February 18, 2021 Organ Note

A Jab and a Smooth Organ

Salisbury Cathedral in use as a vaccination center

What do Gillette Stadium, Disneyland and Salisbury Cathedral (in southwest England) have in common? All three are now COVID vaccination centers. What don’t they have in common? At Salisbury Cathedral, your jab is accompanied by smooth organ music.

Salisbury Cathedral was built between 1220–1320. It is famous for its high vaults and tall spire. It is famous for possessing a copy of the Magna Carta. And it is famous for its music—its choirs, its concerts, and especially its organ.

The organ was built by Henry Willis (1821-1901) between 1876 and 1877. A master organ builder, Willis regarded the Salisbury organ as his finest. It has 4,000 pipes, ranging in size from pipes as small as a matchstick to others that stand 32 feet high. As with many of Willis’s great organs, the Salisbury instrument is perfectly designed for the building. Its sound is arresting, exciting and alive. It is a Victorian masterpiece.

Cathedral organists have been protective of their instrument. It has been dismantled, cleaned and retuned several times, but always with the goal of maintaining it in an unaltered state. At the same time that they have preserved its original sound, Cathedral organists have put the organ to modern use. The Cathedral is currently open twice a week for twelve hours a day as a vaccination center. 1,200 persons a day are inoculated to live music emanating from the great organ.

The organists choose music that invokes the beauty of the ancient cathedral and instills hope and optimism for the future. Handel and Bach and Mozart are intermingled with show tunes from Show Boat, Oklahoma! and other musicals. Patriotic songs such as The White Cliffs of Dover, and favorite hymns such as Jerusalem are folded in. Edward Elgar’s Nimrod from his Enigma Variations always goes over well. Requests from vaccine recipients are honored at their appointment times, as long as the music is not spiky.

In 1627, when a plague was spreading, the cathedral closed its doors to the infected. In 2021, the cathedral opened its doors to the National Health Service. Some workers note that people enjoy the music so much that they stay long after they need to. They sometimes have to be reminded to leave to maintain social distancing. As one vaccine worker said, “It’s a nice problem to have.”

Our new organ includes a sound set from the Willis organ at Hereford Cathedral. As Charles plays it, we can share in the experience of others an ocean away, but filled with the same appreciation for our medical workers and our musicians.

Read past organ notes here.