The Organ in England: Its Music, Construction, and Role in History over the Second Millennium

By Pardee, Katherine | The Tracker, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Organ in England: Its Music, Construction, and Role in History over the Second Millennium


Pardee, Katherine, The Tracker


THE BETTS FUND of the University of Oxford and the British Institute of Organ Studies (www.bios.org.uk) are pleased to announce a sequence of four yearly conferences entitled The Organ in England: Its Music, Construction, and Role in History over the second Millennium. The conferences will take place in Oxford, England, beginning in 2007 and running through 2010. Each will explore the English organ of a particular era and its music, construction and performance practices, as well as wider areas of related technologies, economics, and social, religious, and political issues.

The first conference is entitled The Organ in England to the Death of Elizabeth I: Music, Technology, and the Wider Role. It will take place in Oxford from 12-15 April, 2007, and will be centred around the Early English Organs (www.rco.org. uk/eeop.php). These two instruments are historic reconstructions of early sixteenth-century organs, and were built by British organbuilders Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn (www.goetzegwynn. co.uk), who based them on fragments of two ancient windchests discovered in recent years in Suffolk, England. The story of the discovery is fascinating, beginning with the renovation of an old farmhouse and the discovery of a strange-looking door, which had been plastered over inside a wall. (The story can be read in greater detail on the Early Organs website, as well as in an article in Church Music Quarterly [2001] called "Rediscovering the Sound of the English Tudor Organ," by John Harper. Dominic Gwynn has also written a number of articles about the organs; see the Goetze and Gwynn website.) Because there are virtually no surviving English organs or even relatively unaltered pipework from the period, extensive research had to be carried out in order to reconstruct as closely as possible the sixteenth-century instrument. Evidence was gathered from the few surviving early contracts and written descriptions of organs, as well as from contemporary Spanish and southern French organs, the physical evidence of the fragments, iconography, liturgical sources, and so on. When the instruments were completed, the opportunity was taken to research medieval polychrome techniques and materials, and the smaller organ (the so-called Wingfield) was painted in an appropriate and colorful style.

These two organs are fascinating because they serve as concrete examples for what up to now has been only speculation. Questions have been answeredand new ones raised-about issues such as tuning, transposition, choir accompanying, liturgy, improvisation and, of course, sixteenth-century keyboard music itself. It would be impossible to claim that the organs are completely accurate replications of sixteenth-century prototypes, but the building and playing of them has allowed and encouraged experimentation that opens up exciting new vistas on sixteenth-century England.

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