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There have been precious few landmark publications on the British organ, its construction, use, patronage and builders, but noteworthy was Nicholas Thistlethwaite’s The making of the Victorian organ, first published in 1990. It re-established the 19th-century English organ builder, William Hill, in the position he deserved, in turn demoting the hagiographic writings on Father Willis to their proper place and providing a secure framework for other researchers to fill some of the gaps, especially of those builders who worked outside the metropolis. Meanwhile, over the last 30 years Dr Thistlethwaite has been hard at work on a fine history of the successor firms of the Gray family and Gray & Davison (G&D). While the page count is much the same, the word count must be considerably higher, with dense text interspersed by many good illustrations and photographs.

The author was instrumental in ensuring the restoration of one of the firm’s great survivals, the instrument now standing in St Anne, Limehouse (formerly in the 1851 Great Exhibition). Here, by focusing on one dynasty and its successor business, he expands the timespan, while narrowing the focus. This is not a technical description of the firm’s wide, varied and often novel output, but it draws on the voluminous documentation that remained when G&D closed in 1970. This survived due to the foresight of the late Michael Gillingham, who purchased the records, thus ensuring an all too rare opportunity for an industrious historian to demonstrate how such an instrument-making firm worked, including information on those who laboured at the bench, voicing machine and on-site installation. The documents now rest in the Cadbury Research Library, home of the British Organ Archive and, with Hill’s shop, volumes were at the heart of the creation of the British Institute of Organ Studies (BIOS). I, for one, am touched that the book is dedicated to its officers and members.

Appreciating the volume’s structure requires concentration. It divides the work of the two eponymous periods, sets out the cultural and musical context of the times and provides rich biographical background, followed by a detailed examination of the output of the firm and its customers. Given the 118 years of the firms’ lives these two chapters are substantial. The book pivots on an introduction to Frederick Davison himself, the ‘German system’ which he did so much to develop, with much on his relationships with Henry Gauntlett, William Hill, the Wesleys and his ownership of the Musical World.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of this masterly book will be to deter future ‘improvers’ from tampering with the surviving instruments of these great organ builders. It does appear that validation in print can add significantly to their salvation. As if the industry of the book were not enough, it is accompanied by an ‘Online supplement’ of work lists and detailed supporting documentation. In its own right this deserves praise for the perseverance that led to its production and the clarity of the results, setting the standard for future projects.

JAMES BERROW Read the full review on Agora Classica


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