The collecting of organ specifications and the drawing of organ cases were all part of my musical development and I began to practise the piano with a view to paying the organ in some dim and distant future. The advent of a boy at the school whose father was an organist and choirmaster was the beginning of a friendship founded on our enthusiasm for the instrument.
The school organ in the Chapel was a poor affair. It was hand blown and before I became a member of the choir I was frequently pressed into service as blower. The blowing department was in the vestry, only a curtain separating it from the choir stalls. On the other flank of the organ hung another curtain through which the choir emerged. There was a large collection of hassocks piled up by the blower and one day it was noticeable that whoever had been installed had only half his mind on the job. The constant failure of sound from the pipes followed by noisy rapid pumpings from behind the scenes was evidence of this. And then the occupation of the other half of his mind made its presence known by a cascade of hassocks falling from a considerable height through the dividing curtain into the choir stalls. At the conclusion of the service, which had been interrupted several times by the organist rapping on the panelling exhorting his confederate to 'Blaw, boy, blaw!' we trooped back into the vestry with broad grins on our faces, the offender looking offensively innocent and preoccupied with the job in hand. The fiery glances of the Headmaster while he went through the formality of the vestry prayer betokened anything but a holy frame of mind.
Our position in the choir was a vantage point on viewing small incidents which were the source of much amusement and the effort to keep the responses and Lord’s Prayer while old 'Daddy' at the back of the Chapel recited them in a fruity voice to a metre of his own (perhaps influenced by his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, of which he was a great scholar) was strenuous. One of the mistresses also had one of those unfortunately penetrating voices which sound like someone singing through a kazoo or the simpler form of comb and tissue paper.
During my first year, when we went to bed early, she took us for evening prayers in a classroom. It was she who had first greeted me on my arrival with 'I thought Eurich was a big boy!' Her piano-playing to the hymns was excruciating. She flounced through them with the loud pedal pressed well and truly down for the duration. Then rising from the piano stool with that long intake of air through the nostrils for which she was famous, she surveyed her congregation like a queen (somehow it seemed some applause for the interpretation was expected) and proceeded to read the prayers. The odd thing was that no one else appeared to be in pain over this nightly torture.
If we had a good view of the congregation it must be added that of course they had an exceptionally good view of us, particularly as our prayer desks in the front rows were not of solid construction. I once found myself arrayed in a terribly short cassock showing an indecent amount of boots and trousers and shirtsleeves none too clean, to the elbows. As I left in the procession down the steps (we always went back into the vestry by a side door from the nave) I felt all eyes were upon me cutting a ridiculous figure. I was also subject to fainting and had either to sit down or leave the choir if I was able, which again drew unnecessary attention to me. But I once experienced a feeling that all eyes were directly upon me for quite another reason.
My new found friend and I had been discussing organ cases and the design, when it occurred to us to investigate whether the organ pipes which fronted the case in our chapel were dummies or live. So we slipped into the building unobserved and climbing up on to the back choir stalls, balanced precariously on our toes seized one of the pipes, lifted it out of its socket, lowered it and getting a mouthful of dust I blew up it. It emitted a piercing shriek. We were startled and struggled to get the pipe back into position but failed to do so. Fearing the result of our experiment had been heard, we wasted no more time and beat a hasty retreat, leaving the organ pipe standing at a rakish angle among its fellows.
Next day we stood in our respective places in the choir like prisoners in the dock. The occupants of the stall opposite the organ must see the crooked pipe (there was precious little else for them to look at) and it seemed only natural that a glance at the pipe would be followed by a glance at me (I was with my back to the organ) and there would be the plain answer. My friend was on the other side and I was aware of the strain he was undergoing by trying to appear unconcerned, even blissfully unconscious of the tell-tale pipe. In the back row opposite me were two or three prefects and a master and a visiting clergyman who liked to come and sing bass.
