A wonderful surprise.

by Anton Wills-Eve

Living in the part of England that I do, what used to be northern Cheshire on the estuary of the river Dee by Hoylake golf links on the Wirral peninsula, I am only a twenty five minute drive from the old Roman fortress city of Chester, first settled by the Romans in 79AD. Now Chester is best known for its wonderful Roman walls which are largely complete and certainly the best Roman ‘ruin’ in England. It was manned to stop the Welsh invading England and even after the ancient world disappeared it remained one of the most strategically important towns in Britain. Not surprising then that following the Christian revival in the seventh century that the beautiful Benedictine monastery of St. Werburg’s was built there around the late 670s. Like so many very early Benedictine houses, the Abbey had naturally perfect acoustics, but for an instrument that was not to come into its own in Churches for more than 900 years. The organ. After the reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries in England St.Werburg’s became an Anglican cathedral and the Bishop of Chester was one of the most influential prelates in the north west of England.

But just as the Benedictine tradition had always insisted on producing the most beautiful church music in the western world for 700 years so the tradition continued at Chester. The acoustics were almost perfect for both choral and organ music so the city soon became renowned for its music. So much so that every Thursday of the year at lunchtime leading organists from all over Britain. and now many other parts of the world , give 45 minute recitals for the the city’s music lovers. In all the time I have lived near Chester my wife and I have made a point of getting to recitals as often as we can because they are genuinely of the highest international standard. 

But even though we have heard leading virtuosi from many places playing all the main works in the classical organ repertoire, yesterday we got a real shock. The recital was given by the extraordinary Italian organist, Marco Lo Muscio, who specialises in arranging and transcribing music of all genres, composed for a wide variety of instruments, and performing them on the organ. You can imagine our amazement yesterday when we heard  an instrument, on which we normally listened to Bach, Widor, Buxtehude ,Vierne and the like, being used to produce an incredible mixture of variations of music by Rick Wakeman, Erik Satie and Paganini, or variations on his most famous caprice, being literally hammered out with all the force and gusto of a jazz pianist or keyboard maestro of the progressive rock era. But the wonderful thing was that Marco made it sound as though that was where the music truly belonged. On an organ, in a Cathedral! The shock to ears not accustomed to this combination was both a revelation and a short period of exquisite enjoyment  the like of which I had never heard  before. But here is the irony. When the first Roman general subdued the locals and settled there one thousand nine hundred thirty four years ago the locals disliked both him and everything he stood for.  Yesterday The city of Chester could celebrate three things for which it will always be grateful to Rome. By settling where they did all that time ago the Romans left behind one of the best natural archaeological sites in England and Chester University, in consequence, can boast one of the world’s finest faculties of archaeology. Then, thanks to their love of equestrian sports, the Romans left Chester a centre of horse racing, a sport for which it is still famous in England and allows it to stage several of the leading flat season races. And yesterday a third Roman arrived to show, on the Cathedral’s magnificent organ, just how much enjoyment he and his countrymen can still bring to one of England’s oldest and most beautiful cities.