... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Monday 9 April 2012

The Reasonably Mighty Pipe Organ

I am ashamed to say that, despite years on listening in fascination to 'The Organist Entertains', I had been unaware until this week that one of our number, David Lowe, the owner of Swallow, is a very highly respected organist who has featured on the programme many times.

The world of the cinema organ is one that I find thrillingly incomprehensible, having no musical talent or skill at all, and I am awestruck by the complexity of those behemoths - in the building, restoring and maintaining, as well as the playing, of them. The sound, and the kind of music associated with them, transport you into another world as no other kind of music can - not to the same sort of other world, at any rate. A big part of the pleasure of listening to 'The Organist Entertains' (Tuesdays, Radio 2, 9.30 pm - give it a try) is entering into another world of arcana and expertise with its own language and its own gods... It feels like a glimpse into a hidden world, a bit like that of the canals, a land of mystery known only to the elect, but available to those who are prepared to dedicate themselves to learning its ways.

Anyway, this morning, to round off our weekend's festivities, David gave a recital in Droitwich's St Andrew's Church, on what he referred to as its 'reasonably mighty pipe organ' meaning, presumably, not the Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer which I guess qualifies for true mightiness. It was marvellous. I shall get in a right mess if I try to be any more specific, but I did enjoy the opening piece, Paean, by the splendidly named Oliphant Chuckerbutty (I really should have heard of him too shouldn't I), and David, having swapped his overalls for blazer and flannels, fitted the image of the entertaining organist perfectly.

I took the opportunity the other day to consult David about the apocryphal organ that apparently lived, and was played, in Chertsey's hold in the 1960s. I have now heard this from two independent sources, so I asked David whether it was really possible. He thought that it could well have been a harmonium, a small (well, domestic scale) reed organ with foot operated bellows, which would not have required an electrical supply. A quick bit of Wikipedia research suggests that these came in varying degrees of size and complexity, and we being built for the British market into the fifties, when they were supplanted by the Hammond organ and other electrical instruments. They continue to be made for a large Indian market, but have eveloved to reflect the different style of music and are now quite different from what Chertsey may once have had. That's a shame, as it seems also that they are very difficult to maintain and restore, so the chances of replacing Chertsey's are pretty slim. I shall continue to look into this fascinating aspect of the boat's history nonetheless.


  1. There's a nice "narrowboat harmonium" going cheap on ebay right now. Go get it! These things are very cheap in recent years because they are often too ornate for modern tastes and can be quite big. Our old one got to decrepit to repair, so I converted it into a settle. Look out also for "American Organs" which are much the same thing except that they suck air over the reeds whereas harmoniums blow.

  2. "The Organist Entertains" - I knew it! I'd have put money on you being a listener!
    I have a dim and distant memory of a cinema organ in use at the Odeon in Manchester in the 1970s which descended out of sight when the film began!

  3. Hi Sarah,
    Here's a link to a cinema organ close to me it sounds brilliant :)

  4. I saw that one one ebay! And some other pretty ones too. Sorely tempted I must say, but how ridiculously pointless as it would take a fortune to repair one and I can't even play the recorder.

    I did go to a few recitals at Huddersfield Town Hall when I lived there, I was terrifically impressed that Kirklees had a Borough Organist, and I once made a special trip to Regents Street to hear the one in Habitat (which used to be a cinema whose name is on the tip of my tongue). I think I shall make an effort to seek out more now on our travels.


    Learn on ipad app, take it further if sound is promising!

  6. You are always so cutting edge in your enthusiasms - as evidenced by this excellent article in this very week's issue of the Spectator

    And yes, you must buy the harmonium in Grantham: after all - how will Jim occupy himself now that the boat is finished ;)