On a brisk January day, a small horde of Kent organists descended on Tonbridge School, a distinguished establishment founded in 1553, with mainly 19th century buildings on a 150-acre site. The Edwardian Chapel was, within the memory of many members, almost destroyed by fire in 1988, and its restoration occupied the next seven years. The original chapel also formed the funeral pyre of the magnificent 1909 Binns organ, and in its place, completed in 1995, is the organ by Marcussen & Søn we had come to hear. (Cover picture)
David Williams, the Head of Piano/Keyboard studies, greeted us warmly and made some preliminary remarks about the organ, before it was demonstrated by Julian Thomas, the Chapel Organist. The organ has 67 speaking stops, distributed over 4 manuals and pedal, including, amongst an eclectic specification with both French and German influences, such English specialities as a Tuba Mirabilis (apparently a first for Marcussen); more continental influences are evident in the Trumpet en chamade, and no fewer than 4 pedal reeds to shake the new rafters. Julian improvised initially, demonstrating the wide variety of colours available, then treated us to a varied programme, including: Bach, Vierne (the Adagio from the 3rd Symphonie), and Howells’ Psalm Prelude Set 1 No. 1, which gave him the opportunity to build gradually to a shattering climax and then to wind down to a hushed conclusion.
The instrument coped very well with all the different requirements of these pieces, and filled the chapel with a satisfying pleno, fit both for recital work and for accompanying a large congregation of boys’ voices. Many of the solo stops produced beautiful and distinctive timbres; but does this organ nevertheless lack something of the warmth of a traditional English diapason sound?
After the demonstration, tea was confined to a drink and a biscuit, due no doubt to the presence of large numbers of rugger players who were also using the facilities. However, we bravely continued with the afternoon, listening to David Williams telling us of the fire of 1988, the rebuilding of the Chapel, and the lengthy process of commissioning the new organ. We heard the (possibly apocryphal) tale of the boy who informed his teacher that there was smoke coming from the Chapel roof, only to be told to stop being silly and concentrate on his Latin. We heard of the determination of the school authorities to rebuild in the shell of the burned-out Chapel, rather than building anew, and the problems of shoring up the remaining structure of the walls to prevent further disaster; we heard of the tendering process for the organ, and the great care which the music staff invested in choosing the right builder for the task; and we heard of the immense amount of music tuition going on in the school, with literally hundreds of music lessons every week. Our thanks are due to David Williams for his wide-ranging talk, bringing the afternoon to a satisfying conclusion.
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