Whistles in the Wind

by Graham Dukes


Some day, somewhere, someone with an analytical turn of mind is going to produce a truly penetrating study on the Fascination of Organs. When that day comes, there may at last be a way to define and characterise the organ addict.

Addict? I can find no other term. Dr. Peter Williams, in the "Organ Yearbook", has groped for one (organ-lover, organ-fan, organ-devotee . . .) and confessed his failure. But addicts of course we are, defying draughts and bats and rheumatism and marital disapproval to attain the objects of our veneration.

Now any herd of addicts, irrespective of what they may be addicted to, tend to have certain secondary traits in common. Do organ addicts? Not at first sight; there are old ones and young ones, left wing and right wing, romantic and baroque; they do not tend to chew (or eschew) shag, nor do they exhibit any evident leaning towards keeping harems or catching butterflies. Yet perhaps I do have a clue to offer. Organ addicts, it would seem, are particularly prone to develop a certain weakness for trains, and more especially for steam engines. Conversely, among the ranks of the railway enthusiasts, there are apparently as many who confess to a hankering after organs.

It is difficult to recall how this curious fact first dawned upon me. It may have been on an excursion into the steamy Cambrian world of the Tal-y-llyn Railway, when the conversation in the compartment drifted from engines to organs and back again as if it was the most natural thing in the world and as if the train were being pulled to Abergynolwyn by an old organ. Thereafter, there was the odd way that railway trains kept straying into the columns of the musical journals, where they had no place to be. When the Organ Club went to Norwich some years ago, their enthusiastic encounter with the "Flying Scotsman" at Norwich station was dutifully recorded in these columns, the secretary properly observing that organs and trains went together.'

Again, there was that organ excursion to Southern Germany. when the itinerary included several side-steps to curious railways. And, finally, my own chance discovery that an acquaintance who spent his Sundays at the manuals was now devoting his Saturdays to coaxing an Edwardian steam-tram across the Dutch countryside. Why all this should be so, and what light it throws on organ addiction, I do not quite know. but I am assiduously collating my hypotheses. The most evident of them is that the organ and the steam engine are surely two of the most alive of all the machines devised by man. They breathe. visibly and audibly. panting steam or wind as the case may be. With Bottom the Weaver, they can roar as gently as any sucking dove. They heave and sigh as they come into motion; they creak, leak and groan as old age comes upon them; all this they do with great commotion and greater emotion.

They are not so much overpoweringly beautiful as beautifully overpowering, yet in essence they are quite simple machines; people who recoil from the intricacies of electronics or internal combustion will tell you how they work (or why they do not). Indeed, much that needs to be said about either can be condensed into a brief formula of figures, dates and names; “ tracker action Snetzler 1761" is a miniature portrayal of a work of art; so. for many people, is 2-4-0 saddle tank Hunslet 1893". Both formulae induce transports of delight in the initiated: both recall an age when these were some of the finest things mechanical built by men.

Such simple, antediluvian machines, boldly exploiting the elements of wind, fire and water, can, it seems. appeal to the emotions of a certain part of the human race. The organ and the steam engine are our prime examples in this analysis, but much the same can be said of the windmill and the windjammer, both of which enjoy a following of wide-eyed preservationists.

Yet the organ and the steam engine have at times had much more substantial links than those in the eye of the beholder. There was once a brief, glorious epoch during which church organs were equipped with steam engines to blow them; one coaled them up well before morning communion, and then they puffed and sizzled happily for all of Sunday, occasionally blowing off steam during the sermon, consuming vast quantities of water and steam coal until they were quenched by the verger after evensong. For a much longer period there were steam organs on every fairground. George Irvin & Sons, the roundabout people, still have a fine specimen with an 89- key Marenghi organ, and the Fairground Organ Preservation Society ensures that others find their way to traction engine rallies across the countryside. For a continental treat, travellers through Southern Holland pause at the Efteling pleasure gardens near Kaatsheuvel, where a true Belgian steam carrousel has been preserved in working order, down to the last horse-tail, coal bucket and bourdon celeste.

