Pipe up for Pipe Organs

Thomas Hardy’s second novel – Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) – is a masterpiece of rural comedy with a tragedy at its heart: the usurpation of the centuries-old tradition of church music, represented by the loss of the west-gallery musicians and singers from the Mellstock Quire in favour of the ‘new-fangled’ organ. Now, though, it is the turn of organs to be cast aside, as pipe organs are increasingly being expelled from churches and chapels to be replaced by cheaper and less temperamental keyboards or digital organs.

The ancient Greeks  had pipe organs as early as the 3rd century BC. The oldest working organ in the UK is Flemish in origin. It was built  by E Hoffheimer in 1602 and is now in Carisbrooke Castle Museum, on the Isle of Wight. Image: Christopher Catling

The newly formed charity Pipe up for Pipe Organs (PuPO) deplores what its manifesto describes as ‘a wave of destruction that is sending an estimated four pipe organs to landfill every week’. Even if they are not physically destroyed, many organs are now silent, slowly deteriorating from lack of use and regular maintenance.

The UK is unusual in the sheer number and quality of its organs. They were once present in virtually every parish and are important features of non-conformist chapels, not to mention cinemas and concert halls. They represent a heritage of technical innovation and craftsmanship held in high esteem throughout the world. Thanks to the work of PuPO, new homes are being found for redundant British organs in other parts of Europe – in France, for example, where so many organs were lost during the wars and revolutions that have ravaged the nation over the last 250 years, or in the former Soviet bloc, where once-neglected churches are now undergoing a revival.

Above & below: Made by Abraham Jordan in 1726, the magnificent organ in the church of St Helen, Abingdon, incorporates baroque angels and a carving of King David, relocated from the long-gone west gallery. Organ Stops, a BBC film about the charity was shown on Christmas Eve 2022, and can be seen on iPlayer or the charity’s website. Images: Christopher Catling

PuPO’s aim is not just to rescue and rehouse redundant organs: they want pipe organs to be valued, cared for, played, heard, and appreciated as a fundamental part of the nation’s musical heritage. To this end, they have placed a Victorian pipe organ on the concourse of London Bridge station that anyone can play: impromptu renditions of everything from ‘Chopsticks’ to Bach have gone viral on the internet, whether performed by commuters with varying levels of musical talent or professional musicians who happen to be passing.

PuPO aims to inspire organ-owning communities to appreciate, care for, and play their instruments; to identify worthwhile organs at risk and bring them back to use; to recruit a network of organists to play them; and to provide information, advice, and training in organ-care. Ambitious plans, but no less than the ‘king of instruments’ deserves.

Further information: http://www.pipe-up.org.uk

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