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Oxford and the university pipe organ

Oxford and the university pipe organ

Oxford and Cambridge are special places in many ways, one of which is their willingness to commission new organs more frequently than is possible in most parts of the country and also the university’s ability to be bold in choosing the builders of these new organs.  The organs are used as teaching and recital instruments as much as, if not more than, they are needed for liturgical use and there are not the same constraints on aspects of tonal design that apply to the great majority of parochial instruments.  These considerations combine to make England’s two pre-Reformation universities a centre of modern and innovative organ design.

It’s worth repeating a little of what has been written in the notes to accompany previous visits to Oxford and Cambridge.  The colleges are independent foundations that not only house and feed their students (and look after their moral and spiritual welfare) but also decide which of the many applicants will be admitted as students and who will be appointed as tutors and fellows – and in what subjects.  The University, through its various faculties, sets the syllabus for each subject and appoints the Professors to head the faculties.  It also examines the students and awards the degrees.

Queens College, Oxford (Photo: R Blanch)

Queens College, Oxford (Photo: R Blanch)

The Queen’s College, High Street OX1 4AW  The High Street of Oxford curves gently towards the south as it runs from Carfax, the crossroads at the centre of the mediaeval city, to the River Cherwell at Magdalen Bridge.  The Queen’s College is situated on the north side of that curve, its delightful baroque frontage giving such graceful distinction to a street already full of architectural interest.

The college was founded in 1340 by The Revd. Robert de Eglesfield, a Cumberland man who was by then the chaplain to Queen Philippa.  He named it in honour of his employer, no doubt hoping that her successors would also take a special interest in the college. Although there is little evidence that they did so, Philippa herself responded to the honour in 1343 by granting the college some land in Hampshire, the income from which would, she hoped, assist with endowing the college.  It did that in a modest way for several centuries but she can have had no idea how valuable the land would eventually become: for it is the site of Southampton Docks!  Eglesfield also brought a connection with the north-west in the form of scholarships for boys from that area; his endowment was significantly increased by Lady Elizabeth Hastings in the early 18th century, expanding the geographical range to include Yorkshire, and for centuries it was said that, if you heard an undergraduate speaking with a northern accent, you could be pretty sure he was a Queen’s man.

The college has a particular claim to fame within Oxford as almost certainly being the first place in which the tutorial system of one-to-one teaching was introduced, around the 1570’s.

As the college was not a monastic foundation, it was not directly affected by Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries (including the monastic colleges of Oxford and Cambridge): but one would never suspect that from looking at the buildings for, alone among the pre-Reformation colleges, it no longer has any mediaeval buildings.  What we see today is essentially two quadrangles, with the chapel between them; all the older buildings were demolished to make way for this large-scale development.  The first to be built was the North Quad (beyond the chapel), begun in 1672 and complete soon after 1700. That was the period when English architecture was dominated by Sir Christopher Wren but, although he undoubtedly took a close interest in the project (there are many letters to attest to that), there is no evidence that he was directly involved.  Much of the money came from a small number of large benefactions, especially from Sir Thomas Williamson who held a senior position under Charles II.  Soon afterwards, Bishop Thomas Barlow bequeathed his extensive and valuable library to the college which in turn built the superb Library in the 1690’s to house the books, on the west side of the North Quad.  Again, the name of the architect is unknown (the gifted amateur Henry Aldrich, Dean of Christ Church, is the most likely person) but whoever it was produced one of the finest classical buildings in England with a simply gorgeous interior.

The Front Quad followed between 1710 and 1735.  It is a rare large-scale example of the brief moment when English architecture turned towards the continental baroque.  The south elevation, towards the High, is not a full building but a delicate stone screen with a domed gatehouse at its centre: it is that sense of open-ness that gives such grace to the curve of the street.  Its charm helps one to overlook that the ends of the west and east ranges present rather a severe, almost abrupt, termination towards the street.  Again, we have no knowledge of the architect’s identity (Hawksmoor, perhaps Wren’s most distinguished pupil, produced designs that were rejected as being too costly) although he obeyed the instructions of Provost Lancaster to use the Luxembourg Palace in Paris as his inspiration.

