I spent most of my teenage years in York and was fascinated by the Minster organ. I occasionally got to play it (outside services) and the exhilarating experience would be something like flying a fighter jet! I knew John Rothera who was an alto songman in the Minster choir for many, many, years from the 1950’s. He did not approve of the Walker rebuild of the organ in 1961, when tonal changes were made to make the organ into an eclectic instrument with both romantic and baroque characteristics. Whilst sipping tea in his house full of collected items, up a little alley near Monk Bar, John would relate so many anecdotes about events and people in the Minster community.
One such legend was the tuner for the north-east of England employed by the venerable firm of Harrison & Harrison in Durham, who went on his rounds on a tricycle. They were different days! Laurence Elvin, who wrote The Harrison Story (Lincoln 1973) relates this extraordinary man.
C. F. Bause, tuner, was based at York for many years and looked after York Minster organ; Sir Edward Bairstow had a high regard for his work and thought he was the “Cat’s whiskers”! He was well known on his Yorkshire tuning round for he travelled to many places on his tricycle! He rode considerable journeys on this even after retirement and was only just prevented by his daughter from cycling to Durham to visit his old firm on his eightieth birthday. He died in November 1968 aged eighty-four, having worked well into his seventies. Bause once related to Dr. Philip Marshall the following delightful anecdote: On a tuning visit to the Durham Cathedral organ, Bause had to break off while Mattins was sung. He sat in the loft with Arnold Culley, organist from 1907-32. The Te Deum setting was in a large leather folio which Bause had to hold on the music desk on account of its unwieldiness. Culley had been having trouble with one of his Lay Clerks and in the middle of the Te Deum asked Bause to look over the side to see if the offending Lay Clerk was singing. He did so, letting go of the book with disastrous results, for it fell on to the manuals and landed on Culley’s knee!
Bause was on one of his last visits to York Minister in about 1960 and talked with John Rothera at the time just before the contract was awarded to J.W. Walkers in Suffolk for the rebuild of the organ. John said to Bause, I think Francis (Jackson) wants to turn this organ into a spinet. The irate tuner turned to John and snarled – Spinarseholes!
The tide has now turned in the organ building world, at least for this organ which is now dismantled and being restored by Harrison & Harrison in their new workshop in Durham. It is a proud firm, for which I worked for a few months as an apprentice in 1976. It didn’t work out for me, but they remain one of the finest organ building firms, and most of England’s cathedral organs are their work. Little is available about the exact specification of the project, but a certain amount of information is available on the firm’s website.
What particularly pleases me, as would have delighted John Rothera had he still been with us, is this:
With the organ reassembled the speech and balance of the whole organ will be reviewed and adjusted. The work of 1917 and 1931 will be regarded as the reference for this task, and our approach will be dedicated to the recreation of the aesthetic of this earlier scheme.
This reference is the work of Harrison & Harrison in 1917 and 1931, the great tradition of the English cathedral organ with high-pressure reeds and an almost divine voice. I heard old recordings in John’s home, played on his old Ferrograph tape recorder, of the organ as it was before the 1961 Walker rebuild. Here is a recording of Dr Francis Jackson playing one of his own compositions in 1956 on the pre-Walker organ.
I look forward to the work being completed in 2020, and may even make the effort to attend the opening recital and services at York Minster. I am thrilled at this prospect, and delighted that the tide has indeed turned. I’m sure Mr Bause will have prayed for this intention!