Stephen Bicknell

Organ designer and scholar


Stephen Bicknell, organ designer, historian writer and lecturer: born London 20 December 1957; registered civil partnership 2006 with John Vanner; died London 18 August 2007.

Stephen Bicknell, organ designer, historian and writer, became fascinated while still a young man by the instrument that came to dominate his life. His personal passion for architecture helped him create structures of considerable magnificence and beauty that complemented the buildings in which they were placed. A dedicated craftsman, he helped breathe new and vital life into an ancient and often moribund tradition.

Stephen Bicknell was born in Chelsea and educated at Winchester College and St Chad's College, Durham. He inherited his love of music from his mother Sally, who married the distinguished historian and former BBC executive Leonard Miall in 1975. Stephen found much to admire in his witty, urbane and considerate stepfather.

Bicknell's entry into the world of the pipe organ began in earnest in 1979, when he went to work for the distinguished firm of N.P. Mander Ltd in east London. Under the tutelage of the company's founder, Noel Mander, and his son John, Bicknell could not have wished for a better grounding, as he later acknowledged. He was soon involved in a number of important restoration projects, most notably at Mill Hill School, north London. Here, in the chapel, Bicknell redesigned and rebuilt the casework to accommodate a new instrument. His scheme, as always, was unfailingly sympathetic to its historical origins.

Between 1987 and 1990, Bicknell moved to Brandon in Suffolk to work for J.W. Walker and Co, a company once noted for the conservatism of its designs and tonal qualities. Under father and son Robert and Andrew Pennells, the company began to create instruments of rare distinction. With input from Bicknell, this manifested itself in outstanding work for Oriel College, Oxford, the beautiful chamber organ for Carlisle Cathedral – and the striking installation in Kesgrave Parish Church near Ipswich.

Neo-classical both visually and tonally, the design, though angular and austere, was more than offset by the warmth of the voicing. In the words of the designer, it expresses "eclecticism with conviction".

When, in 1990, he moved back to Mander as head of design, the company was engaged on a series of larger and often very challenging church contracts. From St John's College, Cambridge (1993), to the set of organs for Chelmsford Cathedral (1994 and 1995), Bicknell's unique talent proved an important ingredient in Mander's undoubted success. The agenda was initially dominated by the spectacular instrument built for the church of St Ignatius Loyola, New York. This stunning creation, which took two years to construct, has proved itself both particularly versatile and highly lauded.

Leaving Mander in the 1990s allowed Bicknell more freedom to undertake freelance consultancy work, from the colleges of Oxford to the ballroom of Buckingham Palace, often in partnership with his brother, the architect Julian Bicknell. His contribution to the organ in Ravensden Parish Church, Bedfordshire is little known, though typically distinctive, and his design offers a very personal homage to Thomas Elliot, one of the finest English craftsmen of the early 19th century.

Bicknell lectured in organ history at the Royal Academy of Music and delivered papers at international conferences. He edited the quarterly newsletter and annual journal of the British Institute of Organ Studies. In 1996, Cambridge University Press published his seminal study The History of the English Organ, to critical acclaim. Bicknell followed this with distinguished contributions to The Cambridge Companion to the Organ, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and the Incorporated Association of Organists' Millennium Book.

His two series of articles on organ building and design in the magazine Choir and Organ remain models of clarity. Entitled "Raising The Tone" (1997) and "Spit and Polish" (1998-99), both are forthright and provocative yet underpinned by a soundness of judgement based on practical experience.

In recent years, a growing dissatisfaction with his lifestyle came to the fore, as did his perception of the seemingly hermetic nature of the organ establishment. In 2005, seeking a more stable framework, he became an administrator for the Association of Accounting Technicians.

Music in general and the world of the organ in particular have been the richer for Stephen Bicknell's contribution. He takes his place in the succession of past masters who have also pointed the way to the future. His influence on British organ building will be his lasting epitaph.

Kenneth Shenton

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