Timing is everything …

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Holloway, London N7

On Friday I had the opportunity to play the pipe-organ at the Catholic church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Holloway, north London. The building is a nice example of seemingly little altered, nineteenth-century red-brick Catholic gothic, tucked away in the backstreets of Holloway. More …

At the time of the church’s building in 1869–70 and for much of the twentieth century Holloway has been a largely lower middle class neighbourhood of respectable office clerks and tradesmen, many being first and second generation immigrants from Ireland and eastern Europe. Of course, to literary types Holloway is well-known as the purlieu of the Grossmith brothers’ Mr PooterMore ….

But these days the area is moving helter-skelter into the twenty-first century, with the replacement of old infrastructure and light industry by developments of upscale apartment blocks, high-tech start-up companies, business incubator hubs, the new Arsenal Football Club stadium, and the striking buildings of the London Metropolitan University. An air of youthful enterprise and increasing affluence abounds. This church community also appears to be in good shape judging by its most impressive-looking brand new parish primary school building opposite the church.

For some while I have hankered after playing the pipe organ in this church – an instrument by the firm of J. W. Walker and Sons (1961) –  inspired by pictures I’d seen of its distinctive modern case. From the outward design I imagined a bright and direct sound as produced by the Walker instrument made three years later for the neighbouring Catholic church of Our Lady and St Joseph; discussed here. The reality of the Sacred Heart instrument was rather a disappointment, not least because of its much gentler than expected tone.

The instrument sits in the north aisle of the chancel, quite separate from the main body of the church, and is designed on the ‘extension‘ principle, using just five ranks of pipes to derive 30 stops. Furthermore at Sacred Heart church all the pipework is enclosed in a swell box except for the diapason rank, part of which is in the facade of the case. Such all-enclosed instruments are not uncommon in convent and monastery chapels.

The ‘extension’ organ is an idea that originated in cinema-organ technology and in days gone by it seemed to provide a satisfactory technical solution for squeezing more out of less, but it never really provided a satisfactory musical solution and these days is no longer in favour.

The Walker pipe-organ in the Sacred Heart church was installed when the church was undergoing a decluttering, all at considerable expense. However, the timing of the instrument’s arrival in 1961 could not have been worse because in October that year the Second Vatican Council (Vatican 2) began five years of deliberations that would eventually lead to radical changes in Catholic liturgical practice, spatially as well as theologically.

Thus, even though a substantial west gallery was installed in 1961, where Vatican 2 would later encourage the musicians to be located, the new organ was placed in its traditional pre-Vatican-2 place in the refurnished chancel’s north aisle, somewhat out of sight, along with some new and  equally out-of-sight choir stalls. The new organ’s role was – with trained singers – to support and beautify the canon of the mass, rather than to unite all the people in song. This goes some way to explain the gentler-than-expected quality of the organ’s voicing and its out of the way location.

Some 60 years on, and now isolated in its corner of the building the instrument seems an anachronism, underpowered for accompanying post-Vatican-2’s all-inclusive Catholic worship, for which an amplified electric piano now has pride of place in front of the chancel steps.

In time perhaps, with Holloway’s fast pace of regeneration, the parish will share in enough of the area’s increasing affluence to make possible some consideration of a further re-ordering of the liturgical space to see the organ rebuilt and relocated – maybe to the west gallery where it will serve to best advantage – or even passed on to somewhere else and its fortunes revived.

Old Dagenham

St Peter & St Paul, Dagenham, London RM10

On Tuesday this week I visited the parish church of SS Peter & Paul in Dagenham, way out east, along the north bank of the Thames. It is a place still thought of by my generation of southerners as Dagenham, Essex even though for decades now it has been under the aegis of the London Boro’ of Barking and Dagenham.

The ancient heart of Dagenham – a veritable ‘rus in urbs’ if cleverly photographed – is now just the Saxon-thru-late-Georgian church, the c16 pub and the c17 vicarage. The old and very large burial ground of the church is a prize-winning wildlife haven

The rest (for miles around) is modern, mass-produced housing from the 1930s up to the present, indifferently extending the London sprawl. The more recent of it covers the traces of defunct light industry that grew up round the now much shrunken Ford car factory.

But what about the pipe-organ? Well, on the face of it this 1939 instrument, by the organ builder Rutt is very modest indeed – no recital instrument this –  but it is ideally suited to its location and its purpose in leading a congregation in hearty singing.

Orgelbewegung in north London

Our Lady & St Joseph, Balls Pond Road, London N1

I recently found my way to the church of Our Lady and St Joseph located on the Balls Pond Road in north London. The road is said to have been named after a pond owned by a John Ball who in much earlier times ran the Salutation Tavern (aka the Boarded House), which provided facilities for bull baiting and – on its pond – duck hunting.

The parish was established in 1855 by Fr William Lockhart of the Rosminian Order. The first parish church (1856-c.1960) was located at the corner of Culford Road and Tottenham Street, Hackney. This church was converted from a disused warehouse by W. W. Wardell (1823-99), with further adaptation by E. W. Pugin (1834–75) completed in 1860.

The current buidling is designed by William C Mangen (1884-?) and was opened in 1964.

The pipe organ

The organ here is by J. W. Walker and Sons (1964).

It is a very nice English interpretation of the organ reform movement or orgelbewegung, a twentieth-century organ design tradition that began in Germany. Here no concessions are made to ‘romantic’/’symphonic’ organ design, although the temperament is equal.

The instrument is beautifully crafted and more than 50 years on is still lovely to play. Works by the Baroque masters and Paul Hindemith ‘et al’ suit it very nicely. Sadly, I had no opportunity to record the instrument. Next time maybe.

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