Recovering the culture of the English church before the Reformation is a tantalising business, so much of it has been modified or obliterated. But this is a good time for those who would like to make the attempt. The popular culture has been conjured up by Eamon Duffy in his two wonderful books, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale 1994, 2005) and Voices of Morebath (Yale 2001). But the liturgical music of the time has always had a crucial element missing. Although the choral music of the late 15th and early 16th centuries have been performed and heard with enthusiasm in the last few decades, the organ has remained silent.
And this despite the fact that there must have been thousands of organs in regular use in English churches before the Reformation. Many churches would have had two organs, the larger ones more. Durham Cathedral had five, three of them in the Choir, for use at particular altars, or at particular times in the church calendar. If a church had two organs, one would have been placed in the Choir for daily services, and the other near the Lady Chapel altar for services to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary. If there was no room on the floor, the organ might have been placed on the screen, or on a special gallery, a ‘perch’ on the north wall.
An organ was either used on its own, or in alternation with voices. In hymns the organ would have played the odd-numbered verses, setting the pitch for the voices. The lack of words in the organ’s verses would not have disturbed the clergy present at the service, for whom the constant repetition of the office would have made the words familiar enough. The organ would have been played by a clerk, who would have been trained from boyhood to sing plainsong, improvise additional sung parts around the plainsong, and perhaps to play the organ. Increasingly in the sixteenth century the organ was played (and the choristers instructed) by a layman paid for the job.
Almost all the liturgical organ music of the period has been destroyed, but the hymns, offertories and Te Deum settings which survive have been published in the volumes of Early Tudor Organ Music (Early English Church Music series, vols 6 and 10),The Mulliner Book (Musica Britannica vol 1) and Tudor Keyboard Music (Musica Britannica vol 64). The organ was not used to accompany voices, so far as we know, until about 1570. The way in which these pre-Reformation organs might have been adapted to new usages after the Reformation is explored in an article by Andrew Johnstone in the November 2003 issue of Early Music. The music of Tallis, Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and Tomkins and their contemporaries would all have been played on organs such as these.
Nonetheless, organs were no longer required for the Reformed liturgy, and fell out of use after 1547 and again after 1558, with the crucial exception of the Queen’s private chapel. Not only did Elizabeth encourage musical services for herself, but she exhorted her people to use music in worship too. The result, in a church shorn of the resources to attempt much in the way of elaborate music, was distinctly patchy. The survival of music in church worship depended a great deal on the musical inclinations of the resident clergy. Just because organs were not used, however, does not mean that they were destroyed. If visually inoffensive (that is, without images in the front), organs may well have mouldered away rather than provided business for the scrap merchant. And there are more remarkable ways in which organs, or parts of them, may survive.
The Early English Organ Project was born out of a chance survival, the preservation of an intriguing looking door in a farmhouse at Wetheringsett in Suffolk, revealed during conversion in 1977. The pattern of holes on one side and the grooves on the other suggested a purpose, which was not revealed until it was shown to Noel Mander, who recognised it as an organ soundboard of considerable antiquity. The discovery of this soundboard stimulated the search for another, found in 1995 at Wingfield church in Suffolk, in the coffin-house in the churchyard, with assorted lumber.
These two soundboards are made of boards, Wingfield a single piece of walnut, Wetheringsett four pieces of Baltic oak, grooved on one side and with holes on the other. They probably date from around 1530, though they could be later. The Wingfield soundboard had sliders, bearers and upperboards. The Wetheringsett soundboard must had sliders, but not surprisingly they have disappeared. They are the only physical remains from this time, apart from the famous case at Old Radnor, which unfortunately reveals very little about the original organ inside it. Before their discovery the only evidence had been provided by two well-known contracts, for the organ made by Anthony Duddyngton for All Hallows by the Tower in London in 1519, and the one by John Howe and John Clymmowe for Holy Trinity in Coventry in 1526. It was the correlation between the Wetheringsett soundboard and these two contracts which stimulated the possibility of a reconstruction, which the smaller Wingfield soundboard on its own would not have done.
The fragments do not provide all the answers of course, but soundboards do give most of the specification and layout of the organ, and various other clues. The point of the project was that this was the first opportunity to reconstruct the organ of the time. The discoveries aroused the interest of Professor John Harper of the University of Wales in Bangor, Director General of the Royal School of Church Music, and historian of music and liturgy in the English church, and a group of people assembled under the chairmanship of the late Michael Bowers to raise money for the reconstruction of two organs, using copies of the two soundboards as their basis.
There are two organs because they have different specifications, and would have had different liturgical functions. The smaller of the two is more ‘exquisite’, with a chorus of wooden pipes, and could be seen as a Lady Mass organ, the larger, with a chorus of metal pipes, for use at daily services. The smaller has a 40-note compass and the larger a 46-note compass, which means that all the surviving repertoire can be performed on the larger, but not on the smaller. The smaller also has a more restricted tuning system, based on the Pythagorean system with pure fifths, whereas the larger has a system based on good thirds. Composers seem to have had both compasses in mind throughout the 16th century: about two-thirds of the surviving repertory lies within the 40-note compass, including Byrd’s well-known C major fantasia. Some of John Redford’s music, from the earlier 16th century, requires the longer bass compass.
The organs were made by Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn in 2001 and 2002. The problem for the organbuilders was not just to interpret and copy the soundboards themselves, but to choose models for those elements of the organs not provided by the English evidence. The soundboards gave the number of channels, sliders (which both chests had), layout of pipes, including the pipe front, and a good idea of the stoplist and pipe scales, from the space allocated to the pipes. The overall size gave the plan of the organ, and the position of the front pipe holes gave some idea of the appearance. Where the evidence was not provided by the soundboards, they chose models from the same period, or the earliest English examples, in all cases choosing actual models rather than designing by inference.
It is known that there were continental organbuilders being paid for new parish church organs in the first half of the 16th century in England, but the indigenous characteristics of these two organs suggest that they were made by an English builder, probably fairly local, since there were some well-known East Anglian builders. These characteristics can be summarised as: long, fully chromatic key compass, choruses of wooden or metal pipes of the same scale and style, each with its own slider, and a voicing style familiar from 17th-century English organs.