3. COVENTRY CATHEDRAL, 1962 – 2001

            The earliest sketches of The Manger Throne, which was the first of four major works entitled A Sacred Tetralogy, in celebration of the major festivals of the Church’s year, were begun in 1948 when Routh first heard the majestic, reverberative sonority of the organ in King’s chapel. But he was not yet ready to start the detailed process of composition, and he put the sketches on one side for ten years. The first draft of the composition was not ready until 1960, when a workshop performance was tried out in Holy Trinity, Brompton. Further work continued, and the idea of the piece was discussed with friends and colleagues, including the New Zealand organist Gillian Weir, who first broadcast The Manger Throne in its entirety on BBC Radio 3 from Brompton Oratory in December 1965, but under a pseudonym, as it was still incomplete. Much work was still needed on the structure and registration before it was published by Boosey and Hawkes in 1970. This happened on the initiative of Martin Hall, who had been a fellow student with Routh at the Royal Academy of Music in the fifties, and was now employed by Boosey and Hawkes the music publisher, whom he persuaded to publish not just The Manger Throne but all four of the works planned for A Sacred Tetralogy, as well as a series of other organ works by living British composers.

             The next stage in the life of the new work was a definitive recording, and when it was made clear that the King’s organ would not unfortunately be available, it was necessary to find a cathedral organ of the same or similar acoustic quality. The King’s organ had been the work of Harrison, the organ builder of Durham, who had also built, among many others, the organs in the Royal Festival Hall in London (1953) and the new Cathedral at Coventry (1962). The Bishop of Coventry was pleased to give permission for the proposed recording of the Tetralogy to be made in Coventry Cathedral. Thus the first box set of 2 LPs was released in 1980 (later transferred to CD). This was the first recording of the new label, Redcliffe Recordings, made with the producer John Rushby- Smith.

              The new Coventry Cathedral (see Illustration 4) was officially opened in 1962 with a splendid display of new British music by three of our best senior composers, all on the theme of war: the opera King Priam by Sir Michael Tippett; the oratorio The Beatitudes by Sir Arthur Bliss; and War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Only the last was performed in the cathedral itself in 1962, yet all three contributed to make 1962 an annus mirabilis for British music. The new cathedral was built next to the ruins of the old, which had been destroyed in an air raid during the Battle of Britain in 1940. From the start of its conception onwards, it was an idealistic project, inviting everyone to share its vision of optimism, whether through architecture, through art, through music, through faith. When the visitor walks from the burnt ruins of the old cathedral into the brightness of the new, he makes symbolically the transition from the darkness of the old world into the light of what is to come. The architect who designed the new cathedral, Sir Basil Spence, had the vision that every part of the building should reflect something of the same glorious message. So it is that the theme of Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry above the high altar, in full view of all the people, is Christ in glory in the Tetramorph, arms outstretched in a universal blessing. Christ himself is shown in dazzling white, the colour of the Transfiguration, which like the sun itself, cannot be looked at directly.  Sir Basil Spence was determined also that music should be an integral part of worship in the cathedral, and to this end he helped by making the divisions of the organ part of the structure of the building itself. If you stand in the centre of the nave, facing the high altar, as the artist Diana Routh invites you to do, you see two divisions of the organ facing each other across the chancel, 80 feet up, fixed into the wall of the building. This acts as a sounding board for the sonority of a division of the organ, which at full power has a nine second reverberation period, causing the cathedral itself to resonate in every direction, like the grande orgue of the mediaeval period. The pipework of the Coventry Cathedral organ, designed as it was by Dr Sidney Campbell, a former organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, is traditionally English in its tone colour, with few of the higher mixtures and mutations which characterise many new pipe organs of the 20th century. The voicing is beautiful, and perfectly balanced according to its location.

Illustration 4
Coventry Cathedral
Watercolour by Diana Routh, 2001

4. The Composers’ Guild of Great Britain 1953-1989

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