GOA visit to Dorchester Abbey

A select number of Association members visited Dorchester Abbey, south of Oxford, on Saturday 27 July 2013 on a very warm and sunny afternoon, such as we would like to think is the norm for our British summers. Some had been there before, but to this writer the ancient Abbey was a pleasant surprise, positively reeking of antiquity, yet being in an area where there are significant financial resources to maintain this wonderful building in tip-top condition, including the organ. Much has been written about the history of the building, so this piece concentrates on music-related impressions. The Abbey exudes a warm, spacious and inviting acoustic, not having an especially long reverberation period, say three or four seconds, but one that supports organ and choral tone well. This would be due mainly to the quality of stone used, and to the general lack of furnishings. The organ is well placed in a gallery in what would be the north transept, with its front projecting slightly out into the nave axis. As a result, the organ has a direct sight-line to both ends of the building, and so does the organist. Because it is in the transept, it lies further west than the choir, so the connection is not quite as close as it might be, but more direct for the congregation. The case is quite plain, but handsome in its simplicity and the richness of the wood colouring.

The Organist, Jeremy Boughton, welcomed us and gave a short talk on the organ history, informing us that the core of the organ is by Walker in 1870, with additions/revisions, mostly to upper-work, by RH Walker in 1961. Peter Collins carried out a major overhaul in 2007, including lightening the exceptionally heavy mechanical action, making three stop additions and providing all the modern playing aids, integrating these into the console without detracting too much from the original appearance. Jeremy turned the organ straight over to us to play, so members were “thrown in at the deep end” and some memorable improvisation got the ball rolling. Tonally, the organ sounds warm and inviting with plenty of choice of 8 and 4ft tone across the three manuals – the early Walker heritage was indeed apparent. Unfortunately due to the warm weather the reeds were well out, so judgment was difficult. The more recent RH Walker pipe-work generally blends well with the original, the Great flue chorus to Fifteenth being particularly fine with an almost Willis-like ring. The Choir upper-work appeared more obviously new, adding a more modern edge. The Swell strings were particularly good, on the gentle side, and Full Swell also very effective, though missing a 16ft reed. The Pedal, while small, was adequate, but the 16ft open Diapason had to be used with some caution, being rather large. The Pedal reed appeared to be well-balanced, though as it was so far out of tune, it could not really be judged. Generally, the voicing seemed quite mild, but due to the excellent acoustic, every nuance could be easily heard. Further exploration would surely reveal more good sounds, especially if the reeds were on song. The console was comfortable, even if some folk needed blocks to jack up the bench. Peter Collins’ work to lighten the action by lengthening the soundboard pallets was effective, even with couplers, though that process increases the leverage on the keys, meaning that the travel is increased. For those of us more accustomed to electric actions, it was necessary to concentrate on pushing the keys down all the way to the bottom otherwise the pipes only spoke on half wind – ugh! Finally, Jeremy demonstrated the organ to us with the War March of the Priests and then some early music, before sending us on our way to lunch; mostly at the George pub across the road.