MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 12, JUNE 2001  
Online Journal

THE CHAMBER ORGAN IN BRITAIN, 1600 - 1830
Michael I Wilson
Ashgate, 2001
ISBN: 07546 0175 7
£45.00

The first edition of The English Chamber Organ, published in 1968, was a well-conceived book that assessed the position of the organ as both a domestic musical instrument as well as a decorative icon throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With new scholarship and discoveries came a requirement for a revision and expansion of the original text, and, under the new title of The Chamber Organ in Britain, 1600 – 1830, Michael I Wilson has attempted to put these researches together in an interesting, albeit at times a somewhat inaccurate, volume. I say 'inaccurate', since, although we can acknowledge the quality of the information that makes up the second and third portions of the book, dealing with the design and construction of the organ and a compendium of extant chamber instruments both here and abroad, the first part, which attempts to place it within a musical and social context, contains a rather flimsy account that lacks much in terms of both information and intelligently-assessed speculation.

I am always sceptical of any book that uses a dictionary definition to set down its parameters, especially when, as here, it does little other than confuse the issue as to exactly what a chamber organ is. Is it, for example, an instrument of a particular size or with a particular format, or one that has a specific function? Most understand the term 'chamber organ' to mean an instrument that contains a single keyboard and a limited number of stops. However, if this were the case, then there would certainly be no cause to include instruments such as that at Adlington Hall in Cheshire, which is a sizeable, two- manual organ and is one that was probably much larger than many contemporary church instruments. We must therefore assume that the book is about domestic organs, a far cry from the title of the volume (and something which is only referred to on its dust jacket), in which case mention should have been made to the few, although important, references found in contemporary journals and periodicals to the organ's position within the middle class home.

I am also slightly at a loss to understand Wilson's interpretation of the musical scene in the seventeenth century. On page 18, he contends that "Whilst amateur music making may have flourished during the Commonwealth, professional musicians suffered poverty and hardship in large numbers…" There might be a grain of truth in this, since with the rise of Puritanism and the Commonwealth, both church and liveried musicians were dispossessed of an income. But this is only one half of the picture; indeed, things were perhaps never better for professional musicians in the main centres of population: immigrant musicians survived and flourished in London towards the end of the Interregnum and into the following years, a fact attested to in a number of important contemporary sources. For example, the Lübeck violinist Thomas Baltzar is reported by Anthony à Wood to have amazed London audiences with his performances as far back as 1659 and the gamba player Dietrich Stoeffken was resident in England both before and after the Restoration. Others followed suit. Perhaps Wilson's is an assumption that needs stating more clearly.

Although the succeeding chapters fare better, one nevertheless wonders whether primary sources, which in this instance should include examinations of both instruments and musical sources, or secondary material have been used. Take, for instance, Wilson's discussion of the organ during the Handel/Snetzler period. Although an interesting commentary, his assessment of Handel's organ part to Alexander's Feast (p. 35), for example, relies too much on such general literature as Hogwood (Handel, London, 1984) and not enough on either specialist articles and commentaries or, preferably, the testimony of the manuscript itself.

The second section, dealing with organ terminology and techniques of construction relevant to chamber organs, is well prepared and a welcome addition to the canon of books that deal with this subject matter. The final section of the book, however, a catalogue of important instruments, is both useful and descriptive, providing specifications of 196 instruments, their locations and, where possible, particulars of provenance. The tenor of the text suggests that most have been described without much firsthand knowledge of the instrument, and again this approach provokes criticism: when dealing with others' writings, one puts a trust in their opinion that is not necessarily conducive to consistency.

The four appendices need some rethinking: the first consists of a mere 200 words on chamber organs in Scotland, which is not detailed enough for a book that purports to deal with British instruments; the second is a rather odd page on Longman and Broderip, surely enough of a subject for a chapter to themselves; a page listing some seven recordings of chamber organs on compact disc, one of which is already deleted from the catalogue, will soon go out of date; and a gazetteer, which, in the case of the second list, would have been infinitely more useful were it to contain page references.

So, whilst aspects of The Chamber Organ in Britain, are useful, it does contain some serious and, unfortunately, amateurish flaws in terms of both scholarship and approach. I have to question Wilson's qualifications in respect of British music of this period since there are so many omissions or misinterpretations. If intended as resource material, then all aspects should be approached consistently and, although lists of instruments might appeal to organ aficionados, it still needs to go a long way before it lives up to Ashgate's reputation for high-quality scholastic achievement.


John Woodford  


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