Breath of Life2:39, 6th June 2017
A clutch of recently acquired instruments is reinvigorating the chapel music of Sidney Sussex College. Matthew Power takes a train to Cambridge to see its new Flentrop organ
Built on the ruins of the Cambridge Greyfriars, Sidney Sussex College dates from 1596, tucked behind high walls in the centre of town. Its musical associations date back almost as long as its existence, and the names of Fayrfax, Tye and Byrd feature in its history. What has been achieved in the last ten years is revolutionary.
Osborn Director of Music Dr David Skinner was co-founder, in 1989 with Andrew Carwood, of The Cardinall’s Musick, and is director of the award winning early music ensemble Alamire. His background includes 20 years at Oxford, 12 of those as a choral scholar and lay clerk at Christ Church. His research interests are Tudor and Reformation history. During the 1990s his collaborator on BBC Radio 3 broadcasts of Spirit of the Age and Kaleidoscope, Professor Christopher Page (founder of Gothic Voices), mentioned that a part-time job had come up at Sidney Sussex College; Skinner visited out of curiosity.
This seemed one of the finest mid-sized chapels in Oxbridge and the development of a musical tradition presented a great opportunity,’ he recalls. Instruments were inadequate: there was a tired Bechstein piano, and the once-fine Harrison organ had suffered from a refurbishment in the 70s and the pipework was in a cramped position in the furthest corner of the gallery. Skinner took on the part-time post of music director and quickly built up a choir. Dame Sandra Dawson, then Master, launched a 10-year plan to endow a full-time post of director of music. A supportive College member and Honorary Fellow, John Osborn, understood the need for instruments, but agreed that funding the endowment was paramount. Osborn soon agreed to provide the substantial funds to endow the directorship of music at the end of 2006, and David Skinner took up the post. The ten years since then have witnessed a steady and impressive development of musical resources and vision that is bringing Sidney Sussex Chapel and its music to a new level of achievement.
The College Council has been open minded and supportive throughout, yet funds for the major developments have had to be sourced from independent sponsors. Skinner has taken the lead in doing this. It first became apparent that the choir stalls (little more than pews) required a rebuild when, as Skinner puts it, ‘one of my choristers caught fire.’ The resulting elegant raised stalls with glass lanterns are now a focal point in the chapel. Acquisition of a Steinway model D (1984, fully restored 2010, the gift of John Beale) and a ‘Bach’ harpsichord after Michael Meitke (Berlin 1710, by Huw Saunders 2010, the gift of Brian Moody) soon enabled all kinds of music-making to get under way.
A project was begun as early as 2005 to find a suitable organ and David Titterington (head of organ studies at the Royal Academy of Music and a Fellow Commoner of the College) was appointed consultant. Finding a single donor for the new instrument proved a challenge and, as Skinner and the choir were already specialising in early repertoire, the College agreed that a chamber organ could be a useful interim project. Its parameters soon grew; US firm Taylor & Boody were commissioned, and what emerged was a seven-stop mean-tone instrument (2014). On a wheeled platform, it can be brought into the centre of the chapel and accompanies Tudor repertoire at Friday Evensong. I can’t help remarking on how it resembles a miniature version of the Taylor & Boody organ at the west end of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue (NY); that is where the inspiration for its ornamental doors sprang from, including the blue and gold decoration. The College Council supported the project, and Peter Espenhahn, a 1596 Foundation Member, stepped forward as the chief donor, while the gilding and other decorations were funded by Sidney Fellow Professor Rosamond McKitterick.
The commissioning of a further instrument from the Netherlands firm Flentrop Orgelbouw would drive the provision of choral scholarships and attract more singers in future. Montague Fellow Patricia Brown, who had sponsored a number of Alamire’s recording projects, became convinced of the need for this final piece in the jigsaw and agreed to fund the organ project.
Plan A was for a lavish west-end gallery organ with a Rückpositiv case. Archaeology and architecture stood in the way. The chapel had previously been the refectory of the medieval foundation of the Cambridge Greyfriars (that explains the north-south axis of the building). The Elizabethan wall of the college which abuts the medieval wall, both built on sand, would have required major engineering to support a cantilevered organ loft – which alone would have cost more than the proposed instrument.
