Thanks once again to Music@Malling, I visited Tonbridge, another Kent town new to me, home to a classic boys’ boarding school with impressive playing fields stretching for miles (these I had distantly viewed from speeding trains on previous occasions.) My visit was to an organ recital given on the school premises by Rupert Jeffcoat; yet another exceptional, idiosyncratic soloist in this unusually discerning festival programme.
Entering a prototypical redbrick school chapel, I gasped at the proportions and fine decor of its interior; in effect cathedral-sized and certainly big enough, I learned, to seat all the boys in the school (whether they like it or not.) Also absolutely of its kind was a sizeable war memorial lining the antechapel, with a long list of the fallen. A section of these names, those killed in WW1, will be read out at chapel services this term, and were touchingly listed in service sheets, along with the soldiers’ dates at the school; heartrending to see evidence of these boys leaving school and dying in war a few months later.
My jumble of strong impressions was topped by the sound of the chapel’s Marcussen organ, ingeniously deployed by Rupert Jeffcoat. He alluringly began his recital with Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune, something the instrument was perfectly capable of, along with everything else (including two of my attempts at organ music, Ettrick Banks and The Tree of Peace). It was one of the most beautiful set of organ sounds I can recall hearing. How did this handsome space and exceptional instrument come about ? Several people helpfully explained that the chapel had suddenly burned down one day in 1988, destroying almost everything, including a recently rebuilt Mander organ. (A former pupil recalled standing with the rest of the school on a nearby playing field and watching this happen with not very mixed emotions at the prospect of no chapel for a while). But within seven years, the rebuild, restoration and new instrument were complete. “And now, back to the real world” remarked a pragmatic colleague as we exited the building.