Churches are not supposed to be silent places. Britain’s great cathedrals especially are never more alive than when they ring with the sound of worship, of voices, and of music. There’s only one instrument that can fill a building like that – the organ.
Bristol Cathedral is blessed with an especially fine organ. The oldest parts, including the ornamental wooden case and the visible pipes on the façade, date from 1685, the significance of which shouldn’t be overlooked. Less than 30 years earlier, the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell ended – a period which had seen the indiscriminate destruction of organs throughout Britain, and the emigration of the country’s organ builders to the continent. When the restored Charles II returned to England from France, the organ builders followed him, including the young Renatus Harris, apprentice to his father’s firm.
Charles II’s enlightenment ideas, alongside his catholic inclinations, cultivated a flourishing of organ building in Britain, and in the year of Charles’ death, Renatus Harris was commissioned by the Dean of Bristol to build a new instrument. Much of Harris’ work still lives and breathes in the organ we see and hear today.
Numerous renovations and expansions have augmented (and sometimes diminished) the splendour of this instrument, and it now boasts more than five thousand pipes: the longest, 32 feet; the shortest, the size of an Ikea pencil. While it is now in serious need of restoration, it remains one the most magnificent examples of the art of organ-building in Britain, and undoubtedly deserving of a place in our countdown.
With thanks to Paul Walton – Assistant Organist of Bristol Cathedral – for his recording of Bach’s Prelude in G major, BWV 541, and to the producer Malcolm Gibbs.