Xewkija Parish pulls out all the stops with inauguration of new pipe organ
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The parish of Xewkija has just installed a newly built pipe organ – a masterpiece – which will have its inauguration next month, with a programme of events to be held over three days
The highlight of the programme is a concert on the final evening by the renowned international organist from the UK, Mr David Davies.
In this article below written for Xewkija Parish by Ms Pia Zammit, she explains the story behind this much-cherished instrument.
Pulling Out All the Stops
“In the biggest church on the small island of Gozo, under the third largest unsupported dome in the world, lies a brand-new pipe organ waiting to be inaugurated.
The instrument’s home is the Xewkija Rotunda, and it was installed and blessed by His Excellency the Bishop of Gozo, Mons. Mario Grech, in November 2016.
The organ’s story however, started way back in 2012, when the electronic organ needed replacing. Noel Gallo, a Maltese internationally-renowned Organ Architect, custom designed a new pipe organ and commissioned Michael-Farley, Organ Builders in Devon, UK, to build it. (Noel Gallo’s designs can be found in Germany, the UK, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, South Korea, Malaysia, China and Malta).
The expression ‘pulled out all the stops,’ aptly originates from the organ-playing world, and means ‘to do everything you can do to make something successful.’ It is a particularly appropriate phrase to use to describe The Rotunda’s mission to position the organ in the best possible location.
You see, the positioning of a musical instrument, especially one as complex as an organ, is crucial. To ensure that the optimum sound is produced, both for the congregation and the organists themselves, many factors must be considered – and after numerous discussions, designs and calculations, it was decided that the organ be housed in the choir area behind the Altar.
However, space is rather limited, so the room and the corridor beneath were modified, and are now used to house ancillary equipment and provide easy access to all organ parts. A glass door has been fitted so that visitors can view the workings of the organ.
The rather magnificent case is cherry-wood and finished with Danish oil, and the display pipes are of polished and lacquered zinc. To quote the designer, Noel Gallo, “Curves and circles are cleverly incorporated into all parts of the case to reflect the architecture of the building. The symbolism of the casework incorporates the cross of St John in two circles depicting the construction of the new Church over the old Church – a Church within a Church; the grilles, pipes and lights all draw the eye upwards to view the painting of Christ.”
The sight of organ pipes can add beauty to a sacred space, in very much the same way that stained-glass windows can, and there is no shortage of pipes on display here at The Xewkija Rotunda. There are 1,204 in all, including 101 display pipes, 50 of which speak, as well as 25 tubular bells.
The organ is played from a detached three manual and pedal console that was specifically designed for this organ, and also it can be played from a mobile one manual console that was made with the intension to get non-professional players to use the organ.
It is also equipped with a playback system that enables the organ to play automatically when the organist is not available.
This beautiful instrument’s wait will soon be over. It will be inaugurated this May, and several events are lined up to celebrate this, culminating in a recital by a freelance international recitalist – David Davies.
Mr Davies, the former Organist at the Exeter Cathedral, is excited to be entrusted with the new organ’s debut, and kindly agreed to have a chat with us and tell us his thoughts and experiences.
I asked him if he has a favourite organ, and what his feelings are about debuting The Rotunda’s new instrument. “Every organ is unique,” he tells me. “There are examples of organs that are exact copies of one another, but each instrument has its own character and idiosyncrasy. I’ve been very lucky to play organs all over the world, and, sometimes, you come across an instrument where each of the elements for success all combine. One of my favourites is the organ in the Riverside Church, New York City, for sure.”
He added, “opening a new organ comes with a great deal of responsibility but one hopes to bring one’s skill and experience to an opening concert, together with a shared sense of the joy of such an occasion. One feels as though one is launching something new that will last for years and years, and that’s a hugely positive feeling.”
“New organs can be temperamental and part of one’s practice regime in getting to know the instrument is to make friends with it! Fortunately, there will be organ builders in attendance so any issues will be addressed on the spot, I know. But, critically, the organ at Xewkija has had time to settle down before the opening concert. I think my only new worry with a new instrument is that we get along together!” he says with a smile.
I asked Mr Davies whether organs were still being played throughout Europe. He replies, “It depends where you are in Europe. Organs that still have their cultural and civic and local connections and functions are often heard. In some countries, where historic churches are no longer consecrated but are merely museums or galleries, there could be fine organs that are played occasionally or where there is a separate trust and organisation that promotes organ events.”
“There certainly is a different approach between northern and southern Europe in general. Partly that is because, in the Roman Catholic church, the role of the organ in worship has changed so much, especially since the Second Vatican Council,” He commented that “with fewer people interested in playing, and with historic instruments that are too expensive to restore there are, sadly, many examples of fine organs crumbling.”
“There are many notable exceptions, of course. I have been going to Venice for years, and, on a Sunday morning, will try to get to as many Masses as possible. Sometimes you will hear wonderful organ playing on good, acoustic instruments, but you might go to several places where a harmonium or electronic organ or guitar (or nothing at all) is used, while the main pipe organ sits in the gallery, silent. Clearly there are many local factors that account for the liturgical music in such places.”
Mr Davies was first drawn to organ playing as two of his sisters are organists. “I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be an organist, and my earliest sentient memory is being in church, listening to the organ. I remember exactly the sound and what was being played – I can still hear it in my head now 35 years later.”
He also has plenty of stories about dramatic and funny incidents that happened to him throughout his organ-playing years. “I think the most dramatic thing that ever happened to me was when I was playing in my parish church in Wales as a teenager. There was a door into the vestry behind the organ and, during the service, I heard a noise. So, I went into the vestry and came across two young men stealing the silverware and going through coat pockets. They were as stunned to see me as I was to see them. They ran for the door but I blocked them and we got into a scuffle. I would never do that now, but I was so angry.”
“Anyway, you can imagine that voices were raised, and, I’m afraid to say, there was some very bad language. The priest came running in and, fortunately, he had been a rugby player. He managed to pin them against the door and – would you believe – there was a police officer in the congregation too. Those guys certainly chose the wrong church to rob that day!”
“I’ve been blessed with a number of lovely opportunities in my career,” he continues, “including playing for HM the Queen. More poignantly, my experiences of playing for funerals and memorial services both for UK military personnel killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for victims of the 9/11 attacks when I lived in the USA. Being a part of occasions of such emotional intensity makes one very grateful to be alive.”
Mr Davies has a connection to the Maltese Islands, and tells me that, “Coming to Gozo is a real pleasure and privilege. I first came to Malta a few years ago because my sister has a home in Xemxija. Driving around Gozo, sampling the wine and the food, and seeing the incredible power of the sea, was a joy.”
“I was so sad when the Dwejra Window collapsed as I had spent a wonderful afternoon looking at it on my first visit to San Lawrenz.” But, he said, “it’s wonderful to see so many churches in Malta and Gozo well supported.”
Mr Davis concluded,”I’m honoured to be sharing this momentous occasion at Xewkija with the members of the community, and to be making what I hope will be a very celebratory contribution!”
Written by Ms Pia Zammit.
Please feel free to join Xewkija Parish for the various events – tickets are not required and everyone is welcome.
Thursday 4th of May at 7.30pm: Rev. Ignatius Borg will give a talk on Sacred Music in the Liturgy.
Friday 5th of May at 7.00pm: Noel Gallo and Michael Farley will give an audio-visual presentation on the organ project.
Saturday 6th of May at 7.30pm: David Davies will give an organ recital in the presence of the President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and the Bishop of Gozo Mgr Mario Grech.