There is one group of individuals who are almost notorious for their double addiction to both steam and wind: I refer to the clergy. It is not surprising to find parsons chasing organs. but it is a little disconcerting to find so many of them chasing - and catching - steam engines. The scriptwriter who put a bishop and a vicar onto the footplate of the legendary “Titfield Thunderbolt” had prepared his ground well: for, from Bishop Eric Treacy who is President of the Worth Valley Railway to the Rev. Teddy Boston who has a railway in his garden, railway preservation (like organ adulation) is saturated with Holy Orders.

Clergymen apart, the followers of steam and wind regularly demonstrate their common mentality. Both groups cherish their dogmas. their competing schools of design and their obstinate national traditions. A certain Mr. Roberts who is currently taking the Festiniog Railway to task for importing an American locomotive ("an eyesore in the Welsh hills”) expresses himself in just the same terms as the gentlemen who became so irate when the Flentrop arrived from Holland in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And right they all are, for British is best, at least for many of the British.

No less characteristic and curious is the fact that the organ and the engine are revered by their connoisseurs as objects in themselves, and not simply as means to an end. Set three organ enthusiasts in a cell and they will very probably argue not about cadences in Buxtehude but about wind pressures, cone tuning and the scaling of diapasons. Your three railway men, under the same conditions. will be found to debate on superheating, coupling rods and the Giesl ejector; the fact that trains fitted with these devices are actually intended to take people to great and wonderful places is a matter to which they appear largely indifferent.

All the same, it is difficult to define the true nature of the emotions experienced by either group. If these contraptions evoked deep stirrings of the mind and thereby truly poetic feelings they would surely have inspired better verse than Pope's doggerel about solemn organs and better songs than the Lost Chord. Yet it is of itself striking that the steam train should have inspired so much music at all, ranging from the juke box success of the “Acheson, Topeka and Santa Fe” to the Philharmonic pretensions of “Coronation Scot". Who, after all, ever heard of a musical ode to a combine harvester? And what other machine has ever qualified for such an honour as the issue of stereo records made in shunting yards and on the Lickey incline?

Nor are the emotions, once evoked, always positive. A lot of people who do not actually love organs appear to loathe them, and the same applies to steam trains; very few of us have a soul so dead as to be entirely unmoved by objects of such character. They are strong. bold and patient. They endure endless coats of ill- applied paint and suffer rebuilds with fortitude. waiting philosophically for the day of restoration. They go on for ever and ever, or, at least, for much longer than the mere mortals who command and serve them. And if they do die or disintegrate, their relics are lovingly preserved. When the Royal College of Organists auctioned off the last loose vestiges of its old organ, people actually came forward and bought all those keys and stop knobs. I cherish a suspicion that at least some of them are now decorating the same mantelpieces as the nameplates and chimewhistles (mixtures?) of the engines of yesteryear, which are hawked around from month to month in the Railway Magazine.

Maybe their owners, and we with them, are in fact seeking to relive in their addiction the wonders of childhood, when the very spirit of a family Sunday was the organ thundering out Onward, Christian Soldiers, and when summer holidays meant careering thrillingly down to Minehead in clouds of steam. Such sentimentality we shall of course indignantly deny, but then we must find some other explanation for the fact that these creatures of steam and wind can bring a lump into the throat and a glint into the eye in a way that the brainchildren of Mr. Hammond and Dr. Diesel do not. Organs and engines, we tell ourselves solemnly, are fine and stately things, set about with craftsmanship and art. If, however. we are a little more honest with ourselves we should then add that these things can also be deliciously absurd. crowned as they are with brass domes or fat cherubins: but because the absurdity is so delicious, we polish the former gild the latter, and then tell ourselves that organs engines are not absurd at all. Yet they are — if only, as a physicist will tell you, because they are in analysis grossly inefficient at turning electricity into sound or coal into motion as the case may be. Indeed, the twentieth century has yet to produce anything so mechanically hopeless as to compare with them, unless it be that rattling conundrum, the helicopter, which expends most of its energy at staying in the air at all; that at least provides our grandchildren with something delicious to venerate and preserve in the twenty-first century.

Perhaps, when that day comes, someone, somewhere, with an analytical turn of mind, will produce a truly penetrating study on the Fascination of Old Helicopters. Let him not labour too mightily. For many of the clues which he needs are already close at hand; some certainly. in the treatises which have been devoted to the fascination of Railways; others, perhaps, in these pages. And the rest, we may hope, will still be whistling in the wind, just as we have left them.

From: Musical Opinion, London, December 1971, p. 146