DAY CONFERENCE AT THE
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES
CARDIFF, 16 MAY 1998
Twenty-five people attended a meeting at the National Museum of Wales, to hear the organ which Sir Watkin Williams Wynn had made for the Music Room of his London house at 20 St James's Square. Sir Watkin was a Handel lover, and one of the originators and organisers of the Handel Commemoration Concert at Westminster Abbey in 1784, an event which marked Handel's place in the affections of this country.
Oliver Fairclough, assistant keeper in the Art department at the National Museums and Galleries of Wales in Cardiff (Applied Art) was directly responsible for the Museum's purchase of the organ and its installation in Gallery 4. Since its installation in October 1996 it has been used regularly for concerts.
The organ was made by Snetzler in 1774, with a spectacular case designed by Robert Adam. In 1864, after a rebuilding of the Williams Wynn country seat at Wynnstay near Wrexham, the organ was moved there, rebuilt by Gray & Davison, and installed in a gallery at one end of the great hall. After World War II, the house was taken over by Lindisfarne College, a boys' public school; when the school went bankrupt in 1994, the organ was put up for sale by Phillips in an auction devoted to the organ alone. It raised £274,000, and fortunately for it, was bought by the Museum of Wales, for other bidders might well have dispensed with the organ.
Oliver Fairclough started the day by talking about Sir Watkin, his inherited wealth, his patronage of the arts, theatre, music and Welsh culture, his Grand Tour with its numerous purchases, and his building schemes. The impression was of a typical cultured gentleman of the day, travelling Europe with his companions, and patronising the arts on his return, only in Sir Watkin's case, the extent of his disposable income meant that most of his schemes were realised and his interests and passions satisfied. The house at 20 St james's Square survives, but the collections have been dispersed. Fortunately, much survives to be enjoyed in Gallery 4 at Cardiff, including the organ and its case, which has been restored to give a good impression of the visual and the musical sides of Sir Watkin's patronage.
The appearance of the organs more or less unchanged, though some of the paint is mid-19th century. The instrument is now a good example of a rebuild by Gray & Davison. Dominic Gwynn introduced the history of the organ, with the aim of reconstructing the character of the original organ. Although the key and stop actions, and the wind system are all from 1864, the surviving pipes and Snetzler's Great chest tell us a lot about the 1774 organ. Most of the great principal chorus, the stopped 8' and 4', and a rank from the Swell survive. Green did unspecified but well-paid work in 1783, including the provision of the Swell Stop Diapason and the replacement of the trebles of the Open diapason, the Principal and the Great mixture. Unfortunately the mixtures were re-cast in 1864, so that the impression of Snetzler's full organ has been lost, but the voicing of the flue pipes, though probably reduced in volume, has been left untouched. The Great Cornet is also missing, and any impression of the original short compass swell, but the reeds made by Gray & Davison were classical (e.g. uncapped Oboe), and help to give an idea of the effect of the originals.
It was a great pity that Richard Luckett was not able to be with us, due to a debilitating illness, for his contribution would have connected the organ to the wider question of Handel's reputation, and Sir Watkin's contribution to it. Richard Luckett is Pepys Librarian at Magdalene College, Cambridge, is on the English and the Music Faculties, and wrote a book on the History of Messiah in the anniversary year of its first performance.
It was left to the organ to speak for itself. Handel himself was introduced to us by Dr Peter Williams who played the Six Fugues or Voluntaries for the Organ or HarpsichordY published by Walsh in London in 1735 from material composed considerably earlier in Handel's life. It was introduced succinctly, but with Peter Williams's characteristic observations on the mechanisms of musical inspiration and on performance practice. The Fugues were played as if the resources available included such luxuries as swell reeds and pedals, both of which were available to Handel at eg. St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey (whose organist, Benjamin Cooke, played at Sir Watkins's musical breakfasts at 20 St James's Square).
Finally, Vanessa Brittain and Christopher Kent played oboe sonatas by Geminiani and Handel, and Chris Kent played from the Hexachordum Appolinis of Pachelbel, showing some of the individual colours in the course of the variations. We were grateful to them both, and especially to Vanessa, who stepped in at short notice, leaving afterwards for a concert in London, for showing the organ in the kind of role it might have had when it was first made.
We are also grateful to Oliver Fairclough for organising the Museum's end of the day, and for making it possible in the first place by initiating the purchase and the restoration of the organ. It was a pleasant place for a BIOS day conference, and with its combination of important organ, organ history, music history and performance, the kind of day which this organiser enjoys organising. Nor is Handel an obscure composer, or Snetzler an obscure organ builder. In these circumstances it is a pity that the attendance was so low, for one would have thought BIOS would be capable of sustaining such a day on its own. Perhaps we will have to start thinking of sharing days with other organisations; in this case those interested in Welsh musical history might have come on board for the occasion.
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