In the biggest church on the small island of Gozo, under the third largest unsupported dome in the world, lies a brand-new pipe organ waiting to be inaugurated.

The instrument’s home is the Xewkija Rotunda, and it was installed and blessed by Bishop of Gozo Mgr Mario Grech last November.

The organ’s story however, started way back in 2012, when the electronic organ needed replacing. Noel Gallo, an internationally-renowned Maltese organ architect, custom-designed a new pipe organ and commissioned Michael-Farley, organ builders in Devon, UK, to build it.

In restoration, the positioning of a musical instrument is crucial. After numerous discussions, designs and calculations, it was decided that the organ be housed in the choir area behind the altar. A glass door has been fitted so that visitors can view the workings of the organ.

The rather magnificent case is cherry-wood and finished with Danish oil, and the display pipes are of polished and lacquered zinc. To quote the designer: “Curves and circles are cleverly incorporated into all parts of the case to reflect the architecture of the building. The symbolism of the casework incorporates the cross of St John in two circles depicting the construction of the new church over the old church – a church within a church; the grilles, pipes and lights all draw the eye upwards to view the painting of Christ.”

The sight of organ pipes can add beauty to a sacred space, in very much the same way that stained-glass windows can, and there is no shortage of pipes on display here at the Xewkija Ro­tunda. There are 1,204 in all, in­cluding 101 display pipes, 50 of which speak, as well as 25 tubular bells.

This beautiful instrument’s wait is soon over as it will be inaugurated in May, with several events lined up, culminating in a recital by international recitalist David Davies.

Davies, the former organist at Exeter Cathedral, is excited to be entrusted with the new organ’s debut.

“Every organ is unique,” he says. “There are examples of organs that are exact copies of one another, but each instrument has its own cha­racter and idiosyncrasies. Opening a new organ comes with a great deal of responsibility but one hopes to bring one’s skill and experience to an opening concert, together with a shared sense of the joy of such an occasion.

But are organs still being played throughout Europe?

“It depends where you are in Europe. Organs that still have their cultural, civic and local connections and functions are often heard. In some countries, where historic churches are no longer consecrated but are merely museums or galleries, there could be fine organs that are played occasionally or where there is a separate trust and organisation that promotes organ events.

The sight of organ pipes can add beauty to a sacred space

“There certainly is a different approach between northern and southern Europe in general. Partly that is because, in the Roman Ca­tholic Church, the role of the organ in worship has changed so much, especially since the Second Vatican Council. With fewer people interested in playing, and with historic instruments that are too expensive to restore, there are, sadly, many examples of fine organs crumbling.

“There are many notable exceptions, of course. I have been going to Venice for years, and, on a Sunday morning, will try to get to as many Masses as possible.

“Sometimes, you will hear wonderful organ playing on good, acoustic instruments, but you might go to several places where a harmonium or electronic organ or guitar (or nothing at all) is used, while the main pipe organ sits in the gallery, silent. Clearly there are many local factors that account for the liturgical music in such places.”

Davies was first drawn to organ playing as two of his sisters are organists. “I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be an organist, and my earliest sentient memory is being in church, listening to the organ. I remember exactly the sound and what was being played – I can still hear it in my head now 35 years later”.

He also has plenty of stories about dramatic and funny incidents that happened to him throughout his organ-playing years. “I think the most dramatic thing that ever happened to me was when I was playing in my parish church in Wales as a teenager. There was a door to the vestry behind the organ and, during the service, I heard a noise.

“So I went into the vestry and came across two young men stealing the silverware and going through coat pockets. They were as stunned to see me as I was to see them. They ran for the door but I blocked them and we got into a scuffle. I would never do that now, but I was so angry. Anyway, you can imagine that voices were raised, and, I’m afraid to say, there was some very bad language.

“The priest came running in and, fortunately, he had been a rugby player. He managed to pin them against the door and – would you believe – there was a police officer in the congregation too. Those guys certainly chose the wrong church to rob that day!

“I’ve been blessed with a number of lovely opportunities in my ca­reer,” he adds, “including playing for the Queen. More poignantly, my experiences of playing for fu­nerals and memorial services for UK mili­tary personnel killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for victims of the 9/11 attacks when I lived in the US. Being a part of occasions of such emotional intensity makes one very grateful to be alive.”

Davies has a connection to the Maltese islands, and tells me that “coming to Gozo is a real pleasure and privilege. I first came to Malta a few years ago because my sister has a home in Xemxija. Driving around Gozo, sampling the wine and the food, and seeing the incre­dible power of the sea, was a joy.

“I was so sad when the Dwejra Window collapsed as I had spent a wonderful afternoon looking at it on my first visit to San Lawrenz. But it’s wonderful to see so many churches in Malta and Gozo well supported. I’m honoured to share this occasion at Xewkija with members of the community, and to make what I hope will be a very celebratory contribution.”

The celebratory events will take place as follows:

Thursday, 7.30pm: Fr Ignatius Borg will give a talk on Sacred Music in the Liturgy.

Friday, 7pm: Noel Gallo and Michael Farley give an audio-visual presentation on the organ project.

Saturday, 7.30pm: David Davies gives an organ recital.

Events are open to the public and no tickets are required.

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