Lancaster Priory a history of the organs
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Lancaster Priory a history of the organs

This book stands out among parish organ histories as it convincingly tells two stories. One is the story of the organs in the priory church, the second is the story of the relationship of the parish with the organ. The honest and practical way in which the second theme is developed make this book an effective guide to how to make an organ project a success – or not.

The history of the organs of Lancaster Priory may well go back to the time when it was a Benedictine Abbey, from 1094 to 1346. No evidence of an organ from this period has survived, and it is not until the Gerard Smith organ of 1729 that there is a clearer record of the organ. However, despite the survival of Smith's contract many facts remain unclear, and Sumner explores how the result and what was contracted may have differed. A dispute over payment for this organ lasted over 34 years and never seems to have been resolved, leaving the impression that the organ was never satisfactorily completed.

Satisfactory or not, the organ remain in use in its position on the west gallery until it was rebuilt by Thomas Hill in 1873, when it was moved to a new location at the east of nave, to the north of the choir stalls, in a new case by Paley and Austin. Once again the organ as delivered did not appear to live up to the promises of the contract. Its relocation to the east of the church had provoked considerable local opposition. Within the church the matter was dealt with exclusively by a committee that excluded the parish from discussions over the organ. This may not have been intentional, but it caused problems, provoked vocal local opposition and frustrated attempts at fundraising. No faculty was sought before work was commissioned – once again removing an opportunity for the parish voice to be heard.

Some of the opposition to the scheme to move the organ to the east end was well informed. In 1871 The Revd Henry Greeves advocated that two organs were necessary, one in the chancel, the other in the gallery. Electric action could be used to control both organs from one console in the chancel. This solution, rejected in 1871,was adopted in the 2012 organ.

The relationship of the parish with its organ and the impact of changes in the use of the church is also illustrated. The impact was greatest in 1982 when the fully-working Harrison & Harrison organ gave way to an electronic instrument to allow provision of much-needed vestry space and a refectory.

The organ, in common with many other church furnishings, is bound into the life of the parish. Good relationships in the parish and adequate consultation with well-informed advisers are vital to achieve a good outcome in every major project.

At Lancaster the Willis-Harrison-Wells organ of 2012 has achieved a good outcome. It has all the resources needed for the rich musical tradition of this civic church with a strong choral tradition, and allows for the ongoing wider ministry of the church on a daily basis by not encroaching into the hospitality facilities that were the reason for the arrival of the electronic instrument.

David S Knight

Sumner, Gerald, Lancaster Priory: a history of the organs, Lancaster Priory in association with Seaforth Books, Lancaster (2013). Vii+83. £5.00 (available from Lancaster Priory)