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Written and researched by Gordon D.W. Curtis, a retired microbiologist, this book is the tenth in a series under the collective heading of Music in Nineteenth Century Britain, edited by Bennett Zon. Its subject, William Sweetland, is acknowledged by the author as being relatively little-known. His output of around 300 organs, including rebuilds, spanned almost 60 years of working life from the 1840s to the turn of the century, and was concentrated almost entirely in the west country and south Wales. It is easily possible to have spent over 50 years in and around organ building, as has your reviewer, and never knowingly to have encountered a Sweetland instrument.

Whether that makes him a more worthy or more puzzling choice as the representative of 19th-century organ building in this series of essays is debatable. Others, in the north and in East Anglia, built both a greater following and a more impressive catalogue of work, and it is hard to fathom the author’s opening comments that ‘the only provincial firms to obtain enduring national reputations were Nicholson and Harrison & Harrison’. That said, the value of researching and recording in print the work of those less widely known is considerable and has been approached very seriously here, accompanied by extensive footnotes, and charts embracing genealogy, stoplist design and pipe scaling. Much work has been done, and one gets the impression that little that was found has been omitted, though many snippets of diverse information risk being lost in some inordinately long paragraphs.

Almost half of the book consists of a gazetteer of Sweetland’s output, augmented by information on his casework, constructional style, and inventions. Subsidiary chapters include an overview of other organ builders active in and around Bath prior to, and during, his life. Less directly relevant to Sweetland, but perhaps helpful to the more general readership of a series of books such as this, is a summary of the recital repertoire of the period, and the way in which typical programmes were compiled.

Less satisfying to innocents curious about Sweetland himself is the fairly thin picture we get of influences upon his work, or of him simply as a person, though an account of his womanising, and a minor scandal that ensued, brings welcome light relief from the lists of census returns and other statistics. Printing the photographs among the text, on the same matt paper, is disappointing in a book this costly; but if your interest is in studying all that can be unearthed about an elusive organ builder, this is definitely for you.

IAN BELL Read the full review on Agora Classica


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