Hippo and Hoxton

The Augustinian Priory of St Monica, Hoxton Square, London N1

I recently had a chance to play the pipe-organ at the Augustinians’ priory in Hoxton Square, just north of the City of London. Who knew that the  Augustinians continue a 150-year presence in Hoxton, or that the Hoxton Priory was the first Augustinian house to have been established in England since Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries?

Hoxton Square was built up by London merchants during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. By the time of the Augustinians’ arrival in the 1860s the area was – as Charles Booth’s ‘poverty maps’ (1889) indicate – a socially very mixed area with the comfortably off living side by side with the very poorest. At this time the area was largely given over to trade and manufacture, especially the furniture trade. It was also home to alms-houses and private mad-houses (lunatic asylums).

Just thirteen years later, Charles Booth in his Life and Labour of the People in London (1902) gave a bleak assessment of the population:

The character of the whole locality is working-class. Poverty is everywhere, with a considerable admixture of the very poor and vicious … Large numbers have been and are still being displaced by the encroachment of warehouses and factories … Hoxton is known for its costers and Curtain criminals, for its furniture trade … No servants are kept except in the main Road shopping streets and in a few remaining middle class squares in the west.

This area is now seeing much better days, and is best-known for its trend-setting creative industries and galleries, popularly satirised of late for its population of so-called ‘hipsters’, or should that now be ‘yuccies’?

The Augustinians’ priory buildings (1864-66) – church, priory house and school – were designed by E. W. Pugin (1834-75). The church is dedicated to St Monica, the mother of the Order’s patron, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430); the town of Hippo is now present-day Annaba in Algeria. The elaborate decoration of the church’s chancel has recently been restored and is splendid.

The pipe-organ (1866) is on a gallery at the west end of the church made by the London firm of Bishop and Sons, probably for this church. The handsome case however, belies an incomplete and dull instrument. My guess is that it arrived incomplete for want of funds and was never finished.

Nowadays it is in a sorry condition and scarcely passes muster. The poor-sounding pipework and the worn-out mechanics are probably not special enough to warrant restoration, but  even if restored this pipe-organ would not be particularly useful. I suspect that the case and visible pipework will always have to remain, being part of the historic fabric. Meanwhile, we can only hope for a generous benefaction finally to allow the commissioning of  a new instrument for the old case that is worthy of the location and its traditions.

Jane Parker-Smith in recital

Freemasons Hall, London WC2

Yesterday I went along to an early evening organ recital performed by Jane Parker-Smith on the recently restored and enlarged pipe organ in the Grand Temple of the Freemasons Hall in central London, UK.

It is some thirty or more years since I last heard Jane Parker-Smith perform – my fault and not hers – and I was looking forward to hearing and seeing again the showy technical brilliance and the vivacious stage presence that I remembered so clearly as her hallmark. To give you some idea think of a ‘Kate Bush’ of the organ world.

These days  Jane Parker-Smith presents a more strikingly sober figure than in her early career, and there is a less obvious desire to dazzle as was evident in her modest introductory speech and black concert attire; the programme notes went so far as to compare her with the famously serious pianist Martha Agerich.

Despite her demurely presented introductory speech Parker-Smith’s demanding programme was  brilliantly performed. Technical wizardry is still in evidence – as seen in close up via two large video screens relaying the console – but here now is also a considered interpretative authority.

Of all the organists I have heard so far in this short series of recitals – part of celebrations marking 300 years of the Grand Lodge of English freemasons – Jane Parker-Smith seemed to be the most at home with this instrument. The Grand Temple has a dry acoustic, designed for clarity of speech rather than the presentation of music; every note and the silences between notes are crystal clear. It is perhaps Jane Parker-Smith’s life lived more in the demanding acoustic of the international concert hall than the looser acoustics of the average church buidling that contributed to her entirely assured playing on this occasion.

The programme was largely of (to me) unfamiliar pieces of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this regard I was particularly struck by the virtuosic concluding pages of Variations on ‘Adeste Fideles’ by Belgian-American organist/composer Gaston Marie Dethie (1875-1958).

An evening such as this would not be properly concluded without an encore, and Jane Parker-Smith gave us an arrangement of Flight of the Bumble Bee by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), effortlessly and impishly thrown-off con brio as we could all see and hear, and it was rapturously received. Go Jane!

So maybe Jane Parker-Smith’s excuberant dazzle is not entirely a thing of the past?

You know that ‘Thing’ … ?

On music for the Mass

“Full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else”. Sacrosanctum concilium (1963) 1.II.14

You know that ‘Thing’ … ?

liturgy… when amateur church-musicians unaware of their own limitations (cannot keep time; cannot follow a simple melody line; cannot be heard) plan an ambitious musical offering for a parish liturgy, and arrive without any preparation of the music they have chosen, and then – with a visiting organist – expect to be fully in command after a 10 minute run-through, which also includes teaching the people-in-the-pew their part.

liturgyIt  was soon evident that this was new repertoire for everyone, including me, the visiting organist, except that I had spent a couple of hours in the past couple of days preparing my own copies and playing through to be thoroughly familiar and off-page when needed. Professional? C’est moi!

How is this type of ‘carry on’ in providing parish-church music meant to fulfil the Church’s fundamental principal of “full and active participation” in the liturgy? And ‘no’, under the circumstances, using a sound system makes no sense – even less in a small-chapel-of-a-building – only amplifying the shambles!

That Thing!