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Christ Church Cathedral in 25 Objects: The Organ Case

Written by Sarah Hope, posted on Tuesday, August 25, 2020

They say never judge a book by its cover. It might be wise to say never judge an organ by its case. And yet, of course, I do.

In January 2020 we in the Cathedral Office gleefully followed the World Cup of Cathedral Organ Cases on Twitter, willing on Christ Church for the win. Sadly, Christ Church didn’t make it out of the group stages, but the victor was never in doubt. Rochester Cathedral organ case is a thing of unusual beauty. Look closely, and the intricate paintwork means you’ll be there a long time (although it’s hard to see any of it from the floor!) The golden lustre peeking through the stars and geometric pattern, means you don’t need to look long to be dazzled. Combine this with its height and imposing wings, and you’d think you were cowering at the gates of another world. And maybe you are.

Likewise, the organ case at Harris Manchester College in Oxford is worth a look. It sits at one side of the chapel, encasing a fan of pipes, which are painted with Arts and Crafts foliage and organic motifs, in soft, pastel colours. Modest? Yes. Different? Yes. Lovely? Unequivocally, yes.

So, on that basis, imposing and ornate cases, like book covers, will always win the day?
Well, I’m not sure that they do, or should.

View of the Organ CaseThe Rieger organ case at Christ Church Cathedral sits confidently and calmly at the West End, nestled above the congregation, the processions and clergy, surveying all that happens. Unlike Rochester, the Rieger case ensures the organ and its 3300 pipes do not overpower or distract from the building or worship. Rather they fit the space perfectly. From the front, the back, the side (if you can crane your neck round a pillar!) it sits in total and complete balance with its environment. Welsh writer Ken Follett once said, “proportion is the heart of beauty”. And that’s the Reiger’s secret. It’s not too tall, too wide, too modest, too plain, too ornate; it is not “too” anything. The two tiers of pipes connect the Nave with the roof, guiding the eye upward; the same direction in which worship travels. And atop it all, sits the Christ Church crest, rooted between the two sets of longest pipes. And yet this is not overpowering; it is discreetly present, not lording its position. There is space above and around the case to allow the music to flow, to swell and fill the Cathedral. The organ case does not impede or block the space, but rather inhabits and enhances it simply.  

The case was remodelled in 1979 and is based upon the Father Smith style (Bernard Schmidt 1630 -1708, from Halle, Germany), recycling and improving his original Christ Church organ case design, dating from 1685. It is wonderful that parts of this original case still exist; that they sit there in spirit (and literally) to cradle and uphold the music and worship as they have always has done. The dark wood casing is quite unfashionable these days, but the wood compliments the warm stone on either side and roof above. A sense of equilibrium permeates all the facets of the case. The silver pipes provide a pleasing contrast to the wooden surround and are grouped regularly and concisely. Thankfully, the pipes are simple and strong, not golden or ornately painted. This would have been gaudy and totally unnecessary. There is some intricate carving and fluting but it is held in tension between the clusters of the clean lines of pipes. (Dare I say balanced again) In line with true German engineering, Casper, Raimund, Christoph and ‘Father’ Glatter created a perfectly balanced case for the West End of Christ Church Cathedral. It is reassuringly and cleanly beautiful.

Some may say, surely organ cases are of little importance; it is the instrument itself that matters? Yes, an organ is mute without supremely talented musicians to write music for it and to play it. When played poorly, it is undoubtedly a strain upon the ear! But organ cases hint at the music and worship within. The exterior reflects the organ’s purpose and inner life: its theatre, its glory, its skill; indeed, a beautifully and thoughtfully designed organ appeals to the senses and is a physical reminder of the beauty and enjoyment within.

So, judge the organ at Christ Church by its case. It is a beauty.