So, Plan B uses the existing bays above the (liturgical) south-east corner, where the previous organ and choir library were accommodated. There were two major challenges to overcome; first, the limited dimensions of the gallery; second, to make the instrument speak down the length of the chapel – something its predecessor had failed to do.
Frits Elshout of Flentrop Orgelbouw spent eight weeks voicing the instrument. He explains the layout: ‘The Great and Pedal are divided into two separate cases, left and right of the console. The two wind chests of the Great are positioned sideways with the lower pipes in the rear and the higher pipes towards the front. The space between the façade pipes was made larger than usual to allow the sound to come out of the case as freely as possible. The Principal choruses 8, 4 and 2 are doubled in the treble to create tonal presence without forcing the pipes.
The Swell division (balancing the Great) is in front of the player with shutters on front and sides. At the design stage there was some uncertainty as to whether the front swell shutters would overwhelm the player with sound and make it difficult to hear the rest of the instrument. The result at the console is of a successful balance between the divisions. The swell shutters have cleverly articulated gearing, which gives the player fine control.
A particularly effective addition is the Swell sub-octave to Great coupler; David Titterington comments: ‘It produces a thrilling texture, giving the whole instrument even more body. Where the low ceiling means a limit to the number of 16ft pipes, this coupler transforms both baroque and romantic repertoire.’ Coupling all the Swell strings down the octave to the substantial Great 8ft Roerfluit makes for a sumptuous sound. The coupler can also be used without Swell to Great, with many permutations for broadening the palette of colours.
At the console a light and even manual action and the closeness of the pipework encourage concentration on articulation. Electric-action stops and a sequencer make for easy registering, though stop knobs are within comfortable reach for manual registration. A straight, slightly concave pedalboard follows the pattern of the BDO (Bund Deutscher Orgelbaumeister) and is made by Flentrop to their own design; all the pedals are equidistant and it is equally comfortable to play with just toes, or with heels.
This is not an English organ, yet it accompanies the choral repertoire at the heart of chapel life with an invigorating depth of colour and dynamic range. Even close to, the pipework speaks with the unforced tone of Italian-style voicing, and with the cohesion of central-European chorus work. The College’s organ scholars, Laurence Carden and Jim Cooper, have had one term to get to know the organ and are still enjoying finding new pairings of stops. There are keen Swell Celestes working vividly out of the wide dynamic range of the swell box, and a choice of two tremulants provides more options for colour. The 8ft Dulciaan is a versatile reed, sounding like a small Cromorne, a gentle oboe, even a clarinet. The Great Trumpet alone is warm and rounded; add the Cornet and it becomes a powerful solo voice.
David Titterington comments, ‘Every stop on this organ has a personality and presence, yet they combine cohesively and musically into numerous solo combinations and choruses. It demands that the player must register both intelligently and with their ears. The Great plenum is particularly impressive when underpinned and reinforced with the Pedal 16ft reed, which adds a nobility to the whole.’ Interestingly, Titterington discovered that Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament, played in his inaugural recital, became particularly compelling through the organ’s wide dynamic range and vocal beauty – surely a testament to the instrument’s tonal versatility.
There are just three regular weekly liturgies in Chapel but they are musically rich. Wednesdays present Latin Vespers showcasing renaissance polyphony; Fridays bring English Tudor music to the fore, with verse anthems accompanied on the meantone chamber organ; and Sundays present cathedral-style Choral Evensong with a broad range of traditional repertoire (a feast of Howells when I visited), and new music from composer-in-residence Joanna Marsh, who last year succeeded Eric Whitacre. With the Chapel’s instruments in place, the final steps to endow the choir are under way. Since September, six of 22 choral scholarships have been secured; completion will ensure that the future provision of music is ring fenced and the choral foundation protected for generations to come.
Matthew Power read Music at the University of London and Trinity College of Music, winning the conservatoire’s competitions in Composition and Improvisation, and receiving a piano accompaniment scholarship. He was editor of Choir & Organ for nine years and works in London as a musician and writer.