The Organ

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The sound of morning assembly, reverberating chords as a Paulina practises after school, a towering visual presence: the organ is so familiar an adornment of the Great Hall that we need to remind ourselves that, before 1910, its familiar space was rather different. There was no dais, light came from three lattice-worked windows and the pupils who joined Prayers for their first time (19th January, 1904) listened to the strains of an harmonium, that instrument beloved  of Victorian dissenting chapels.  So ambitious a school could not, however, be long without something more imposing. With the Mercers’ instinct for the finest, they commissioned an organ from the celebrated firm of J W Walker & Sons, founded in 1828 and still active now. This company was, Ian Bell observes in his report of 2012, ‘at that time enjoying a well-deserved popularity exceeding anything they had known previously’. The case, the colour of which has deepened over time, was designed by the school’s architect, Gerald Horsley. He probably did not anticipate this task, since he had to compromise the architectural integrity of the Great Hall by blocking the central fenestration. The glass is still there, but the plastered wall and beams are now all that can be seen from the leads outside. Three years later, the western classrooms were to lose some of their light because of the Music Wing, while Mrs Munro’s creation of upper floors, east and west, were significantly to darken the Great Hall too.

J W Walker’s organ delivered the warm, imperial tone typical of the time; an ‘opulent sprawl’, in Ian Bell’s phrase. By the sixties, the organ was reaching the end of its life. What the governors then commissioned was an organ from Maurice Forsyth-Grant (firm of Grant, Degens and Bradbeer). He challenged the Edwardian tradition;  ‘a crusader’, writes Peter Hurford, ‘to storm its battlements’. The new instrument was sharp, exciting, even harsh in tone. Whether the Governors and High Mistress were quite aware of what they were getting is a moot point. Probably John Gardner, then director of music and a former contemporary of Forsyth-Grant at Wellington, did so.  But to judge from the minutes of the Governors’ meetings, the issue that swayed them was cost. Mrs Munro crisply agreed that a cheaper instrument would be ‘adequate’, while the Governors were prepared to defray the entire expense from the foundation, rather than using the fees or a loan. J W Walker’s estimate was £12, 500; Grant Degens undercut them with £9, 000. Ian Bell makes the significant point that the Forsyth-Grant had personal resources and that his estimate was scarcely a commercial proposition. If that was the case, then Reginald Walker had little chance of winning the contract. He was rather upset at the school’s decision and told the High Mistress so. Nonetheless, respect for the past ensured that the case remained, though accompanied now by new and contrasting pipes in the bays.

At all events, St Paul’s acquired a new organ which has been loved for the last half-century and more. Its inaugural recital on 19th January 1971 included compositions by two former directors of music and the current director: Howells, Vaughan-Williams and Gardner. ‘No organist’, wrote the proud builder, ‘could ask for a better acoustic than this hall….’ (Twenty-One Years of Organ-Building, 1987, pp 155). The organ is, alas, now in urgent need of refurbishment. It matters deeply to the school community and, perhaps, especially to our head girl and music scholar, Yasmin Sachee. ‘What is my favourite thing in the world, almost a companion to me when life gets stressful and most importantly my best friend?, she asked at assembly.  ‘Yes, you guessed it. It’s the organ.’

Howard Bailes