Did Mendelssohn play the organ at Croydon Minster?

By - Friday 16th February, 2018

Did the famous composer really play in Croydon? Let’s try to solve a musical mystery

Photo by Pamela Hall, used with permission.

The Croydon Times in January 1867 was clear. Croydon’s historic parish church (nowadays Croydon Minster) had just been devastated by fire, and its celebrated organ, built by John Avery, totally destroyed. “Maestro Mendelssohn played upon it and pronounced it a most excellent instrument”, the paper sorrowfully declared. We do not know the exact evidence upon which that journalist was drawing. Is it really true? As the minster’s present day education officer, I recently set out to investigate the claim.

Felix Mendelssohn himself provides support for the idea, but wasn’t quite clear enough to remove doubt. The famous German composer wrote in his diary that on 17th June 1832 he had played the organ in “a church in Croydon”. This was the only reference that he ever gave to playing in our town and no mention of it was ever made again. But which church?

Felix Mendelssohn often visited England, both as an aspiring young musician and later on, as a respected and acknowledged composer and conductor. His link with Croydon was through his friendship with Thomas Attwood (1765-1838). Himself a talented musician who had studied under Mozart, Attwood was appointed organist at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1796 and became an important musical figure in the capital. It was Attwood who recognised the early talents of Mendelssohn on his first visit to London, but their friendship developed in a rather unlikely way. In September 1829 in London, Mendelsshon was involved in quite a serious accident when “a stupid little gig crashed into me and robbed me of a pretty piece of skin with accompanying flesh”, as he recorded in a letter. Intending to stay only three weeks, his convalescence lasted two months. Attwood offered him hospitality at his home in Beulah Hill, Norwood, whilst he recovered.

The quality of the organ in Croydon’s parish church is an important clue

Whilst staying with the Attwoods at their home, Roselawn, Mendelssohn was inspired by the gate bell there, and wrote a piece for piano and harp titled ‘The Evening Bell’ especially for his friend and one of his daughters, who was a harpist. Having established this initial link with the family, we discover that Mendelssohn made a second visit to stay at Roselawn in 1832, the year of his diary entry about a church in Croydon.

One important clue comes from the well-connected Thomas Attwood himself. Amongst his friends was the organist of St Martin’s in the Field, Thomas Forbes Walmisley. Attwood was godfather to Walmisley’s eldest son (whose middle name was also Attwood) – a very gifted young musician who was later to become organist for St John’s and Trinity Colleges in Cambridge and a celebrated church composer. His setting in the key of D minor of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is still part of the repertoire of many cathedrals in this country today. In 1832, young Walmisley was organist at Croydon Parish Church. It would seem logical that it was the organ in this particular church to which Mendelssohn was referring to in his diary entry, and that the great composer’s visit to play had been arranged by the young organist’s godfather, Thomas Attwood.

Why would Mendelssohn be interested in playing in Croydon? This is where the quality of John Avery’s organ is important. Would not the maestro Mendelssohn play the best? In this matter, there is but one organ in our town which was then renowned as the best instrument in the county of Surrey. This organ was to be found at Croydon Parish Church. The instrument was built in 1794 by Avery, a highly skilled organ builder of his day who was responsible for many fine organs throughout the length and breadth of the country, including one at King’s College Cambridge. The organ which he built here in Croydon was noted throughout the musical world as probably the finest of his creations, especially in relation to the variety and quality of the sound produced.

It’s a shame that the great composer did not hold any recitals here in Croydon

Mendelssohn’s plaque in Hobart Place, London.
Photo by Diane Griffiths, used under Creative Commons licence.

Having established that Mendelssohn twice stayed in Upper Norwood, that his host had a godson who was the organist at the Croydon Parish Church and that this organ was one of the finest to be found, it does seem likely that we have our answer.

Maybe there were people in the town and the church congregation who still remembered that Mendelssohn had played here. In the aftermath of the fire, maybe the reporter was keen to emphasise the great loss to the town that the church’s fire had brought by taking a leap of faith on the evidence that we have gleaned here.

Whatever the exact circumstances were of the Croydon organ being played by Felix Mendelssohn, it is such a shame that he did not hold any concerts or recitals here. Using his close friendship with Attwood, we do know that Mendelssohn often played the organ at St Paul’s Cathedral. An article in the Morning Post newspaper on 23rd June 1832 notes that the directors of the Philharmonic Society presented him with a massive and elegant silver ink stand, as he was on the point of leaving to return to Germany. Imagine, just going to church to hear beautiful music! There are records too of Mendelssohn playing concerts at Westminster Abbey, St John’s Chapel Paddington and St John’s Waterloo during his 1832 stay in London.

Of course that organ that Mendelssohn played in Croydon Parish Church was sadly destroyed in the fire of 1867. However the glorious music produced by Ronny Krippner, director of music at Croydon Minster with both organ and choirs today, testifies that beautiful music is still to be found in modern day churches. Later this year the current restoration work on the organ in Croydon Minster will be completed. The people of Croydon will then once again be able to hear and appreciate the glorious sounds from the ’king of instruments’.

David Morgan

David Morgan

Retired Croydon headteacher and now education officer for Croydon Minster. Bass lay clerk in the Minster's choir.

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  • Sean Creighton

    A very welcome addition to our growing knowledge of Croydon’ rich music history. We now need to fill in the time gap between Attwood and Mendelssohn.and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

  • Ian Marvin

    Yet another musician with Croydon connections! As frustratingly vague as Adele, who located the Brit School as being somewhere between Selhurst and Kent.

  • StephenJW

    There can’t be many alternative candidates in 1832 to the Parish Church. Presumably the only other two substantial churches in Croydon that might have had organs would have been All Saints Upper Norwood, and St James Croydon Common, both chapels of ease of the Parish Church, built as commissioners churches in 1827-29.

    • Ian Marvin

      I think that given he was staying in Beulah Hill with All Saints a short walk away he wouldn’t have thought of it as being in ‘Croydon’, which even now looks to be a separate place from the top ridge.