Resonating with history

From 1687, St. Mary’s Church at Fort St. George has installed and replaced four Pipe Organs, the current one is the fifth

July 27, 2017 02:35 pm | Updated 02:36 pm IST

The pipe organ at St. Mary's church, Fort St. George

The pipe organ at St. Mary's church, Fort St. George

Visitors to the Church of St. Mary’s, Fort St George, cannot miss the gigantic pipe organ that stands in an alcove to the left as you face the altar. At one time it was housed in the beautiful minstrel’s gallery at the other end, but when that became the Governor’s pew the organ moved to where it is now. If St. Mary’s Church is historic, its organ is no less, deserving more attention than it now gets.

The present one is the fifth in a long line of pipe organs that graced the Church. The first was within the first 10 years of the construction of the edifice, and was purchased from a Capt. Weldten. Installed in 1687, it served St. Mary’s till 1718. That year, a new organ was ordered from England and it was delivered complete with an organist – John Smith Windsor, who died in Madras in 1735.

When the French attacked and conquered Madras in 1746, among the spoils they took back to Pondicherry was the pipe organ. There was much indignation when the English returned in 1749 and among the first decisions was to order a new organ from England. This was done in 1751, at a cost of £ 300. The supplier, a Mr Bridges took his time and it was only in 1759 that the new ensemble arrived and was installed.

Illustrious performers

The organ that Mr Bridges supplied to St. Mary’s in 1759 lasted a century. It is in connection with it that we have an account of a concert of sacred music in Madras in 1794. Selections from the Messiah, Judas Maccabeus and Esther were rendered. The performers constituted a veritable who’s who of Madras, including the Governor’s wife. There were singers, performers on violins, violoncello, clarinets, bassoons, horns and drums, with the organ also being used.

One of the performers was a Mr. Haydn, though whether he was in any way related to the great composer Joseph Haydn is not known. In the audience were the two sons of Tipu Sultan, then being held hostage in Madras pending war reparations.

The organ that assisted in the above performance had to be replaced in 1859, the new one courtesy the munificence of Sir Adam Hay, Bart. It had belonged to his son Capt. John, who was Military Secretary to Lord Harris, Governor of Madras and had died while here. The organ was, therefore, donated to the church in his memory. It lasted till the 1890s, when the present one was ordered and installed in the church.

That came about thanks to an appeal made by the Rev. A.C. Taylor in 1893 and was delivered in 1894, when his successor, the Rev. C.H. Malden installed and consecrated it. Malden, incidentally, was an indefatigable writer and among his works is a comprehensive account of the history of Freemasonry in Madras.

The fourth organ, which was removed to make way for the new one, was however not discarded. It was donated to the Holy Emmanuel Church in George Town and later, during the Second World War, when imports were impossible, parts of it were cannibalised and used for repairing the organ at the St. Mark’s Church on Chapel Church Street, George Town. It is noteworthy that the latter church now no longer has an organ. It was perhaps removed during its renovation in 2005.

The organ in St. Mary’s Church has proved luckier. It was not played after the 1960s and would have gone the way of pipe organs in other churches were it not for the Church of South India commissioning Christopher Gray, an organ-builder from the UK to restore it, in 2004. That took a year and when complete, the pipes pealed again in a special recital by Dr. Richard Marlow, Fellow and immediate past Master of the Trinity College of Music, Cambridge University.

However, the organ has fallen silent once again, which is a pity. More and more churches are making do with the electronic keyboard. The skill to operate a pipe organ is also non-existent in India. Perhaps it is time for someone to train on it abroad and come back to find a ready market. Who knows, just as physical media for music is now making a return after having been beaten by digital music, pipe organs too may get a new lease of life. Their tonal quality can never be matched.

The author is passionate about Chennai History and Carnatic music and has several books to his credit

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