'August Gern and the Frant Church Organ' by Paul Barber now available price £5

n looking through the history of August Gern, the man who built the organ in our parish church, I thought it might be interesting to delve further back, and have a look at some family history of Aristide Cavaille-Coll, the great master of organ building throughout France, and indeed, much of the Latin countries. This helps to put the quality of the work of August Gern in perspective, as we will see that Gern spent six years with Aristide Cavaille Coll, at an important time in his  life.

The ledgers of the firm of Cavaille Coll are said to contain much of the history of French organ building during the reign of Napoleon 111.  Gabriel Cavaille, a musical amateur, is the first one in the family to be recorded.  His three sons, Pierre, Joseph, and later, Jean Pierre, all inherited their father’s musical interests (although Pierre eventually became a chemist), and it was Joseph who first became a builder of organs (later both Pierre and Joseph took religious orders, and as a monk, together with another monk, called Isnard, Joseph built several organs for monastic establishments).

 Jean Pierre Cavaille, the youngest son of Gabriel, joined his brother Joseph in the family firm, having been taught by Joseph. Around 1750, Jean Pierre moved to Spain, building several large organs, and during his time in Spain, met and married a lady of good family, and whose maiden name was Coll. Their son, Dominique Cavaille-Coll, continued the family tradition, building many highly commended organs.   Aristide Cavaille-Coll, son of Dominique, also took up the family business, and  became one of the most celebrated organ builders in history. Aristide was born in Montpelier, in February 1811, and died in Paris, October, 1899. Aristide enjoyed a reputation for fine quality in every instrument that he produced, and his best years are considered to be from 1845 to 1870. He is probably most famous for building the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, in 1868.

We now come to August Friedrich Hermann Gern, who was born in Berlin, in 1837. Gern initially trained with Bavarian organ builders, and from 2 April, 1860, ( and this fits within the last decade of Cavaille-Coll’s best years ) was employed by Cavaille-Coll for six years, until 31 July, 1866. Gern rose to the position of foreman with Cavaille-Coll, and possibly worked on the organ at Notre Dame, but we can see that he left the company some two years before completion of that organ.

In 1866, Gern came to England, and set up a business at number 2 Holland Street, Kensington, London. In the same year, Gern built a very fine organ in “Our Lady of Mount Carmel” in Kensington. He moved to new premises in Notting Hill (1872-1906) then moved again, to Chiswick (1906-07). His early instruments were in the style of Cavaille-Coll, but sometime later used reverse consoles and pipework in the manner of Zimmerman, Paris. In 1883, Gern patented a pneumatic soundboard, and in 1885, he was awarded a gold medal (for a coupling action) at the inventions exhibition, London. Gern produced his own casework, invariably in either Oak, Walnut, or Mahogany, with burnished front tin pipes for important contracts. (This could well be the situation with the pipes here in Frant, as a glance at the pipes would suggest, but the carved case-work in Frant is attributed to Frank Rosier, and was installed in the 1930s). His son, August Albert Gern, continued the business from 1907 to 1915.

The organ here in St Alban’s, Frant, was built in 1891, so it’s useful to speculate on the quality achieved, when you consider that Gern would have been some 54 years old at the time, at the height of his powers, with all the expertise garnered from the experience of working with Cavaille-Coll during the latter’s best years, referred to above, 1845 to 1870, and being his most trusted employee at the time.

The organ broke down on Christmas day, 1966, which shows just how robust it must have been, surviving for 75 years. Following a fund-raising campaign, which brought in about £5000, the organ was rebuilt by Wood Wordsworth, of Leeds in 1968. This company enlarged and improved the organ, attending to the positive division, the detached console, the electric blower and electro-pneumatic key action, all just a part of the work involved.

 Following the rebuild, an inaugural recital was given, on Friday, 28 March, 1969, by Fernando Germani, an organist of world-wide repute. Germani,(born in Rome in 1911), although to a great extent self-taught, was appointed to the staff of the Rome Conservatoire of Music, and was later elected as organist to the Vatican. Germani subsequently gave recitals throughout the commonwealth, Europe, and America.           PAUL BARBER