The master was tall and lean. He had fearful hard-boiled eyes behind powerful pince-nez, a blue chin and black hair which was always completely swamped in brilliantine of the sickliest smell imaginable. We were not allowed to use hair dressing of any kind so this particular smell permeated the school passages. It was most useful in some ways as it was possible to trace his movements and keep out of his way. He had an idea he was popular with the boys and insisted in taking part in their games. What the rest of the scrum thought about his brilliantine when he rubbed it on their necks and faces I can’t imagine. We once found him sitting in conclave with some pupils who were penalising us for having deserted our places on the touch line during a school match, having found a ball to play about with by ourselves. Several of us were caned for the 'offence' by one of the prefects, this power having been restored. He also once took the part of the judge in a mock trial. The effect of the wig was terrifying. I have seldom seen a face that looked more cruel. He had an affected way of putting his hand to his side and inclining his head slightly as though in pain. He sang tenor but his musicianship was demonstrated for a time when our organist was ill. He deputized at the organ and the performance was lamentable.
The old basso profundo clergyman was a disgruntled character who once gave a Grieg piano recital to the school in which he constructed a programme from all the works played. He read a bit about a maiden and then played a piece of that name. Then she walked in the village street: he played a piece called The Village and so on. When he gave a performance of part of Haydn’s Creation he sang the bass part. The Rolling in Foaming Billows was rather like a rasp catching a nail in a piece of wood from time to time, but we loved the old boy’s enthusiasm and he conversed with us small fry. He of the brilliantine never did, but watching his antics when the mistresses were about, suggested that he fancied himself as a lady-killer.
Glancing at this row of backbenchers, rather expecting their eyes to be focussed on the unfortunate organ pipe or on me, I found them attentive to the service, or were appearances deceptive?
One of the prefects had a beak of a nose and a perpetual frown. He always seemed to be in a towering rage as though he was playing the part of a stage schoolmaster. He used to give us fielding practice by arranging us in a semi-circle and hitting a cricket ball at us with a bat, shouting furiously, 'Get down to it!' 'Keep your hands together' 'Don’t step away from it'. We were rather amused at a criticism of his cricket in the School Magazine that 'T. must improve his fielding if he wishes to retain his place in the 1st X1.' His eyes appeared to be on the hymnbook.
Those behind me did not matter unless the constant failure of a certain note in the organ should lead them to glance in my direction and would observe a very red neck. One of the tenors there had a voice like a steam whistle. He came from the village where he ran a printing business. To my ears it was difficult to ascertain whether he really sang notes of different pitch at all. Like a steam whistle it promised a definite note but it hadn’t time to produce it. The service was interminable and strange to relate nothing was said, and later the organ pipe was seen to be standing to attention with its fellows again.
We had of course, from the side we sat on, a good view of the preacher in the pulpit almost back view. The Headmaster always strutted along in a bird-like manner, his head helping his progress with that motion observable in pigeons, and then there was the curious wagtail hop up and down which punctuated his sentences. I always got the impression that he could read with one eye and fix the other one hypnotically on the congregation. It happened once that he chose as his text that passage about not kicking against the pricks and goads. Now we had, for some reason or another had a school bazaar the day before. We had been allowed to spend a little pocket money and of all strange objects, some metal skewers were the most popular among us. After the text was given out, one boy was stealthily fingering one of these skewers in the sleeve of his surplice. How we managed to control audible laughter when further furtive movements among the surplices and sinister threatening gestures denoted definite actions I don’t know. The faces above the battleground were as expressionless (the eyes looking forward into space) as any schoolboy feigning innocence could be.
Sometimes some of the hymnbooks had mysteriously vanished from our desk. The show of singing without a book to read from until some find fellow chorister supplied the need must have been rather like the substitute violinist in our orchestra playing with soap on his bow.
We did have choir practice in the vestry round an old American organ. I fancy the goads were here used to advantage as the bellows sprang leaks from time to time. The keys would stick and the organist took his penknife out, and muttering 'Someone’s been tampering with this' would proceed to operate. Then, 'Now boys - the Gloria once again!' The voluntaries that he played were unrecognizable one from the other and yet I believe he was a good musician. I certainly never heard him playing Bach or Handel (except the Largo for Sweet Sister Sorrow) and, after we had changed we would all crowd round him watching him 'play the congregation out'. But I still hadn’t a clue to what it was all about when he finished and turned on us all a beaming smile of great benevolence.