Shimer College

March 17, 2013

Keble College Chapel and Organ

I’ll admit… I am not a particular fan of organ music, so my knee-jerk reaction to Stuart Patterson’s offer of a tour of reputedly the finest organ in Oxford – was initially negative.

I think what hooked me was the idea of touring a organ. I must confess a downright embarrassing lack of knowledge about organs, so the possibility of “going inside one”, as Stuart promised was just too much to pass up. Can one go–not just look– inside of a guitar, a piano, a clarinet?

The Keble College chapel housing this mysterious walk-in organ was gorgeous. I have slipped into many of the chapels here in Oxford for evensong and such and the history and weight of the centuries sits on their honey-colored-stone bones with a solemnity fit for kings. The chapel at Keble, built of brick, is lighter airier; mosaics depicting stories from the Bible brighten the walls, but the show-stopper, for me at least, were the organ pipes themselves. Like none I have ever seen, their chocolate color and whimsical patterns added an almost childish fun to the nave, not something one expects to encounter in a church–not purposefully anyway. I’m not sure if that was the intent of the designer (this is a very new organ, only built and installed in the last few years) but, like the mosaics, it worked to lighten the space.

One could imagine worshipping a God in love with creativity here.

imageAfter climbing a very narrow stone corkscrew of a staircase, we were lead to the organ loft. The very nice man giving us the tour, whose name I have forgotten*, sat at the four-tier keyboard and showed us the basics of how a pipe organ works. This is where knowing nothing, nada, zilch is sometimes freeing. Because I knew nothing, everything was a wonder. “Why he plays another (fifth), larger keyboard with his feet!” – and every two rows of pulley-stops corresponds to a strata of keyboard. With his right foot he opened and closed a flue (this is most certainly not the correct term, but after he explained its function that’s the image that stuck–”flue”) which alters the amount of air pushing through the pipe, creating depth in tone.

He began by demonstrating the different effects each pipe brings to a particular note. Then he started adding layers of sound by pulling out more stops thus driving the air through more than one pipe at a time. The effect was like swimming in chocolate in minute and sprinting over a meadow of flowers the next, truly mesmerizing. If it was this much fun to listen to, imagine the thrill of playing with such an instrument.

*[Our tour leader was the very generous and talented Simon Whalley, Fellow and Director of Music at Keble who is also a composer.]

imageFor the grand finale he unlocked a door leading into a small room directly behind the organ’s keyboards. This room was indeed the organ’s guts. We weren’t allowed to walk in, but peering through and around the door many more pipes than were visible from the sanctuary–wooden pipes, pipes that looked like they were made out of sheet metal, round pipes, square pipes–lined one wall, while the opposite wall and floor were covered with wires and pulleys. There was a narrow wooden catwalk through the center of the crowded room with a ladder at the further end leading up to a second tier of pipes and controls. (For all I know there may have been more levels beyond that, but I’ll stick with what I saw.)

I walked away from the afternoon with perhaps only a cupful of knowledge about organs, but every time I hear one now at evensong or such, I will sip that cup with delight.

Thank you Keble College, and thank you, [Professor] Stuart [Patterson].


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