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In February 2024 a group of ACE travellers arrived in Cambridge to immerse themselves in the city’s musical wonders. On Cambridge College Chapels & Organs, Nicholas Wearne acted as both the expert tour director and private recitalist. For two days of the tour, ACE marketing team member George Wybrew joined the tour to meet ACE travellers and experience first-hand being on an ACE tour. In this blog George shares his travelling diary from being on tour with ACE in Cambridge.


After dropping off luggage at the University Arms Hotel, the group hopped on a coach to begin the tour outside Cambridge at Girton College. Girton was established in 1869 as the first women’s college at the university and was granted full college status in 1948.

Following a short walk through well-decorated and winding corridors, housing the People’s Portraits Exhibition, the group arrived at the College chapel. The chapel is built in the same decorative red brick and architecture of the rest of the college and has a high wood panel ceiling that feels distinctly Victorian. On arrival the group was met by John Bryden, an ever colourful personality and a familiar face to many who have travelled with ACE. John filled the room with warmth which almost completely distracted the group from the rather grey and overcast February afternoon outside and quickly began his introduction as guest musician on the tour.

 

Together with Nicholas, the pair introduced the instrument of interest at Girton, the 2002 organ made by La Manufacture d’Orgues St-Martin, a Swiss firm known for their high quality. John brought the large organ to life with masterful pieces including Toccata in C by Cernohorsky and Piece d’ Orgue BWV 572 by Bach. Complimenting the music, Nicholas and John enlightened the group with the context and periods in which these pieces were created and how the organ here at Girton could facilitate a greater understanding of them.

 

BLOG-OrganAtGirton On Tour with ACE: Organs in CambridgeThe organ at Girton College

 

From one redbrick college to another, Robinson College was the next destination for the tour. Standing as a stark contrast to Girton and many other buildings in Cambridge, this postmodern castle-like structure was a later addition to the university. The college, named for the philanthropist Sir David Robinson, was founded in 1977 and has a particularly unique architectural style amongst the diverse and predominantly older university buildings.

 

Through a large portcullis-like entrance and across a courtyard is the chapel which, aside from the large stained glass window, blends seamlessly into the walkways and tiers of Robinson’s angular shape. This chapel was very different to the more traditional and modest Girton; with its decorative red Dorset bricks and stonework it is an embodiment of postmodern design. Above the entrance, on a raised section of the chapel sat a wide organ which Nicholas explained was built by Frobenius, a well-respected Danish organ builder. This organ was built in 1980 to a postmodern design style and blends perfectly with the architecture and interior at Robinson. After a brief introduction to the instrument and the history of its design and period, Nicholas performed a period piece by Danish composer Bjarne Sløgedal which was both enchanting and fantastic and offered itself in a strong contrast against tradition.

 

With the coach arriving back to the hotel and the group checking into their rooms, all that was left of the evening was a friendly introductory talk in which Nicholas framed the history of Cambridge University and its relationship with music and other wider contexts. Dinner was a buzz of conversation and thanks to the company of John, Nicholas and our Tour Manager Chris, there was no shortage of conversation about the interesting visits and even more interesting travellers.

 

BLOG-OrganAtRobinson On Tour with ACE: Organs in Cambridge

Nicholas Wearne performs on the Frobenius organ at Robinson College

 

The second day of the tour began with a walk down to Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs, locally referred to as ‘The Catholic Church’. The steeple of the church rises as the tallest structure in Cambridge and the interior is just as impressive.

 

For most of my life I’ve lived in Cambridge and for years I walked past The Catholic Church having never been inside. This tour not only gave me the excuse to go inside but to hear a private lecture on the history of the building and a private performance on the church’s stunning organ. It’s always fascinating to learn about the history of your surroundings, especially when you discover things that have been right under your nose the whole time.

