The Organ (iii)

Jethro, Going Postal

Surmising how anxiously-awaited must be this further instalment in my gripping serial, I was moved, unprepared and disorganised as I am, to put finger to key, and initiate another chapter in this saga. You will, of course, for your part, have done your Homework. Let me remind you: it was to study an example of English Organ-building at (arguably) its prime – yet so disesteemed by the English, that, like a later masterpiece, The BBC Concert Organ, it was allowed to go to Holland. Here once more, fingers crossed, is a young Dutchman, playing English Music (‘das land ohne Musik’!) on an English Organ.

You will, of course, have noticed that his adept feet not only ‘toed’ (and from time to time ‘heeled’) pedals, but also had an ‘Accelerator Pedal’ to work, and eight black, cast-iron other pedals to engage. So, first, the ‘Accelerator’: how can the Organist get so inflexible a machine (organum, a mechanism) to go gradually softer or louder? Pulling out, or pushing in stops might just accomplish this, but the result would be lumpy – a jagged graph, rather than a smooth line; besides, all the Organist’s fingers and thumbs might have been needed just to cope with all that ‘passage work’ Bach, for instance, was famous for. So (I continue to believe) an Englishman came up with the notion of enclosing some of the pipes in a box, and furnishing the front of this box with, in effect, a sash-window: open it wide, and let all the sound roll out unconstricted; gradually lower it, and the sound will be as gradually diminished. Jethro, Going PostalHowever, as a German lecturer in Engineering used to write every year on the blackboard ‘Wenn der Theorie…’ (‘When Theory and Practice agree, they’re both wrong.’). The sash usually came slamming down with a crash that nullified any gentle diminuendo, so, after a while, the ‘Venetian-blind’ swell came into use, which, once the ‘trigger’ or ‘hitch-down’ pedal was improved away in place of the ‘balanced Swell’, meant the Organist could take his foot off the pedal without the volume changing, and, by the twentieth Century, the ‘blinds’ were turned through ninety degrees so that the ‘slats’ ran vertically, not only was the sheer volume of sound controlled, but it could be made more directional. Abraham Jordan is credited with this invention c. 1700, with Samuel Green refining it with ‘venetian blind’ shutters about fifty years later. For further enlightenment, consult and ‘playing aids’ therein.
Then those eight black pedals: if there was no likelihood of an Organist having someone like the charming young blonde (now his Wife?) Gert van Hoef has, not only to turn the music for him, when it’s time, but, to pull out or push in any stops, then an Organ-builder could, at an extra cost, add a few extra rods and levers, so that, by merely pressing down on one these with an otherwise unemployed foot, the Organist could bring increasing numbers of stops into play, thus dramatically increasing the plethora of sound, in a way of which Rossini, ‘M. Crescendo’ himself, would have been proud!
So, within about fifty years of The Glorious Restoration, Organs were once more being not only built in England, but their scope and possibilities enlarged and refined in ways unthinkable to those grim Parliamentarians who had destroyed so many (like many a socialist dictator, The Lord Protector was also a sublime hypocrite who had Magdalen College Chapel’s Organ removed… to be installed in one of his own residences; not unlike other dictators, he too had wanted his son to ‘follow him in the business’ ).


Meanwhile, the Orchestra was being enlarged: Mozart was so impressed by the sound of Clarinets in the Mannheim Orchestra, that he soon made this hitherto uncouth, rustic outdoor instrument (evolved from the Cromorne/Krummhorn used for announcing the imminent arrival of The Post, with its clarion-call. Sir Thomas Beecham habitually referred to them as ‘Clarionets’, as did most Organ-builders) a suave and essential part of the orchestral palette, particularly employing its rich, velvety chalumeau register. Trombones, the Sackbuts or Posaunes of so many outdoor bands, were similarly domesticated (again, Mozart, in his orchestration of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ added Trombones for their solemn, funerary effect), the shape of their bells more flared to smooth their clamant call, Flutes given complicated mechanisms by M. Boehm, to enable them to be played chromatically: Bach might have called for an occasional ‘oboe di caccia’ and an ‘Oboe d’amore’(contralto?), but neither of these was to find a lasting place in the Orchestra, while the ‘Cor Anglais’, roughly the Oboe’s Tenor equivalent, has done, at least since Dvorak. When we get to Wagner, we find the Brass section even more expanded, with the monomaniac composer superintending the making of special ‘Wagner-horns’, for The Ring. I say nothing (and that is rather too much) of Adolphe Saxe’s lamentable decision to make an instrumental Frankenstein-monster, by stitching together a clarinet mouthpiece and reed, and a curved brass tube.
Organ-builders were not to be left behind…

