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!
Thanks for this – it is fascinating! How embarrassingly little I know about tradition, styles, builders, for someone with a great ‘vulgar’ delight in organ music, going back to my school days at least, buying lps and hanging around the organ loft with my history master who had also study organ at university… I wonder what the Rev Canon Peter Moger had and has to do with these decisions? (He was organ scholar at Merton in my day, though I could never have talked intelligently with him as you did with John Rothera!)
It is a small world, and ideal for people with Aspergers! I became fascinated by the pipe organ from the time I saw the film Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and the organ in Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus. It burned into my imagination, and I began piano lessons in about 1967 and started the organ in 1972 with the availability of an instrument and a teacher at school. My school was very closely associated with the Minster, and we often had the opportunity of singing Evensong when the regular choir was absent (Wednesdays and holidays).
The assistant organist, John Scott-Whitely, was very kind with me and let me have evening sessions on the Minster organ when Dr Jackson was away on recital tours in countries like Australia. One of my favourite pieces was Mendelssohn’s Third Sonata in A major and Gigout’s Toccata which I could play reasonably well. I had quite a lot of Bach under my belt. A cathedral organ almost plays itself! Another one of my haunts was another four-manual Harrison, at Ripon Cathedral where I knew Ronald Perrin – a former assistant organist of York Minster.
The 1970’s in York were still the days of legends like Dr Francis Jackson (who is still alive at 101 years and still plays the organ in his house) and John Rothera who held court in his little house provided by the Dean and Chapter in Monk Bar Court. Most of the people who congregated there are now dead. There may still be one or two left here and there, but I lost touch with them years ago – perhaps Michael Phipps from Doncaster. History and memories can so easily be lost if they are not recorded, like this Spinarseholes anecdote.
John had a microphone permanently suspended from the central tower of the Minster and in an optimal place over the choir stalls. Using this microphone and a Ferrograph tape recorder, which he would transport on his bicycle when it was not permanently in place in his choir stall, he made hundreds of recordings of the choir. Some of these recordings have been professionally edited and converted into CD’s, which can be ordered. Here is the site. Dr Jackson relates his own version of John Rothera’s eccentricities, which you can read on this page.
Those were amazing years as I looked on as a St Peter’s schoolboy in my brown tweed jacket and tie. There is something haunting and melancholic about that organ with its smooth velvety sounds in the reverberation of the cathedral’s acoustics. Hearing this piece by Bairstow in the YouTube recording brings back a whole load of memories and feelings of being an adolescent struggling with my identity and relationship with a changing world.