the new Nicholson organ
This instrument is much larger than its predecessor which was badly damaged along with the building when a landmine fell through the Cathedral roof during world war 2. That organ was patched up and by many accounts it was never really a satisfactory instrument. It was later replaced by a Hill Norman & Beard instrument that was struck by lightening in 2007. It seems organs in Llandaff have attracted more than their fair share of difficulties.
One feature lost though is a most unusual ‘positive division’ that was installed in the controversial Epstein Statue structure that spans the nave. The pipes remain in place but are now silent and always did present a massive tuning challenge requiring a 30 ft ladder to get to a trap door through which the brave tuner had to haul himself into the structure. Perhaps we should consider reinstating this with loud speakers that will not need any tuning so avoiding the mountain climb and possibly what must have been the most dangerous of all tuning jobs!
The new instrument has some nice touches to help control this amazing power. Swell shutters that can be opened on the west side of the box pointing down the nave and a ‘west end’ full great independent chorus speaking directly west from the north side case. Sitting as I was on the north side for the service I can testify that adding this west end section massively adds to the sound levels. But noticeable and perhaps most enjoyable of listening to David’s accompanying were the huge number of subtle registration changes and use of swell boxes that maintained an ever-changing dynamic without being over fussy. This was accompaniment playing of the highest order and if you will allow me a little partisan observation a very ‘Welsh’ style of musicianship.
I enjoyed greatly my 10 minutes at the console just exploring the quieter stops for fear of intruding too much into the departing congregation’s chit chat. I shall most certainly return to have more time to explore the vast stop list in detail and of course to have under my finger tips a Solo Tuba, unenclosed, to play with!
David Thomas has kindly agreed to let us present a recording I made on my Iphone of his closing recessional which you can listen to below.
You can also read more about the Llandaff Cathedral installation on Nicholson & Co Ltd website.
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.