September 20, 2007
Stephen Bicknell was an organ builder who helped to create many of the most distinctive and imaginative instruments constructed during the latter years of the 20th century. He was not a musician, let alone a professional organist; nevertheless, as a writer, historian and designer his name became a byword for artistic excellence.
For Bicknell this search for excellence was the same as for his great hero, Albert Schweitzer, who once wrote: “The struggle for the good organ is to me a part of the struggle for the truth.”
Stephen Bicknell was born in London in 1957. He was educated at Winchester College and St Chad’s, Durham, and in 1979 he returned to the capital to begin an apprenticeship at the distinguished firm of organ builders, N. P. Mander. For three years, from 1987, he worked for J. W. Walker and Sons before, in 1990, returning to Manders as head designer.
It was while working for J. W. Walker and Sons that Bicknell first captured everyone’s attention with a series of notable and eclectic designs. Particularly fine was the one-manual chamber organ built for the quire of Carlisle Cathedral. While 17th-century influences abound throughout, they are particularly apparent in the casework design, where he executed the visual conceit of receding perspectives in a masterly fashion. Equally stylish was the 1988 instrument built for the chapel of Oriel College, Oxford.
Having initially restored the 18th-century casework, originally inherited from St Mary Abbot’s, Kensington, Bicknell then successfully united it with a new instrument. This, though modern in design, was scaled and voiced to pay homage to the past, a fitting complement to the historical elegance of its surroundings.
In 1992 Bicknell added to his achievements the four-manual, mechanical-action instrument built for the Church of St Ignatius Loyola, New York. With an ample yet carefully designed specification paying particular homage to Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, the great 19th-century French organ-builder, the organ was more than capable of uniting classical elements with later French and English colours. Preparing the final working drawings for the colourful facade, in this instance, he also took charge of the detailed technical design. The finished project, sumptuous in every detail, was acclaimed as one of the finest pipe organs in North America.
Back in England Bicknell faced the equally daunting challenge of restoring, rebuilding and realigning the organ in the chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Bicknell once again headed the detailed technical design team, initially charged with updating a much-loved English romantic organ into a versatile instrument for the 1990s. However, on its being dismantled in 1993, so much pipe work was found to be damaged that a complete rebuild was required. The resulting instrument was not without its critics, but it provided exactly what the college authorities required: a 64-stop quasi-liturgical instrument that offered a wealth of colourful registration and could, when required, thoroughly explore the rich and varied solo repertoire.
Less controversial were the two organs commissioned by Chelmsford Cathedral, where the nave instrument sits somewhat awkwardly in a confined gallery beneath the west tower. Bicknell, now responsible for the lay-out and casework design, required all his technical ingenuity to create a visually stunning instrument, voiced with a crispness and clarity that immediately enhanced both the liturgical and cultural life of the cathedral.
No one was more delighted than the Master of the Music, then Dr Graham Elliott, who said: “Every possible tribute should be extended to Stephen Bicknell, of Manders, for the special case design which adds such distinction to the west end of the nave.
“It says volumes for his skill that the case, which looks so grand, is in fact quite small. The organ fulfils every challenge placed before Manders when the contract was awarded. They were asked to produce one of those special English organs which, though not large in size, seems to have an infinite variety of tone qualities and where every stop and every pipe has its special place in the whole.”
Since taking his leave of Manders in the mid1990s, Bicknell pursued a diverse freelance career. A lecturer in organ history at the Royal Academy of Music, his undoubted scholastic credentials found a ready outlet as a keynote speaker at conferences world-wide. An early member of the British Institute of Organ Studies, he served on its council, was membership secretary and editor of both its quarterly newsletter and annual journal.
His published writings were precise, economical and authoritative. In 1996 he distilled his extensive knowledge and experience into what has become a standard text, The History of the English Organ, published by Cambridge University Press. In 1998 the American Musical Instrument Society awarded it their Nicholas Bessaroff prize, awarded every two years. In addition, Bicknell also made many significant contributions to specialist periodicals as well as the Cambridge Companion to the Organ and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Particularly poignant was one of his last extended essays, a very personal retrospective of 20th-century landmarks in organology, published by the Incorporated Association of Organists.
While still in regular demand as a consultant and designer, Bicknell was never able to recapture the heady success he had enjoyed in the 1990s. As many of his more distinctive concepts remained on the drawing board, he grew ever more dissatisfied. Two years ago he abandoned the isolation of the organ loft for office life, becoming an administrator with the Association of Accounting Technicians. He had been suffering from depression for some time when he was found dead at home.
In an increasingly industrialised and commercial world, Stephen Bicknell stood out as a purposeful and dedicated artisan. As the modest but committed guardian of a great English tradition, he successfully bestrode the often narrow confines of his art with ease. His memory will be honoured not only for what he achieved but, most importantly, for what he was – a most delightful human being.
He is survived by John Vanner, with whom he entered a civil partnership in 2006.
Stephen Bicknell, organ designer, writer, historian and lecturer, was born on December 20, 1957. He died on August 18, 2007, aged 49.