Obituary: Ralph Downes
Saturday 01 January 1994
RALPH DOWNES devoted his life to the organ. He was a respected player who, early in his career, gave the British premieres of works by Hindemith, Messiaen, Milhaud and Schoenberg and helped introduce the music of Louis Vierne to English audiences. Increasingly he concentrated on the music of Bach and his Bach performances, always played from the eye-strainingly condensed print of a miniature score, established him as one of the first champions of the Baroque revival. His playing was characterised by a thorough approach to interpretation, textural accuracy and, most of all, registration. A desire to recreate as closely as possible on one instrument the authentic sound world for each school of organ music found a natural outlet in organ design.
Downes's views on organ design remained largely unheeded until 1948 when the opportunity arose for him to put them into practice in a uniquely prestigious project. He was appointed by the then London County Council to design an organ for the new concert hall to be built on the south bank of the Thames in Festival of Britain year. Despite enormous opposition from the musical establishment, Downes persevered with characteristic single- mindedness and produced an instrument which revolutionised British organ building; things were never the same again.
The controversy over the Royal Festival Hall organ was as much to do with the use of continental methods of construction (Downes imported a Frenchman, Louis-
Eugene Rochesson, to voice the reeds) as for the tonal scheme which attempted to marry French, German and British, Baroque, Romantic and modern elements. The RFH organ was not an unqualified success but the ideas behind it made undeniably good sense and were developed in many of Downes's subsequent projects. Again controversy surrounded these: the 1972 Gloucester Cathedral organ horrified as many organists as it thrilled while the 1983 instrument for St David's Hall in Cardiff (the largest British mechanical action organ in recent times), dogged as it was by faults in both design and construction, was widely considered to have been over-ambitious.
At the heart of all this controversy was a small, unassuming man whose disconcertingly self-effacing manner belied an iron determination. For a column I wrote in Musical Times, I regularly attended the weekly Wednesday evening recitals in the Festival Hall. Downes, who even after his retirement from the post of organ curator would attend every one, usually beckoned me from his favourite seat in the centre of the auditorium to join him. I was treated to a running commentary through each recital and was amazed that, while he knew the instrument better than anyone else, he could still be excited by new sounds visiting recitalists found on it. He was intolerant of poor performances, though, especially of his beloved Bach, and was trenchant in his stage-whispered asides.
Downes caught the organ bug as a young boy and by the age of 14 was deputy organist at All Saints Church, Derby (now the Cathedral). On leaving school he worked in a Nottingham cinema accompanying silent films until, in 1922, he went to study at the Royal College of Music (where his tutor, Sir Walter Alcock, called him 'gluttonous for work' - although Downes described himself as 'unteachable'). The following year he was appointed assistant organist of Southwark Cathedral. He went on to become organ scholar at Keble College, Oxford, leaving in 1928 to take up an appointment as organist at Princeton University. Whilst in America he converted to Roman Catholicism and on returning to Britain was appointed to the Brompton Oratory, one of the most important organist's posts in the Roman Catholic church. He remained there for over 40 years.
Downes wrote two small organ pieces, Jubilate Deo and Paraphrase of 'O filii et filiae', a book (Baroque Tricks: adventures with the organ builders, 1983) and countless articles mostly on organ design and the interpretation of Baroque music. He made recordings for the Pye, Vista and EMI labels, but the best memorials to his life's work are to be found in the many important organs, both large and small, in concert halls and churches throughout Britain.
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