The two musical towers of Bangalore

A wish to hear an organ In Bengaluru would take you to two churches – St Mark’s Cathedral and St Andrew’s church -- which continue to preserve the only organ pianos from the pre-independence era.
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Published on Dec 19, 2021 01:30 AM IST
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Bengaluru: In the letters to his father, Mozart referred to the pipe organ as ‘’the king of instruments”. The characterisation clung ever since to this big, complex, expensive and mystifying musical instrument. Over centuries several of such “kings of instruments” have been created, used and preserved, mostly by churches.

In Bengaluru, a wish to hear an organ would take you to two churches – St Mark’s Cathedral and St Andrew’s church -- which continue to preserve the only organ pianos from the pre-independence era.

The huge pipe organ in St Mark’s Cathedral off MG Road is in startlingly original condition, though some parts of the instrument, a bit worse for the 93 years of wear and tear, have been restored. Avinash Grubb is so accustomed to showing off the abilities of this marvel of an instrument that he can explain the instrument even while using all four of his limbs to play a hymn or two -- his hands play keyboard while his feet dance on the foot pedals.

It was in 2004, Grubb took over from David Sebastian, the former organist at St Mark’s Cathedral. But before that, at the age of 18, Grubb began training under Sebastian to play the instrument. As much as playing music, he is passionate about the history that comes with the organ pipe.

The foundation stone of church was laid in 1808, and construction was completed in 1812. But on 17 February 1923, the church building was ravaged by fire. Reconstruction of the church started in 1926 and was completed in 1928.

In the year 1929, the pipe organ was installed.

“The pipe organ was as a gift by Avis Cowdrey of the Cowdrey family (father of cricketer Michael Colin Cowdrey). The organ is designed by two British builders, with only the metal pipes being built in England, while other parts were built in Bangalore. The cost of construction then was 80,000, which was a large sum for that era,” said Grubb.

“The name pipe organ comes with the fact that it is a wind instrument and the pipes produce the music. The keyboard has 61 notes and there is a pipe for each corresponding note. Now the pipes, the eight pipes are sound on the pitch, four feet will one octave higher, two feet pipes will two octaves higher and you 16 feet pipes which one octave lower. Essentially, we are playing at multiple octaves at the same time, which is not possible on any other instrument,” he explained.

One of the important parts of the instrument is the reservoir of air, which help produce the music. In the earlier days, three to four men had to pump wind with organ bellows while the instrument was played to produce the required wind, but when the organ was installed at St Mark’s Cathedral, a motor was brought in from the United Kingdom for the job, which remains even till date.

It is very difficult to master the art of playing the organ. It requires all the senses on alert to hear the sound and maintain a simultaneous motion of the hands and feet, and most importantly to keep an eye on the choir. For this, there are three mirrors. The pianist facing the massive instrument can keep an eye on the priest, co-conductor and in case of the marriage at the bride walking towards the altar, with these three mirrors.

Even the music played on the organ piano keeps the heritage of the instrument in mind, said Grubb while discussing the responsibility that comes with playing an instrument with such historic value. “We follow the Gregorian chants, which symbolises solemnity and reverence. Even though singing the churches have changed over time, we have kept this century-old tradition. Moreover, our choir sings a lot of music that be accompanied by the organ piano. Organ music is very difficult to play with the choir because it is classical music, but we continue that tradition because of the heritage we have with us,” he said.

Just a few kilometres away from St Mark’s Cathedral, overlooking the South Parade ground, is a magnificent structure – St Andrew’s church. The church, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in November 2014, was started on 18 November 1866. Initially, it was started for Scottish officers, the British Madras Army and civilians of Scottish origin. Kannada services began in 1965.

The church with a Scottish heritage is frequented by musicians, artists and architects. Apart from the gothic architecture and beautiful stained glass, the church houses an elegant 140-year-old pipe organ. This old pipe organ, called the ‘great little monster’ of St. Andrew’s Church, was installed by builders Peter Gonacher and Co. in 1881. this is the oldest pipe organ in the city.

According to the old-timers of the church, during the British era, the music from the organ could be heard from at Cubbon Park located more than 1.5 km away, but the traffic drowned it over time. Because of the musical heritage, the church has made it point to nurture musical talents, “In the pre-pandemic days, every fifth Sunday, we have musicians coming in to perform here. It is free and open to all,” said Mark, a parishioner.

With Christmas just around the corner, these “Kings of instruments” in Bengaluru are getting ready to bring back sounds from Bangalore of yesteryears.

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