 

The church, built at a time when there was only one other place of worship for Roman Catholics in Cambridge, offered an opportunity for Nicholas and the group to discuss the relationship between faith and organ music. Elgar, who was Catholic, had struggled with his faith during his life, and he became a key point of discussion in a church dedicated to the English Martyrs. Nicholas ascended upstairs to the church’s large organ and performed some superb pieces by the Worcester-born composer, including Allegro maestoso.

 

BLOG-OrganAtOurLady On Tour with ACE: Organs in Cambridge

Details of the pipes at Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs

 
Around the corner from the church is Cambridge’s biggest and most prestigious museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum. Here, the ACE group were privileged to be given a private session in which they were shown key musical artefacts from the Founder's Library, the home of the museum's founding collection. Some of these pieces include original annotated works by Beethoven and Bach as well as later collections of important British composers. Dr Suzanne Reynolds, Senior Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books, told the story of how the museum came to be and the importance of many of the original manuscripts laid out for the group.

 

BLOG-TalkByDrSReynolds On Tour with ACE: Organs in Cambridge

Dr Suzanne Reynolds delicately shows the ACE group details of a work from the Founder's Library

 

Following lunch, the ACE travellers made their way through the bustling Cambridge city centre, past King’s College chapel where they would later enjoy Evensong, to Sidney Sussex College. During an introductory talk, given by John Bryden over the supposed resting place of Oliver Cromwell’s head, the group was introduced to the history of Sidney Sussex, one of the older colleges of the university.

 

The chapel here boasts two gorgeous and unique organs, one of which is a smaller and much older style organ built by the American company, Taylor & Boody. This organ is of an incredibly early style, featuring no foot pedals and only one manual. Introduced by Nicholas, who had been awaiting our arrival, it was a nice demonstration of a period piece on a reproduction period instrument.

 

Contrasting this organ was the large Flentrop Oregelbouw organ built in 2016. Nicholas used this grand organ to demonstrate works by Haydn and Mozart which had originally been crafted for ornate clocks and not for playing by humans. The Mozart piece, particularly, was an outrageously complex piece and demonstrated Nicholas’s talent as an organist. After the Sidney Sussex performances the group returned back to the hotel to prepare for Evensong at King’s College Chapel.

 

BLOG-NickSidneySussex On Tour with ACE: Organs in Cambridge

Nicholas in front of the Taylor & Boody organ at Sidney Sussex College

 

This is the point where I had to bid farewell to the group knowing they had even more interesting and insightful visits and performances to look forward to over the weekend. I had relatively little knowledge of music, especially organs, going into this tour, but Nicholas’s talent as an organist is matched by his talent as a lecturer and tour leader. He delivered interesting and approachable lectures to all levels of knowledge and explained the context and language of organ music with eloquence.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed my time on this ACE tour. The highlight for me was the Robinson visit; as an architecture enthusiast I was already interested in the college’s design but hearing complementary music that fitted the setting and time period elevated the performance and visit in a way that I would never have considered in my own approach to travel. Working in the ACE office, it was really enjoyable to be out on tour meeting and conversing with the travellers, who often contributed their own interesting insights.

 

Having lived in Cambridge for many years, spending this time investigating the city’s musical heritage has certainly sparked a new interest and I hope to return to these themes again soon.

 

 

Nicholas Wearne will lead our Oxford College Chapels & Organs tour, the sister to our Cambridge tour, in October 2024. Nicholas will also be joined by guest musician John Bryden. For more information and to see the full tour details click the link below:

 

View 2024 tour details

 

In Autumn, ACE Cultural Tours will return to Cambridge for an exploration of the art and history of the University City. Art historian and experienced Tour Director Sarah Burles will lead the Connoisseur's Cambridge tour in October 2024. This tour will also include a visit to the Founder's Library, which holds the Fitzwilliam Museum's founding collection, in the company of a curator. For full tour details click the link below:

 

View 2024 tour details

 

 


 

Image credits:

© George Wybrew

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