Scholars bellow at Oxford's plan for digital organ

David Lister@davidlister1
Thursday 24 September 2015 08:47

With their pipes fuming and bellows roaring, one of the academic world's most peaceful communities has been provoked to fury.

The organ scholars of Oxford University have united to write a petition of protest over the university's decision to install a digital electronic organ in the Sheldonian Theatre.

In an attempt to ease their worries, a university spokeswoman said yesterday: "It won't be coming out of the middle of the floor with lights flashing. It's a state of the art digital organ." But the fears have not been assuaged.

The decision to put the organ into the 17th-century building, which is used for degree and convocation ceremonies, was taken by the Hebdomadal Council, the university's ruling body, because the existing 19th-century organ needed replacing.

But the thought of an electronic organ in a building that was Christopher Wren's first design and was built on classical lines, modelled on a Roman amphitheatre, has horrified scholars.

Paul Plummer, an organ scholar from New College, protested yesterday: "When world-renowned pianists choose to perform on electronic pianos, that would be the time for us to review our case. Until that day, we urge Council to reconsider its decision."

Mr Plummer has organised a protest signed by 20 Oxford college organ scholars.

The university's spokeswoman said an anonymous donor had contributed £40,000 for the new organ, and a traditional pipe organ would cost £250,000. She added that Oxford had a number of world class organs in the colleges and it would be interesting for students to play on a digital, electronic model.

The speakers for the organ, she said, would be hidden behind the existing organ pipes, so that the look would remain unchanged.

This failed to convince Mr Plummer, who retorted: "This ceremonial building, matchless in its architectural distinction, provides an opportunity for equal distinction in the musical sphere: to commission, at the turn of this century and millennium, a pipe organ of a design that reflects the finest traditions and disciplines in the construction of musical instruments.

"One such discipline is to match sound with sight. The notion that the loudspeakers of a new electronic organ should be concealed behind the pipe facade of the existing organ case is particularly deplorable. If an electronic organ's sound is produced through loudspeakers, then those loudspeakers should be visible. If the Sheldonian authorities are reluctant to display them, then this is reason enough to reject the concept of an electronic organ."

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