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.