We all think we know something about the history of the organ in England - after all, there are plenty of books about this. The only problem is that all these books are written from a 'north side of the Channel' view. But you only have to go across the water, take a look at what has gone on there, and then your perspective changes radically. From over there, the history of the organ in England looks very different, rather picaresque and definitely more amusing. Over the next 20 episodes, all very short and written originally for audiences in France and Spain and using the latest scholarship (some of it my own - you'll have to work out which), let us take a look at more than 2000 years over the next few days. Hold on tight - here we go ...
1. The Romans almost certainly introduced organs to Britain, to be used in the amphitheatres of the major cities. So, while the gladiators fought and the chariots raced, several bellows-slaves sweated while two or more players manipulated key-sliders in an organ whose high-pressure wind sounded a multitude of copper pipes. This organ was described by Vitruvius in the 10th century, but Audenís poetic description (c1942) in his Ode to St Cecilia, who was allegedly martyred to the sound of an organ and became consequently the perhaps rather unwilling patroness of musicians, captures the essence :
And by oceanís margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.
However, the organ perhaps known to Cecilia and since associated with her had no ecclesiastical connections whatever until long after the Western church became the official Roman religion.
(c) Martin Renshaw