By Dr. Carol Williams | Civic Organist News
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
Hmm, I’m not sure if I actually do … I’ve had some very creepy and unexplained experiences with organs while rehearsing in some very old cathedrals and buildings, including the Spreckels Pavilion. Most big churches in the UK and throughout Europe have you rehearsing late at night when the tourists have gone and you are left on your own. These great spaces are dark, huge, cold and some date back a thousand years. This is a certain receipt for the mind to imagine.
As a student, I remember playing a concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and rehearsing late at night. They give you a large skeleton key to the door that won’t even fit in your purse. Then they turn out most of the lights and you’re on your own.
This particular early organ was built by Father Bernard Smith in 1694 (yes 1694!). The current instrument is the fourth largest in Great Britain in terms of number of pipes (7,266), with five manuals (keyboards), 189 ranks (different sounding types) of pipes and 108 stops (control tabs). The sound resonates for about seven seconds through the empty spaces.
After rehearsing on this mammoth instrument mostly in the vast darkness of that enormous building, the only way out is through the crypt.
So, at midnight, I began to make my way down from the organ loft, down from the main gallery, down into the crypt below ground level. OK, my skin was tingling, I had no flashlight or iPhone in those days and it was almost pitch dark. The coolness from the stone walls and the pounding of my heart was all but keeping me from running frantically blind into a wall and knocking myself out. Well, that was a great place to be at midnight and I actually did get lost. Yes, lost amidst the cobwebs, old wooden tombs and the smell of damp dirt.
I finally yielded to my dilemma and sat in the dark, shivering and sure that I was going to be gobbled up by the demons that surely lurk in these immense cellar graves! Then the sound of foot steps, oh my goodness, it’s going to happen! But, to the amazement of a security guard, I was found! This little 19-year-old me in a state of total shock! I must have been there all night, but alas, it was only 20 minutes. I do have a great imagination.
Another great place not to rehearse too late at night is Canterbury Cathedral, again one of the oldest and most famous cathedrals in the world. Here, Thomas Becket was murdered on Dec. 29, 1170. He was the archbishop of Canterbury and was struck down by four knights of the royal household, who rode there and began a violent argument with the 52-year-old prelate.
To this day, they say that blood is still on the stones where he died. Lovely! To be honest, I did not check this fact out but while rehearsing, I just looked from the organ console and wondered.
As usual on these occasions, my rehearsing started late at night and went on for many hours. Now the loos (restrooms) were about a five-block walk through the cathedral away, and of course, in the darkness I had to pass the very spot where he was murdered. I crept down there with trepidation, found the restroom and then bolted as fast as I could. Yes, it was creepy with many bumps and noises surrounding me. Yes, I often bolted from place to place, as I would now plan my restroom paths ahead of time in the light. These are wonderful buildings and the cities are magnificent. France, England, Germany, Luxembourg, Denmark, on and on. So many large, potentially ghost-ridden places.
So now, some of you might be asking if the Spreckels Organ is haunted? I’ve been in there late at night and been a bit nervous at times — you can feel the hair go up on the back of your neck for no reason sometimes. The concrete building can be cold from the winter nights and it is lonely at times.
Well, I have to say that I’ve been rehearsing when suddenly a single note will play from a stop (a pipe section) that is not turned on. This is freaky. It will play in tune to what I am playing. Just one single note sounding like it should be there in the score.
At first I thought the organ curator was working in the pipe chest and was fooling around, but it turned out there was no one else in the building. These incidents are still a mystery to us all. To be honest, I think these are good spirits visiting the organ; perhaps composers, organists, curators, and the like. They are the happiest spirits from what I can tell and probably all deaf by now!
Join us Oct. 31 at 7 p.m.
Chris Elliott will be accompanying “Phantom of the Opera” on the big screen. Maybe you’ll see some of the Pavilion’s friendly ghosts sitting next to you enjoying the show!
—Civic Organist Dr. Carol Williams is proud to serve as an ambassador of San Diego’s arts and culture arena. Through her concert performances at home and abroad, Carol offers a fresh take on the classical organ concert. She is committed to illuminating San Diego’s colorful romance with the “King of Instruments,” always seeking to bring the organ to new audiences. For more information about Carol visit melcot.com; to learn more about the organ society, visit spreckelsorgan.org.