The large chapel is the eastern half of the north range of Front Quad.  It probably dates from 1714; we know that the painting of the apse ceiling was undertaken by Sir James Thornhill in 1716.  The stained glass of the east window, by Joshua Price, was installed in 1717; the other windows have glass from the previous chapel, some (shields and figures) from the early 1500’s, some (biblical scenes) painted by the Dutch artist Abraham van Linge in 1635.  The woodwork (the screen, panelling and stalls) and metalwork (communion rails and brass chandeliers) are also of around 1720.

Queens College Chapel, Oxford (Photo: R Blanch)

Queens College Chapel, Oxford (Photo: R Blanch)

The Organ was first installed in 1866, a 4-manual Walker, some of whose stops were the property of a Fellow, The Revd. L.G.Hayne.  When he later moved to a parish in north Essex a few years later, he took the ranks with him and incorporated them into the organ there!  It was rebuilt as a 3-manual by Rushworth & Dreaper in 1931.  Its removal in favour of the present mechanical action organ by Frobenius (2+P/22 stops), installed in 1965 (largely at the instigation of James Dalton, the energetic young music Fellow of the college), was a seminal event in the change in direction of organ-building in this country in the latter part of the last century.

Frobenius organ, Queens College Chapel (Photo: R Blanch)

Frobenius organ, Queens College Chapel (Photo: R Blanch)

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, High Street  OX1 4AH.  St Mary’s occupies a position on the High almost as prominent as Queen’s.  Although the street is still running straight at this point, the tall spire marks the church out as an important building, and its location at the end of the large square (at the centre of which sits the Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library) gives its north elevation a refreshing open-ness.  The building is not only the principal parish church of Oxford but also the centre of the early University.

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford (Photo: R Blanch)

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford (Photo: R Blanch)

The oldest part of the present building is the north tower, built around 1280 as part of an earlier church, none of which exists today.  In 1320, the commanding spire was added.  At the same time, a new north aisle was added that was not part of the parish church, for its upper part was the first University library and its lower part was the first Congregation House where the young University’s governing body sat; the church itself was used for larger events such as the conferring of degrees.  The University (originally meaning simply a group of teachers) had effectively come into being by the third quarter of the 12th century, largely because people from Paris (then the intellectual centre of western Europe) had moved here.  In the early days, there were no colleges – students lodged in the homes of their teachers – and the first colleges were not founded until around a century later.  The new parts of St Mary’s were the first home of the University as such, and the library remained here until what became the Bodleian was founded a century and a half later.  Until the construction of the Sheldonian Theatre in the 1660’s, St Mary’s remained the location for degree ceremonies and to this day it is the place where formal University services are held several times each term.

The original church was demolished in stages and rebuilt to make the church much as we see it today.  The chancel was built in the 1460’s, with the nave and aisles following in the 1490’s, making this a large-scale essay in the late style of Gothic known as the Perpendicular, a style that is peculiarly English.  The only later addition – but what an addition! – is the south porch, added in 1637 by Nicholas Stone, a spectacular piece of Italianate design with wonderful twisted “barley-sugar” columns. Archbishop Laud accepted the inclusion of a statue of St Mary, something that was included by the Puritans in the indictment at his trial of 1641.

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin (Photo: R Blanch)

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin (Photo: R Blanch)

The church was restored in 1827 by Thomas Plowman in the slightly papery Gothick of the time, including the new stone screen on which the organ stands.  Sir Gilbert Scott did work in the 1860’s when he refused to alter the porch (despite the fact that he must have disliked many elements of its design) but it was his pupil Sir Thomas Jackson, who did significant work in Oxford, who in 1895 did much to return the building to its original appearance.

The church has been the place where many events of considerable historical significance have happened.  The three Anglican bishops (Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer) were tried here before being burned in 1555 for heresy in the bloody years of Queen Mary.  In the 1740’s, John Wesley (then chaplain of Lincoln College) preached some of his strongest sermons in this building in the years before he had left the Church of England to form his own church; he was never again invited to preach here.  In 1828, John Newman (then a fellow of Oriel College but soon to become Vicar of St Mary’s) preached an important sermon about the need for renewal in the Church of England, paving the way for an even stronger sermon on 14th July,1833 preached by John Keble that is usually regarded as the moment when the Oxford Movement was founded.

By the early 1980’s the decision had to be made whether to rebuild or replace the existing Walker organ.  The Walker organ was removed in January 1986 by Lance Foy who rebuilt it in St Mary’s Church, Penzance, using the pipework (with modifications and additions) in Plowman’s case, but with a new detached console and a new action.

