The Organ (iv)

Jethro, Going Postal
The Organ in The Alexandra Palace

By about 1850, not only had large numbers of Cathedral Organs been re-built, incorporating the latest mechanical contrivances, and improvements in terms of type and range of sounds, but many Parish Churches, too, had had Organs re-built, or re-introduced after the disasters that Church Music suffered as a result of The Reformation and again at The Great Rebellion. By about 1850, this country was awash with organ-builders. Just as the local blacksmith was able to make a ‘Grandfather’ clock – perhaps in conjunction with the village coffin-maker – so these two craftsmen were able to find an outlet for their skills in making an Organ for their Parish Church: the blacksmith could make those ‘roller-boards’ that we saw in pt.1, and the ‘squares’, plus, of course, things like struts to keep the bellows folds equi-distant, and springs for the pallets; instead of coffin-boards, the carpenter could make the sides of those long Pedal pipes (which required a slight curve to them), and off-cuts could be utilised in the making of the smaller flue pipes. If business didn’t warrant the expense of setting up their own  ‘pipe shop’, they could buy in metal pipes from larger concerns. Hele of Plymouth began his career as an organ-builder in this way: the first of his instruments to have been built entirely in his works, having recently been ripped out of its Plymouth Church by a progress-mad Evangelical, and sold abroad, despite attempts to keep it i. In the building for which it was designed, ii. In Plymouth, iii. In this Country. The Organ I grew up with, and was eventually able to learn on, was a fine instrument, built by Crabb of Exeter, to Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s specification (he, naturally, earned a commission for his recommendations – as perhaps he did for his recommendations as to Organists), but less well-to do Churches might have an Organ by Brewer or Heard of Truro, Trudgian of St. Dennis, Fleetwood of Camborne,or, if rather more flush with funds, perhaps one by Hele; however, self-respecting Towns also began to feel the need of their own Hall, in which, for the ‘improvement’ of the mechanical and labouring classes, performances by often huge choirs, of Oratorios – Handel first and foremost, but also Mendelssohn – and organ arrangements of Symphonic and Operatic music could be held.

The ‘Ally Pally’ and its magnificent Organ, represent the apogee of this kind and scale of organ-building in this country: built in 1873, the ‘Grand Organ’ certainly deserved its title, having 88 stops – 16 in the ‘Pedale’ section, with four of them of 32’ pitch, and earning the accolade of ‘the finest concert Organ in Europe’ (Marcel Dupré). Father Willis (he was accorded this title in recognition of his outstanding abilities as an organ-builder, as Bernard Smith, (Bernhard Schmidt, anglicé ) known as ‘Father Smith’ a century and more before. But the following six minutes or so, give you a more succinct and more circumstantial account of this development in organ-building  as seen by Professor Ian Tracy, from the organ-loft at Willis’s great Organ at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool (100 stops, 17 on the ‘Pedale’, just 3 of 32’ pitch!)

A decade or so earlier, William Hill had built the organ for The Ulster Hall, Belfast, an organ of 56 stops, with one at 32’ pitch on the Pedal, and a total of 14 reed stops, including a Vox Humana on the Solo. The ‘Ally Pally’ Organ was later to boast not only a ‘vox’, but a Tibia, and a set of Tubular Bells: I single out these for mention in view of further developments in organ-building which might be considered in a further part – if your forbearance can be extend that far.

Jethro, Going Postal
The Hill Organ in The Ulster Hall, Belfast

In this Philistine country, we have a sad tradition of destroying fine examples of art – either by negligence or ‘progressive’ zeal; Henry Willis’s Grand Organ at the Alexandra Palace was destroyed by fire a mere three weeks after opening, while, in WWI, the palace was used to billet troops, who looted and partly-destroyed this magnificent work of art. What a pity they weren’t lodged in the National Gallery. I cannot imagine either of our ancestral foes, France and Germany, allowing such outrages to occur. In part 2 of ‘the German War’ (©. A.L. Rowse), further damage was done, a flying-bomb having gone through the rose window the elements were allowed to do their worst, and the fine instrument was not, apparently, covered by insurance… any more than it was several decades later when yet another mysterious fire engulfed the building. After the first fire, Father Willis, with that optimistic indefatigability of the Victorians had begun work on another, even finer (and larger) instrument. Here, nevertheless, is a tantalising minute or two of the sound of the ‘Ally Pally’ Organ:


But for Barker’s invention (plagiarising?) of the pneumatic lever that Cavaillé-Coll had made such use of in St. Sulpice, such vast organs, using such high wind-pressures, would not have been practicable – no organist would have been able to exert enough force on the manual keys to operate the pallets.  But, if wind-power could be harnessed to extend the possibilities of the Organ, what about this even-newer advance, Electricity?

© Jethro 2018