Loud organs, his glory

Posted in Blog, Devon

It was reported in July that archaeologists at Exeter Cathedral had made some exciting new discoveries from their investigation in the Quire area of the 900-year-old building. Experts at the site said they were now certain they had uncovered the foundations of the cathedral’s original high altar, which would have featured in the original build of the cathedral in the early 12th century. As someone who was born in grew up in Exeter I am proud of our cathedral. After dedicating a new high altar in 1328, Bishop Grandisson (1327-1369) wrote to the Pope and told him that the cathedral was ‘destined to exceed in glory all other churches of its class in England and France’.  The West Front, with its images which were added to the building during the hundred years from 1340, is surpassed only by Wells Cathedral in scale.

Go inside and you are looking at the longest Gothic ceiling in the world, uninterrupted by a central tower. As you stand in the nave and look east, the organ with its glorious case occupies a dominant position. In common with other cathedrals, there was a tradition from the Middle Ages of placing the organ on the Quire screen. Not everyone likes this, and many organs have been removed from that lofty setting. Some visitors to the cathedral are offended  by the position of the organ and complain that it interrupts the view of the East Window. Others feel that it is in the right position serving both the Quire and the nave with its magnificent sound as well as providing a sense of mystery by partially hiding the beauty of the Quire and the High Altar beyond. John Betjeman’s daughters used to complain that whenever he drove them from London to his home at Trebetherick in Cornwall, he always insisted in stopping in Exeter to wander around the cathedral which he loved. He expressed his view in a characteristically memorable sentence: ‘The screen organ case stops the building from becoming a long vaulted tunnel’.

An organ is mentioned in the Authorised Version of the Bible as early as Genesis 4:21 where it tells us that Jubal was ‘the father of all such as handle the harp and organ’, and later in Psalm 150:4 ‘praise him with stringed instruments and organs’. I don’t think the organs referred to in Genesis and the Psalms looked much like the organ in Exeter cathedral. The NIV translates the Hebrew words as ‘stringed instruments and pipes’. Sir Henry Williams Baker (1821-77) must have had the Authorised Version in mind when he wrote the third verse of his hymn ‘O praise ye the Lord’:

O praise ye the Lord,

All things that give sound;

Each jubilant chord,

Re-echo around;

Loud organs, his glory

Forth tell in deep tone,

And sweet harp, the story

Of what he hath done.

Sir Henry had no difficulty in having his hymn included in the 1875 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern since he was the chief editor of the book. The fourth verse of his hymn echoes the General Thanksgiving: ‘We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory’.