brief soundclip of the organ
currently available on the National
(still up as of 6/14/2016)
The Old Narragansett Church was built in the year 1707 and is the oldest Anglican church building north of the Potomac. Now owned by the Diocese of Rhode Island, it is administered by a trust which includes representatives of Saint Paul's Church, Wickford, for whom I had built a new organ a few years before.
At the point that I was contacted about providing an organ for the Old Narragansett Church, I had serendipitously heard about the availability of the English chamber organ just the previous week. The organ, then owned by Dr. James Boeringer, was nearly contemporary with the building. It didn't take much prompting for me to pay a visit to see just what we might consider. What met my eyes was appalling! Time had certainly taken its toll. At least three major rebuilds had occurred in its lifetime, with additional work besides. Each succeeding effort was substantially poorer than the last. (I'll hasten to add that none of this was of Dr. Boeringer's doing.) Still - something cried out that this was really a project which needed to happen. The trust agreed, purchased the organ and contracted with the Stuart Organ Company to restore it.
The remnants were moved to the Stuart shop. No attempt was made to assemble the organ at first, our thinking being that it would be easier to deduce the evolution of the instrument with the parts being able to be individually examined. This did, indeed, turn out to be the case. After living with it for a few months we were able to piece together the history as follows:
- early pipework (about half) dates to the early 17th century, predating the early Restoration period construction.
- the remainder of the pipework dated from the 19th century, an added Open Diapason treble dating from the early 19th c rebuild, others simply being ill-conceived replacements
- In its later, existing, form, the casework dated to the early 19th c rebuild by John Vincent of London
- 17th c parts indicated construction early in the Restoration period, with a rebuild, apparently by the same hand c 1680's
- The organ was significantly rebuilt c 1730 - sliding keyboard and backfall key action dated from this period, as well as a very crude extension of the windchest (soundboard in English parlance) to provide bass extension to GGG. This provided for 8' pipes only, with no stop action control.
- The 18th c alteration required new casework to accommodate the changes, no trace of which remained.
The surviving material indicated that the most definable state of the organ was its c 1680 rebuild. The decision was taken to restore the instrument to this state. This would involve discarding all later material and replicating pieces no longer extant from the original construction. While in most cases this approach would today be regarded as far too aggressive and intrusive, in the present instance it seemed the only viable way to proceed. Sufficient work survived from the 17th c work to be able to "fill in the gaps" with remarkably little speculation. The same could not be said for the 18th c rebuild, where neither visual nor tonal design could be accurately ascertained. Even the 19th c work yielded incomplete evidence of the organ's tonal state at that time.
Two study trips to England yielded valuable information on details to be replicated. It was found that the organ is almost certainly by the same hand as one owned by the Manders, and the visual design elements are replicas of that instrument. Many were very helpful in sharing information. Especially helpful in providing assistance were Noel and John Mander, Stephen Bicknell and Barbara Owen.
While somewhat speculative, some twenty-five years of weighing the evidence suggests to me that the organ was almost certainly built for John Playford. If my analysis of the evidence is correct (which I believe it to be) the organ was almost certainly built by George Dallam early in the Restoration, was damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 (which stopped at Playford's doorstep), then rebuilt by George Dallam c1680-85. The date of rebuilding suggests that this may have been done for Henry Purcell. Playford was Purcell's publisher. This was also about the time late in his life that he would have begun dispersing his assets and about the time Purcell would have acquired his organ, known to have been hired out for the coronation of James II. One of the engravings in Sandford's The History of the Coronation of James II shows, though in miniscule scale, what appears to be Purcell's instrument, drawn to be approximately the height of an average man of the period. This is consistent with the ONC instrument and is taller than typical of period chamber organs, which normally had more pipes mitered resulting in a lower profile.