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Spitalfields' magnificent organ

November 30, 2009
by the gentle author

For over a century, we were proud to say we had the biggest organ in the country here in Spitalfields. Richard Bridge’s organ built for Christ Church in 1735 is the only large organ to survive in Britain from the age of Handel and, as Bridge is rated as the Stradivarius of organ builders and his organ in Spitalfields is considered to be his finest, we have plenty of reasons to brag about our magnificent organ.

I learnt all these impressive facts from Carolyn Fuest of the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields last week when we met up in the vestry for a chat. The vestry room itself is a remarkable space with a beautiful stone vaulted roof, built high above the porch of the church, with a hatch in the floor that can be opened to haul bells up into the bell tower and a circular window offering a view towards the market down Brushfield St. As we sat together at the long vestry table in the dramatic shafts of low-angled winter sunlight, Carolyn told me the full story, how the organ was removed in 1996 to protect it from damage during the restoration of the church (what you see above is just the case) and, most excitingly, what has been discovered. The organ was altered in the nineteenth century and again in the twentieth, but when it was taken apart they discovered enough eighteenth century pipework left to permit a reconstruction as Richard Bridge built it in 1735.

My imagination was fired when Carolyn explained there is a particular English eighteenth century sound world, distinctive from on the continent of Europe, which has been entirely lost but will be heard once again when this organ is restored. More than this, there are eighteenth century composers whose work is lost because there is no eighteenth century organ to perform their works. The potential exists to rediscover a whole repertoire of music and hear Handel’s English organ works in the way he intended for the first time in centuries.

Let me assure you, I intend to be there on the day this organ is first played again and report back to you directly on the special qualities of this vanished world of sound. We shall have to patient though, because the contract for the renovation was only signed last month.

The restoration is being done by William Drake in Buckfastleigh, one of the most renowned organ builders, who has already restored several of the most significant organs in Britain. Bill is pictured below on the right with his fellow-organ builder Joost de Boer, with the crowns and mitres from the organ case at the time it was dismantled. It will take several years for Bill and Joost to complete the restoration and cost over a million pounds, but we shall start to see the pipes returning to the case in 2012 with the possibility of performance in 2013.

More than half the money has been raised already and I have faith in Carolyn Fuest to bring the project to completion, because she disclosed to me with pride that the definitively monumental renovation of the building itself was completed on schedule and within budget. Half a century ago when the building was abandoned, we might have lost Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece,  an architectural landmark of the highest order, if it had not been for the extraordinary efforts of the Friends to save it. Evidently, there is a trove of stories here and I made a pact with Carolyn to bring them to you over the coming years.

This photo by John Brennan, top photo of the case by SRB Humphreys.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    December 4, 2009

    By the time I am able to take another trip to London, perhaps I can enjoy this organ in all its restored glory. Of course, you have fired me to see so much around Spitalfields that I hope by then you will be leading walking tours for your blog’s faithful followers!

  2. Mark C. permalink
    January 31, 2014

    Any updates on this story? As a past pipe organ performance major at Ohio State in the 70′s, I’m VERY interested in hearing how this project turned out.

    Regards!

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