The History of the Organ at St Andrew's

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Sometime before the 1370s, as well as can be said, St Andrew’s had a “Little Organ” with (apparently) 26 pipes visible across the front.   It had no pedal notes at all.  More details are given in the June 2017 edition of the Farnham Museum Society Journal.

Little OrganThe specification was probably based on a 5ft Principal, and above that basic rank perhaps a 2-1/2ft, perhaps nothing at all.   Probably, the bottom 8-12 notes on the keyboard played not just the 5ft (which was permanently drawn, ie had no stop to silence it) but probably also a 10ft ‘suboctave’ sounding along with it.  To keep such organs neat-and-tidy, to keep costs down, and to make the instrument 2-man-portable, this 10ft sound probably came from stopped 5ft wooden pipes or stopped 5ft “metal” pipes.   These were perhaps hidden internally, the front row of pipes being of high-content tin and painted.

From very early days, plainsong had been the basis of choral and organ music.   So these 8-12 bass notes were for plainsong to be played, and clearly heard.   The organist could then extemporise against this ‘false Bourdon’, using the middle and top end of the keyboard.

Teaching and other records of this early period suggest that the organ had two main uses in the Church.   First of all, it would help singers learn the various plainchants.   Secondly, as even more documentation proves, the organ would carry on the “organum” while the choir took a short rest.   This liturgical approach is called alternatim, the choir and organ alternating to produce the musical piece.

There is some evidence that cantilena, carols, and popular melodies were also drafted into Church music.

Above is a free-spirited artistic impression of this “Little” organ follows, floating in mid-air, as all good music should.  

 Note that Church interiors were colourfully decorated, back in the day, and ‘thrusting Young Turk’ fashions could well be expected in wealthy and entrepreneurial Farnham.   This illustration is, purposefully,  a galaxy away from any workable blueprint.

Of course, there are no physical remains of the actual St Andrew’s instrument whatever.   It was sold for scrap in the 1540s, as far as records allow us to say.   That the organ had a saleable value at all means the 5ft pipes (and any 2-1/ft) were made of ‘metal’;  5-10% tin, 90-95% lead, to a first approximation.

In the records of the Commissioners of King Edward (Henry VIII’s son) it emerges that St Andrew’s had another organ, which seems to have been left in place.

This would in all likelihood be a “Great” organ, with more keys on the keyboard than the “Little” one, and no bass 10ft automatically drawn with the 5ft Principal.

The specification would probably be 10ft, 5ft, 2-1/2ft, 1-1/4ft, available by means of 4 independent stops across a keyboard compass of perhaps 36-40 notes.  (For fuller details, see Organists’ Review, [in the Press] 2018).   As with the “Little” organ, this larger instrument would have no pedals, no reed sounds (eg, no Clarinet or Trumpet), no mutations (so no organist choices to parallel a modern player’s 8 + II or 4 + 1-1/3 registrations, to take two examples at random.)

The author is most grateful to Dominic Gwynn, builder par excellence of historic English organs (in reproduction), for demonstrating what 10   5   2-1/2   1-1/4 actually involve in terms of hot metal and undecorated wood.

Another free-style artist’s impression is shown immediately below.  Foot-loose and fancy-free again!

This organ had perhaps been in place from the 1410s or 1420s, and was as large as known English Cathedral organs.   (In fact, it was almost certainly much  larger than anything owned by the cash-strapped and frequently harassed church-goers in Carlisle Cathedral, and as capable as 2 of the 3 in Durham.)  Farnham was a very rich Parish, full of craftsmen of the highest skill levels, with Winchester’s Bishop, no less, just up Castle Hill, and able to give or commandeer cash.

Oddly, it is much harder to say what a “Great” organ was used for, compared with a “Little”;  and this remains true, whatever proud Church or ancient Monastery/Cathedral one chooses to examine historically across the whole of England.   The national loss of written music (especially over the 1540s-1640s period) is colossal, leaving us in practically complete ignorance on such matters.

More information as to the detailed design of a “Great” can be found in a website (English Cathedral Organ 1500-1600);  also available by email from the present writer.

Our best judgment is that the “Great” did not spend much, if any, of its life teaching plainchant or alternating with the Choir by way of a compassionate work-rest ratio.   No English organ music survives before 1500, so urgently was the ‘government’ need to wash away Catholicism and embed Protestantism across the nation.  So one can guess – no more than that – that this “Great” was an assertive, showy instrument, proudly announcing a resident organist’s skills at improvising on almost any tune known locally.   We may never know, so sparse is the musical evidence and social commentary.

