CHRISTOPHER GORDON WELLS

by
23 August 2007

by Michael Callender

BORN in 1932, the son of a West Country vicar, Christopher Gordon Wells was educated at St Michael’s College, Tenbury. He was immensely proud of this, and spent his life in pursuit of the aims of the College: encouraging high standards in the music of the Church.

After National Service with the RAF in the early 1950s, and a period of study at King’s College, London, trying out his vocation to the priesthood, Christopher became an organ-builder, and was on the staff of the firm of Alfred E. Davies & Son, Northampton.

Christopher came to Northern Ireland initially as tuner and representative for Davies. Besides his professional work, he involved himself in church and cultural affairs in Ireland. As a parishioner in Lisburn Cathedral, he sought to encourage young people to take an interest in the Church and in Christianity. He became an enthusiastic member of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, and was always a supporter of the Ulster Orchestra.

A revolution occurred in British organ-building in the wake of the Royal Festival Hall organ of the 1950s. There was a reawakening of interest in the North German Baroque organ, the advantages of good tracker action, and balanced manual choruses. Christopher became a devotee and champion of this new movement. He also saw that copying German practice was not necessarily the best plan for our often non-resonant acoustics.

He was interested in the early English diapason tone, and its much greater harmonic development. His thesis for the Fellowship of the Incorporated Society of Organ Builders was on this theme.

To give expression to his ideas about the organ, Christopher realised that he must set up his own firm, and start building small tracker organs of classical design. He and his partner Philip (later Brother Philip) Kennedy established the Wells-Kennedy Partnership. Philip left organ building for the monastic calling, and Christopher’s new partner was David McElderry, under whom the firm continues to prosper.

It has been a pioneering firm. Christopher set about learning about the construction of slider soundboards and tracker action, and the voicing of flue stops on low wind pressure. This was all new, and not part of his professional training.

An early triumph was the rebuilding of the Snetzler organ in Hillsborough Parish Church along lines more akin to the 18th-century concepts of Snetzler than the ideas of the mid-20th century. This instrument, and its smaller partner the England chamber organ, were the focus for a series of recitals, Music in May, which introduced to a wide audience the ideas of the “new” classical sound of the organ.

Along with ideas of the mechanics and sound of the organ, Christopher was concerned about its visual impact. Christopher studied organ-case design of the 18th century and earlier. He created his own contemporary expressions of the earlier concept, often surrounding the pipes of one division of the organ in their own “tone cabinet”, which then defined the front of the organ case with its case pipes and decoration.

The firm of Wells-Kennedy has many new instruments in Ireland and Scotland that remain as a permanent record of innovation and craftsmanship. In the 1998 New Year Honours, Christopher received the MBE for his contribution to music in Northern Ireland.

His happy marriage to Susan was cut tragically short by her sudden death 30 years ago. Susan shared Christopher’s interest in music, and performed regularly both as a solo oboist and in her own chamber group.

Christopher was a faithful member of the committee of the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters, and served a term as its president. His contributions to the committee were characterised by careful thought and planning in advance. He was always concerned about how best to draw young musicians towards the organ and organ playing.

Christopher bore the incapacitating effects of a chronic illness with remarkable fortitude. He moved to Kent at Christmas 2006, to live nearer to his daughter Fiona Fieldwick and family, and it was there that he died in April.

His funeral was held at St Peter’s, Tempsford, Bedfordshire, the parish of which his father, the Revd James Wells, had been Rector from 1951 to 1967.

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