Musings from the organ bench – York Minster

At the beginning of June I was playing the organ at York Minster for a weekend of Services.  3 days later, during a live broadcast on Radio 3, the organ suddenly stopped working and evensong was dramatically halted half way through the anthem.  There followed a rather long period of radio silence, until an announcer was hastily rushed to a microphone to fill in with some rather fine recordings by Francis Jackson.  Ironically the anthem (Spacious Firmament by Philip Moore) was receiving its first ever broadcast.    Philip Moore having succeeded Francis Jackson in 1983 as Organist and Master of the Music at York Minster, a post he held until his retirement in 2008.

As the majority of the services between Sunday’s evensong, which I had triumphantly ended with a setting of Nun Danket, and the Wednesday evensong were said, it wasn’t long before some of my ‘friends’ on Social Media concluded that I had obviously in some way broken the organ!    Obviously I cannot comment on this – ‘it worked just fine when I was playing with it’ Your Honour…

The organ at York Minster is an interesting set up in that there are two consoles (the bit where you sit at the keyboard for the non organists amongst you) which connect to the same set of pipes.  One console is the original which is located up in the ‘loft’ about 30 feet off the ground and attached to the main organ.   Like many cathedral organs this is located up a slightly rickety set of steps which literally take you through the inside of the instrument.

The nave console is, as the name suggests located in the Nave – i.e on the floor in the main body of the Cathedral.  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.

For the weekend of services I was involved in, the Saturday evensong required use of the loft console.  This is operated in a fairly straightforward manner – get on bench, press on switch, play.   On Sunday morning I was required to drive the organ from the Nave console.

york - nave

The Nave console at York minster

This turned out to be slightly more complicated as there was no on switch for the nave console.   Fortunately the Organist of the Minster had predicted the incompetence of the visiting organist and left clear instructions.  The instrument has to be turned on from the loft console.  This meant fetching the key from the York Minster Police (yes they really do have their own police force – see below!) and once again heading inside the main organ, up the stairs to the loft console.

The case of the organ dates from 1832 when the instrument was built by Elliot and Hill following a fire of 1829 which destroyed the previous instrument and was the catalyst for the formation of a police force in York Minster.    Since then the organ has been rebuilt by William Hill in 1859 and JW Walker in 1903.  Harrison & Harrison organ builders had a go at the organ in the 1930s.  Walker then returned in the 1960s to restore the action and then again in 1982 to give the instrument a clean.  In 1984 York Minster was once more on fire although this didn’t damage the organ too much.   It did however hasten a restoration by Principle Pipe Organs of York in 1991.  Roll forward another 27 years and we find ourselves on the brink of another extensive restoration for the organ which, I believe, is due to start later this year.

Anyway, I digress.   After some careful adjustment of the swell boxes (literally a box which encloses some pipes and can be opened and closed using a foot pedal), I managed to ‘sync’ up the two consoles and was able to play the organ from downstairs.

That was Sunday.  Three days later, it seemed the organ was broken.  I must confess, when Radio 3’s broadcast was interrupted because the organ seemed to just give up, I did have a slight panic! Had I correctly used the nave console in accordance with the instructions?  Had I switched it off properly? Did I leave the swell boxes in the required position?   As it turned out there was in fact nothing wrong with the organ but merely a lack of power being supplied at that particular moment, which I believe is why everything suddenly went quiet!


Jules Addison is sometimes allowed to play the organ at various Cathedrals when he is accompanying Quorum MK who sing A Cappella services.   The next instrument he is hoping not to break will be in Rochester later this year.

 

 

 

 

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