Three Churches, One Pipe Organ

My walk was a forty-five minute journey between three churches in downtown London city; these churches were of different denominations, of different architectural styles, built in very different communities, and attended by different people. Each of these churches were uniquely different from one another, as I came to find in my walk, but had one thing in common: these three churches were homes to three pipe organs built by the John Compton organ builders within one year of one another.

I began at St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark. When I arrived, I noticed where it was built: on the corner of a wide intersection, this area had seen and currently sees quite a bit of traffic en route to Parliament Square to the north-west and Blackfriars to the north. Across the intersection is the current Imperial War Museum, which has a large front lawn. However, to either side of the cathedral, you will find housing developments, some in decent condition, but most looking a bit run down.

I entered the church during a midday mass, which was led by three (sounded like) Jamaican men. The service was attended only by nuns, elderly, and black people. The decor and bright color schemes decorating the church seemed to indicate that this was a predominantly black congregation, and thus, community surrounding the site.

The organ is visible from the right side of the sanctuary, but most of the pipes are hidden behind the front wall. From my discussion with a groundskeeper, the organ is rarely used (only for holidays and special occasion), and thus, rarely tuned. Advertisement for music performances were listed for other churches nearby, but hardly any for the cathedral itself. I found this strange, as the space and acoustics seemed appropriate for musical performance. The keeper informed me that this was mostly because the congregation felt that the space was for simple spiritual reflection, and thus loud, flashy music would be irreverent.

I then headed toward St. Bride’s church in Blackfriar. The housing developments and business buildings along the road became more and more wealthy looking as I got closer and closer to the river.

St. Bride’s church is tucked behind a few food and business buildings, making it invisible from the street on either side. Thus, any light that comes through the windows of the church is strictly from above. The church consists mostly of one room, the sanctuary, with a crypt underneath the church which acts as the church’s graveyard. The sanctuary itself is beautiful, with a high ceiling, and statues of St. Paul and St. Bride guarding the entrance to the church.

St. Bride’s church is a hub of concert music, hosting various ensembles and performers almost on a daily basis. For the congregation and clergy, the secretary informed me, music is one of the greatest forms of worship. I came to the church during the middle of a cello concert. Those attending were mostly middle aged white people, with a few youth here and there.

The organ console lies to the right of the altar, with pipes hidden behind the great wooden piece in the middle of the far eastern wall. Kept in good condition and regularly tuned, this organ is an original of the space, built specifically for St. Brides church. Alec Hithersay writes in the church’s information pamphlet: “the organ was refurbished for the Rededication of the Church in November 1957. It has recently been completely overhauled and cleaned by Keith Bance, who has carried out some modest tonal updating. This included remodelling the Positive division, adding new Mixture stops to the Great and Pedal divisions and the provision of a new Vox Humana for the Solo division. These changes have further increased the resources of an already versatile instrument.” The organ is used for services and concerts alike, making it one of the most used Compton organs in London.

From here, I walked fifteen minutes to St. Edmund the King past St. Paul’s Cathedral. This area was under heavy construction on many of the business and political buildings surrounding the church. The church itself was attached to a building which was completely surrounded in scaffolding.

St. Edmund the King is no longer used as a church, but as a place of “spiritual safety”, as the caretaker informed me. All of the pews/chairs have been removed, and there is no pulpit. The space overall was quite run down: paint was coming off the walls, chairs were stacked in corners, and it looked like it could use a good sweeping up. A few tables were set up for any who may wish to use the space to reflect and pray.

What remained of the organ’s pipes were rusted, and the caretaker said it never gets played anymore. However, in its heyday, it was an impressive instrument: “The extension principle which Compton used provides all the sounds for both classical and romantic organ music. Most of the pipe work from the former instruments have been used together with much new pipe work to extend the tonal range…In general this organ is nearer to the French romantic style of voicing and tonal arrangement. The full organ is achieved with extended colour and harmonics rather than brute force.” (from an information pamphlet) On the main console is a crest, reading “Dieu et mon Droit”, translating to “God and my Right”, the motto of the Monarch of the United Kingdom.

These churches came to be more and more different than the other. It was interesting to see how something can be built to serve a certain purpose, but morph over time to serve another. Some spaces still bring people and life together, whereas others are forgotten. Still, the one tie between these places were the pipe organs they held, even though my walk did not yield much more historical information to connect the organs themselves.
Unknown: Welcome to the Church of St Edmund King & Martyr, pamphlet (2008)

Hithersay, Alec: St Bride’s Organ; Whats On, pamphlet (1998)

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