Metzler organ, The University Church of St Mary the Virgin (Photo: R Blanch)

Metzler organ, The University Church of St Mary the Virgin (Photo: R Blanch)

The Metzler organ (3+P/29 stops) was completed in 1987.  The oak casework was designed by Bernhardt Edskes in the style of Bernard Smith who built an organ in the church in 1675-6.  Surviving pieces of carved decoration (in elm) from this instrument have been incorporated in the west-facing front of the new organ.  The action is mechanical throughout.

The Oxford Oratory (St Aloysius), 25 Woodstock Road  OX2 6HA.  The removal of the last bans on Roman Catholic worship in the 1830’s brought about quite a spate of building new churches. Apart from the obvious problems of raising the finance, there was often considerable difficulty in finding a site close to the centre of towns. Both Oxford and Cambridge eventually had some independent financial backing for the foundation of large new churches but it proved impossible to find a site as close to the centre of those places as their backers might have wished.  Cambridge eventually found a prominent site well outside the university area and built a new church (Our Lady and the English Martyrs) of considerable distinction, with a dominant spire.  At Oxford, the site was perhaps a touch closer to the centre but it was considerably less prominent and the building, although on quite a large scale, makes nothing like the impression of its Cambridge counterpart – and, anyway, the finances were not nearly as generous as at Cambridge.

John Newman, the Anglican priest who was, with John Keble, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement in 1833 that sought to revitalise the Church of England, was based in Oxford.  Unlike some of his contemporaries, he eventually decided that his future lay in the Roman Catholic church, and he was received into that communion some fifteen years later, ultimately receiving the high distinction of becoming a Cardinal.  He was instrumental in bringing to England the Oratorians, founded in the wake of the counter-Reformation by St Philip Neri, and had great plans that there should be Oratories in London, Birmingham and Oxford.  In the event, his Oratory in Birmingham was the first to be founded, followed soon afterwards by the start of the London Oratory at Brompton, but the third Oratory at Oxford never got off the ground.  The Oratorians were bound, not by formal vows, but by mutual friendship and respect; solemn worship, with a strong emphasis on music, was central to their spirituality.

The Oxford Oratory (St Aloysius) (Photo: R Blanch)

The Oxford Oratory (St Aloysius) (Photo: R Blanch)

Instead it was the Jesuits who founded the large new parish in Oxford.  For their architect in 1873, they turned to Joseph Hansom, by then in his early seventies but still very active in the design of Roman Catholic churches.   The church is of yellow brick with comparatively small amounts of stone dressing; the (liturgical) west end has a large rose window and a small bell-turret.  As with many Hansom buildings, the interior is surprisingly wide and rather severe, its most notable feature being the double rows of stone statues in the apse, forming a large and impressive reredos.  It was carved in the late 1870’s by Farmer & Brindley, then the leading ecclesiastical carvers in both wood and stone.  The individual figures were originally coloured but an unfortunate redecoration scheme of the 1950’s saw them (and the whole interior of the church) covered in grey paint.

A 2-manual organ of 1841 by Thomas Robson was purchased and installed, with hardly any changes, by Henry Jones on one side of the west gallery around the time the church opened in 1875.  It was moved to a very cramped position on a gallery on the north of the sanctuary in 1933 by the local firm of Martin & Coate and eventually became unplayable.

Metzler organ, The Oxford Oratory (St Aloysius) (Photo: R Blanch)

Metzler organ, The Oxford Oratory (St Aloysius) (Photo: R Blanch)

The Jesuits left in 1981 and the church briefly became a “normal” parish in the Archdiocese of Birmingham.  In 1990, however, the Oratorian fathers in Birmingham were granted responsibility for staffing the church and their work was so successful that in 1993 it became an Oratory in its own right, at last realising the hopes of Newman almost 150 years earlier.

Edward de Rivera (Director of Music) wanted to strengthen the high musical tradition in The Oratory and so the decision to build a three manual and pedal pipe organ was instigated in 1998.  The brief to Matthew Copley was to construct a 3-manual and pedal organ from both new and used parts.  This was done in order to keep to a very small and strict budget.  The instrument has a terraced console in order that the player may see and conduct musicians around him.  The Copley organ (3+P/42 stops) was designed tonally in order to play as much of the repertoire as possible but with the accent on the accompaniment of the Liturgy, it was completed in 2004 with the addition of the east end Choir Organ.

