My hero...

Our next glorious AGM will take place this upcoming Tuesday 1 April at Saltwell Towers in Gateshead’s Saltwell Park at 1100.

And not before time.

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The greatest composer who ever lived is not to be found amongst the overpraised and over-performed ranks of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Tchaikovsky and ‘giants’ of that ilk, much though each may have to recommend themselves and their works.  O my word, no.

To find true genius, it is necessary to scrabble amongst the minnows, to search amongst the also-rans, for musical names that, in their time, sent creative and artistic pulses racing in every household but which now languish, neglected - if not almost completely forgotten - in the shadows, deep in the unlit corners of the concert hall.

Occasionally, though, one of these composers bursts blinking into the limelight to take centre stage and knock an audience’s socks off.  And that’s what happened last Wednesday night at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

I know because I was there.

The greatest composer who ever lived was called Camille Saint-Saëns.  Nowadays, his name is hardly known at all but in his time - he was born in 1835 and died in 1921 - he was hailed as ‘the French Mozart’; a child prodigy who developed into a giant of innovation and creativity in almost every aspect of French music.  He wrote symphonies and concertos, ballets and operas, sonatas and quartets, ‘tone poems’, songs, marches and dances.  He even lived long enough to be the first ‘classical’ composer to write a film score (in 1905).

He was awarded the Legion of Honour and fraternised with the likes of Liszt, Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.  And yet…

These days, he is remembered almost solely for the one piece of music he wrote that he himself disregarded as mere trivia - The Carnival of the Animals.  He even foresaw that this might turn out to be the case; he forbade its publication during his lifetime.

Surprisingly for a composer so adept at orchestration, Saint-Saëns’ favourite instrument wasn’t orchestral.  His first love, above all else, was the organ.  He possessed the requisite amount of insanity not only to play it but also to compose music for it.  And arguably his greatest achievement was to incorporate a part for organ in his Third Symphony.

I’ve known and loved Saint-Saëns' Symphony No 3 for decades.  Over the years, I’ve bought copies for friends and family and insisted that they fall in love with it as well.  Many of them have.  I am familiar with every single note of it - and am still taken aback each time I hear the organ thundering out the final anthemic melody in the last movement.  But, until last Wednesday, I had never heard it performed ‘live’.

But, thanks to the lavish celebrations attached to the total refurbishment of the Festival Hall’s organ, I was finally able to hear my hero’s greatest work played right there, before my eyes and ears.

Saint-Saëns was gifted enough to use the organ sparingly throughout most of his Third Symphony, so that, when it finally crashes through the melodically romantic sweeps of the strings, the brass, the woodwind and the percussion with a long, loud chord as solid as the Whin Sill, the enamel is taken off your teeth and deposited on the roof of your mouth.  There is an audible, audience-wide, intake of breath.  You can’t help but be in a state of shock that a piece of music can be quite so powerfully mind-mangling.  It makes Beethoven’s Ninth sound like Right Said Fred.

But what really blew the whole audience one row backwards was the size, scale and sheer power of the Festival Hall’s almighty, world-conquering organ.  They’ve spent years - and quite a lot of money - refurbishing it to its original omnipotent specifications and who better to do the work than the organ’s original builders?

Which is where we truckshunters should have come marching in waving flags, shamelessly proud of an institution which is rarely mentioned in the north-east but which is one of its most historic - and unusual - industries:  Harrison and Harrison, Master Organ Builders, of Durham City.

They’re based in Meadowfield now but since the business started in 1872, they beavered away in one of those unremarked side-street terraces that jumble under the railway viaduct in Durham, as unregarded as Saint-Saëns.  But, like his, their glories are there to be found by those with the wisdom to look.

The organs of Durham, Ely, St David’s and Coventry Cathedrals, St Alban’s Abbey, the Royal Albert Hall and Westminster Abbey - amongst many others - are all Harrison organs.  Their ribcage-rattling sounds have by turns saddened and stirred hearts nationwide for almost 150 years.  And, for the life of me, I can’t imagine why we didn’t take the Big Blue Bus to their factory to celebrate one of the north-east’s more esoteric industries.

No matter.  The concert last week was broadcast ‘live’ on BBC Radio 3 - which God preserve - and my heart almost burst with pride when the announcer told the audience that the organ - this vast and insanely wonderful musical leviathan - had been restored by its original installers:  Harrison and Harrison of Durham.

And I genuinely shed a tear to realise that my gifted and ultimately unhappy and neglected hero, in his canopied Parisian grave, could - in some other-worldy way - hear a heart-stopping performance of his greatest work, courtesy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and of two brothers who decided to build organs in a Durham City backstreet terrace.

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Incidentally...you can still hear the concert on BBC iPlayer Radio…

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Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com


Anonymous said...

The Aln Valley Railway is situated on or near the River Aln at Alnwick. There are many splendid functions on starting April and I would imagine new discoveries can be made at www.alnvalleyrailway.co.uk. The Aln Valley Railway is at Lionheart Station, Lionheart Business Park, Alnwick NE66 2QR. INFORMATION LINE tel 03000303311 SATNAV NE66 2HT follow the BROWN signs from the A1. I thank you Dave Shannon

Ian Robinson said...

Thanks, Dave. Sounds like it's DEFINITELY worth a trip...