I like being told that something is impossible. Two years ago I made six programmes about cathedrals for Radio 3, focusing on their choral traditions and architectural history. When I suggested a similar tour of churches, sounding out their organs, I was told it would not work, partly because some of the most interesting instruments were not in playable condition. So, with the help of a few books on both organs and churches, I set about making a list, trying to cover a range of architectural styles and periods, though with organs you are more restricted: Oliver Cromwell got rid of nearly all of them, and, although cases from the Restoration onwards remain, the instruments themselves have usually been replaced or rebuilt beyond recognition.
We owe it to the Victorians that most mediaeval churches survive in any form but ruins, but when it came to organs, they wanted progress, and throughout the later part of the 19th century, England was catching up fast with Germany and France. It had been slow to accept independent pedal divisions, and to three of the five instruments in my series the pedals were later additions.
My first port of call was at Romsey in Hampshire - called an abbey, which it once was, although it now functions as a parish church. The organ there, built in 1858, was one of the first sizeable three-manual instruments in this country, and is substantially in its original state, with small additions made in the 1880s. Like many church organs, it does not have a complete case, and the pipes are stuffed away in an aisle, so they do not speak with ideal freedom. Romsey attracts quite a lot of tourists, so the vicar had to close the building for a day while we recorded the music - we let him open it when I did my architectural bits, because we wanted a sense of everyday reality.
My next stop, Great Packington in Warwickshire, was a big contrast - an austere mausoleum-like building from the late 18th century, stuck in the middle of a huge deer park to the east of Birmingham. Locked inside this neo-Classical temple (you can get the key from the big house nearby) is perhaps the most beautiful of all the organs I tried, musically speaking, because it is both the simplest and the least altered. Without pedals, the main division (or manual) has pipes fitted to Handel's specification, since the instrument was made for his librettist and patron, Charles Jennens (compiler of Messiah). Although the church serves no parish and was recently bought back as the chapel of Packington Hall, its weekly services are open to anyone, and the organ and church are, increasingly, being used for recordings.
Finedon, in Northamptonshire, is a well-kept secret, a once picturesque ironstone village, now bloated by featureless modern development. The present church is a perfect model of its period, built in a burst of confidence in the mid-14th century, when the village prospered and boasted its own market. The origin of the organ is a bit mysterious, but it was inaugurated in 1717 by William Croft, the organist of Westminster Abbey - so we got one of the present sub-organists at the Abbey, Martin Baker, to play it.
Choosing what to play was not easy in these programmes - not if we wanted to reflect the history of the instruments in terms of English music, a lot of which is not exactly first-rate. Still, if you listen with an unprejudiced ear, you may be surprised by the sense of enterprise in some of the obscure composers our players dug up: they were not all, by any means, bland academics.
At Finedon, among other items, we clearly had to have a piece by Croft. At Romsey, our guest organist, Stephen Farr, from Winchester Cathedral nearby, included a piece written for Nelson's funeral, reflecting the nautical connection with Earl Mountbatten, who is buried at Romsey. Obviously, at Great Packington, Martin Souter had to play a piece by Handel - an extraordinarily angular, exploratory fugue originally in the manuscript collection of Packington Hall.
Most organists will tell you that the best place for their instrument is on a gallery at the west end of a church, as it is at Finedon, and also at the last two stops on my tour, both in East Anglia. Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk is famous for its contrasted towers at each end, one built by the monks, the other by the townsfolk - they divided the building between them and were in conflict for centuries.
Framlingham in Suffolk is celebrated for its collection of sumptuous Renaissance tombs belonging to the Dukes of Norfolk, who used to own the nearby castle, where Mary Tudor was proclaimed Queen. The organ case is one of the very few that survived the ravages of the Commonwealth, while much of the pipework dates back to 1674. Wymondham's organ is much later as well as larger, originating in 1793 and very "Gothick" in appearance. In both places our guest organists, Robert Woolley at Wymondham, and Margaret Phillips at Framlingham, also had the chance to sample late-Georgian chamber organs, on which it is possible to play almost any English organ music written before the 19th century, because none of it requires pedals.
Each 45-minute programme is really a picture-in-sound of a church, and organ music takes up just over half the time. For the rest, you follow me around the building and meet local people with special knowledge, and eavesdrop on choirboys rehearsing or bell-ringers practising.
`In Country Churches', 6.15pm Monday-Friday on BBC Radio 3Reuse content