Metzler console, The Oxford Oratory (St Aloysius) (Photo: R Blanch)

Metzler console, The Oxford Oratory (St Aloysius) (Photo: R Blanch)

St. John’s College, St Giles OX1 3JP.  Here is an example of a college that had been a pre-Reformation monastic foundation and was dissolved by Henry VIII before being re-founded and enlarged by a man who had made some of his money out of the general dissolution of monastic properties.  St Bernard’s College had been founded by Archbishop Chichele in 1437 as a Cistercian institution.  It grew slowly and the original quadrangle was not quite complete when the college was dissolved in the early 1540’s.

St. John’s College, St Giles  (Photo: R Blanch)

St. John’s College, St Giles (Photo: R Blanch)

In 1555, a London businessman, Sir Thomas White, re-founded the college as St John’s College.  He was a member of the first post-Reformation generation of City merchants that had profited from Henry VIII’s actions.  The land and property of the former monastic foundations had initially been transferred to the Crown.  As the King needed cash to finance his expensive foreign policy, much of the land was sold off through the Court of Augmentations.  Most of it was sold at fixed rates, irrespective of location, and some merchants were quick to realise that they could buy the more desirable land relatively cheap and sell it on for development at a higher price.  Others, of whom White was one, had the skills to manage the Crown finances or to raise large-scale loans in the City to enable Henry to secure his cashflow; White was particularly involved in the financing of overseas trade.  He was the Master of the Merchant Taylors’ Company and later Lord Mayor of London; personally he hoped that Mary’s reign would lead to a lasting return of Roman Catholicism but he was shrewd enough to keep his sympathies to himself and was effectively a forerunner of the Civil Service ethos that has no opinions on such matters and is therefore able to serve a number of differing political masters.  He was also one of a number of such men who believed that a good way of using his new-found wealth for long-lasting benefit was to found (or re-found) a college at Oxford or Cambridge.  White was particularly concerned to improve the education of apprentices in the clothing industry, notably in London and Bristol, and his new college was an extension of those plans. He was also the founder of the Merchant Taylors’ Schools.  He took a close personal interest in the financing and development of the college, and when he died twelve years later was still actively engaged on the financial arrangements and constitution of his new college.

St John’s took over the almost-complete Front Quad of the former St Bernard’s College, including the new chapel of 1530 (the last building to be finished before the dissolution of the college).  The Quad had been started in the late 1430’s and took a whole century to get to its near-finished state.  White quickly finished the Quad, although its appearance was altered in 1616 by the addition of dormers and battlements and in the mid-18th century by a change in the size of the windows.  Through the Quad to the east is Canterbury Quad, a marvellous piece of architecture (one of the finest of its date anywhere in the country) built in only three or four years in the early 1630’s when Archbishop William Laud was President of the college.

Aubertin organ, St. John’s College, St Giles (Photo: R Blanch)

Aubertin organ, St. John’s College, St Giles (Photo: R Blanch)

To the north, beyond the chapel, is the North Quad, largely of the 1880’s and by Sir Gilbert Scott’s son (also George Gilbert Scott) and the young Edward Warren, delightfully reserved and restrained buildings when one considers what some of the better-known Victorian architects were doing elsewhere in Oxford.

The chapel is externally all of around 1530 but the interior was virtually gutted in 1843 and rebuilt by Edward Blore and its atmosphere (or lack of it) is largely dictated by that work – one instance where one of the High Victorian Goths of a generation later might have produced something more memorable.  The east window has stained glass of 1892 by Kempe, much the same vintage as his big west window in St. Mary’s.

Aubertin organ console, St. John’s College, St Giles (Photo: R Blanch)

Aubertin organ console, St. John’s College, St Giles (Photo: R Blanch)

There was a 2-manual Harrison organ of 1936 that stood on the west gallery, with a detached console towards the east end of the chapel on its north side.  It was not nearly as successful as some of their other small-ish organs, having too much plummy thickness and not enough brightness.  An attempt by Hill, Norman & Beard in 1977 to let in some light by adding upperwork and lightening the reeds was only partly successful.

The Aubertin organ (3+P/33 stops) was built, voiced and regulated in his workshop in France, and then dismantled and re-assembled in the chapel here in 2008.

(Texts by Colin Menzies and Robin Coxon, 2008)

 

 

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