Jethro, Going Postal
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and Henry Willis

Henry Willis (1821 – 1901)

The doyen of English Organ-building, ‘Father’ Willis, [pictured to the right of Cavaillé-Coll, opp.] bestrode the Organ world like a colossus for the bulk of the Nineteenth Century, building and re-building organs: ‘wiki’ give this summary:

Among the approximately 1,000 organs that he built or re-built were the cathedral instruments at Canterbury, Carlisle, Coventry,[3] [4] Durham, Edinburgh (St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral), Exeter, Glasgow (The High Kirk of Glasgow), Gloucester, Hereford, Lincoln, St Davids Cathedral Pembrokeshire, St Paul’s Cathedral London, Salisbury, Truro, Wells and Winchester. In addition there were a large number of concert and parish church organs of note, including the organ at St George’s Hall Windsor Castle, sadly destroyed by fire in 1992. The last major instrument which he personally supervised was at St Bees Priory in 1899, which he voiced himself, although approaching his 80th year. [He is said often to have had each pipe sounded in several different places within the building for which the Organ was destined, to satisfy himself of the final effect]

The ‘Great Exhibition’ in 1851 provided him with the ultimate ‘showcase’ (lesser builders had tuned their instruments the day before the judging: Henry Willis was in the Crystal Palace at 5 in the morning, so that his instrument was in tune!) It formed the basis for the Organ in Winchester Cathedral, to be Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s final perch. He was famous for his Reeds, having worked, after apprenticeship, for several years as a ‘voicer’ of ‘free-reeds’ (as in the Harmonium/Reed-Organ) for Evans of Cheltenham, and studied the work of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811 – 1899), whose organ reeds had, and have, a particular splendour, and whose work attracted composers such as Cesar Franck, who –

… said of the rather modest Cavaillé-Coll instrument at l’Eglise St.-Jean-St.-François in Paris with words that summed up everything the builder was trying to do: “Mon nouvel orgue ? C’est un orchestre !” (“My new organ? It’s an orchestra!”).

[I don’t know whether this will link to the youtube recording of the in/famous Widor Toccata, played on the C-C instrument in S. Sulpice, or not…]

Jethro, Going PostalCavaillé-Coll used wind-pressure of 10 inches or more for his trenchant reeds (compared to the modest c. 3 inches for most flues), with an ingenious ‘ventil’ system, or separate wind-chests for this higher pressure – so that one man in Dom Bedos’ schematic illustration would have needed at least another pair of arms! While in Paris, Henry Willis also met an Englishman called Barker, who had invented (but not patented) a pneumatic device (‘The Barker Lever’) that took most of the sheer effort of depressing keys against, not only the pallet-springs, but the higher wind-pressure in the chests, on itself. How to supply all this wind? Steam power had been tried (in 1817, apparently – and recommended in 1845 by the great S.S.W. for a large Organ. William Hill, something of a stickler for tradition, had reckoned that there was no need for any mechanical blower for an Organ, but his approach to Organ-building was decidedly less open to innovations of the orchestral type such as those favoured by Willis, although he too was to introduce ‘combination-pistons’, and succumb to mechanisation of blowing. Like Willis, his Organs were also in demand in The Empire – Sydney Town Hall, reckoned to be the biggest Organ in the world at the time, and its Cathedral.
Hill’s Organ in Birmingham Town Hall was another huge Organ, greatly admired for its size and appearance in the 1830’s, and now, once more being valued and appreciated for its noble character.

Jethro, Going Postal

For a fascinating ‘snapshot’ of some of the craftsmanship that goes into building and re-building an Organ, go to Henry Willis, & Sons, Ltd.’s web-site, click on Projects in the LH menu, and scroll to Leiden Cathedral and then the show/hide button. Just imagine if such photographic aide-mémoires had been available to the Victorians!

© Jethro 2018