Given available records for “the Hundreds of Farnham”, we are totally unable to say how this organ met its eventual end (perhaps as late as the 1640s).   Neither have financial records been helpful here.   Both instruments in St Andrew’s would require payment to an organist/Master of the Choristers, and to a second man who worked the bellows.   The organist held a professional position, with a declared salary and benefits;  the blower could be any out-of-work warden or grave-digger or mini-beadle, one supposes, given the written history.   In any case, documentation is silent as to what St Andrew’s spent on these (effectively 1-1/4?  1-1/2?) working men.   So we cannot say (eg) that the registered organist had no income after 1547, that no PC gardener was paid for acting as part-time organ blower after 1642.

It’s interesting to discuss where in the Church these instruments lived.

The 12th Century pillar pictured below, has, fortunately for us, been roughly restored, leaving ancient damage able to speak for itself.  

It is only one of many pieces of St Andrew’s fabric which show the Church had at some time a plethora of screens and parclose screens.   In fact, the east end of the building feels somewhat like a set of potential sheep-pens on the market, making as it does so many separable ‘cells’ available for Clergy to command.

In the writer’s judgment, St Andrew’s had 3 organs, over the 1350s-1540s time period.  

The “Little” organ would quite likely be near the altar in the Lady Chapel.   The writer argues this because BVM Chapels tend to have an urgent, herd-instinct build date, attracting new organs;  and also because BVM services offered the more exquisite vocal harmonies appearing in extant manuscripts (so probably sponsoring matchingly complex topwork improvisation over a false-“Bourdon” ground bass).

The “Great” was quite probably on a “perch” or platform, in St George’s Chapel.  The next photograph shows some end-of-wall work, and at least one intriguingly asymetrical old frame for inscriptions.   It is possible the “Great” lived 10ft or more above the floor here, with a wind trunk going through the wall into whatever preceeded a gloriously generous Victorian plumbing arrangement.Site of organist's door

I am most grateful to my church archaeology and organ-builder friend Martin Renshaw and his lovely partner Vicki for this information.   Their experience in this area is unmatched, nationally.

That leaves the author’s hypothesised third instrument, which was perhaps built and in regular use earlier than either the “Little” or “Great” discussed above.

The picture below shows evidence of a high-level door, (just possibly a window) such as an organist might use, to exit from a staircase on to the rood loft or candlebeam.

Evidence of Earlier Screen








To the right of this archaeological marker (visible in the next photograph, above and behind a visiting organist at the present console) are the remains of a fine  early screen.

In the writer’s view, the “Little” organ (with player at front, blower behind) would be just too much for this rood screen to bear.   A natural conclusion is that St Andrew’s “orgayne in the roode lofte” was a small instrument, perhaps of 15 or fewer notes, sounding the “voice region” of a 5ft Principal rank of pipes.   We shall, of course, never have the evidence to confirm or deny this.





The present author’s current opinion is that this putative third organ would be like the one lovingly drawn and painted for the Lord of the Manor of Irnham, Lincolnshire, in ?1320-?1340.   This is a portative instrument, the player well able to climb stair and negotiate doorways, while working the bellows with one hand and playing the keys (not drawing sliders) with the other.   This bijou treasure might also be the instrument carried at the local Beating of the Bounds.

Our grateful acknowledgments to the British Museum for permitting this picture (G-BL Add 42130) to be freely available on the web.

It serves us all well to remember that the alleged “break” between Church practice and town life was – in this era – never as formulaic and long-faced as our Victorian forbears would have us believe.   It is perfectly likely that, in at least some Parishes, either a rood portative or a “Little” BVM organ was carried outside on high days and holidays, to entertain and educate the town population with events like Mystery Plays.   But so far no direct evidence of such popular fetes is available for Farnham.   Perhaps we should make this happen afresh in the town?   Farnham is hardly short of keyboard artists and willing singers!


Coming now to the organ of today, it contains, of course, no splinter, no shaving, not evan a whiff of the metals, woods, leathers, glues, paints etc which made up the three medieval instruments discussed above.  The present organ has some superb sonorities and is played from 3 manuals and ROC pedalboard, with enough couplers and regstration aids to perplex ten apprentice jugglers simultaneously.  The various high-quality flues and reeds recall a proud history of organ building: Walker (1847, 1861, 1867, 1881, 1910) Hill Norman Beard (1959), Bishop & Son (1983-5) and Principal Pipe Organs (2013/14).  This date sequence alone should serve to remind readers that Farnham is a town always trying to excel, never sleeping unthinkingly on somebody else's laurels.