Friday, March 4, 2016

The Swan (Part 3) My Two Prophets

III. My Two Prophets

...Here was an instrument which promised a maximum of sound with an apparent minimum of effort.

     After school I used to slip into church, turn on the main switches for light and power, unlock the organ loft with a big ornamental key, pull down the lever of the organ motor, and settle down on the highly polished organ bench and prop up my music for practice...

     At first, music was made with either feet or fingers but the day came when I was supposed to make both ends meet. To my distress this physical coordination demanded a mental division—two separate compartments of my brain were needed to guide hands and feet respectively. I further discovered that I was at least one pair of arms short for pulling stops.
Walter Kraft, Lottie's teacher,
an organist and composer who spent nearly 50 years
at the medieval church of St. Mary's in Lubeck, with the Totentanzorgel,
the famous organ used by Bach, which was destroyed in an air raid in 1942.
     During my lessons I was strictly limited to the more gentle stops but when I was on my own nobody could prevent me from pulling what stops I liked, and I made lavish use of my freedom. I had been warned that if I pulled out all stops together the vibrations would be so strong that the building would collapse. It didn't but I certainly shook its very foundations and made the windows rattle...

     My teacher encouraged me to accompany him to organ recitals which he occasionally gave in churches of the neighborhood. He said it was good practice for me. He also liked to have somebody about who could pull the stops for him. It gave me great pleasure and not a little comfort to think that even the master could have done with another set of arms.

St. Mary's

     One day he was giving a recital on a very old organ and before the audience (or congregation) arrived he introduced me to the various stops I would have to pull. 

     One of them was very stiff indeed and I had to pull with all my might before it yielded. It suddenly shot out and with it came a long, hairy, moth-eaten fox tail which slapped me in the face.

     I recoiled in horror — the teacher roared with laughter. I was told later that this joke of the 17th-century organ builder must have been practiced on a long line of young and innocent apprentices, invariably with the same success.

St. Mary's in ruins 
     The bellows of most church organs are now worked by an electric motor but I have met quite a few which were still depending on the human touch in that either somebody had to turn the handle or pump passionately with one foot or two people worked more leisurely a sort of huge treadmill, like two disillusioned squirrels. I remember one beautiful and very aged organ which was much too delicate to have taken kindly to electricity. The loft was lit by candles. Two old men from the nearby almshouse were working the treadmill. 
Medieval organ bellows, the "treadmill"
     It was fascinating to watch them rise and fall slowly and in turns behind a carved wooden partition. Now one bald head and flowing white beard would appear - then the other. They looked to me like the statues of Old Testament prophets who had descended from their church pillars to do a spot of blowing for me. 

     Animated by the the unusual setting, I put all my heart and soul into playing, only to find at the most impressive part of my recital that we were running out of air. The bellows began to sigh, the music became thin and wheezy and then stopped altogether. My two prophets were exactly level with each other, accompanied by much shaking of fists and quite oblivious of their duties and surroundings...

London, 1975

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