The Organ (v)

(‘ as it were a moth fretting a garment’ Ps. 39)

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.  Nor, however, would an Organ be able to be divided, or placed so as to enhance, rather than obstruct, the vista: Father Willis was able to do both these things at St. Paul’s, as their web-site says:

The organ remained relatively unaltered until, in the 1870s, Henry ‘Father’ Willis completed an essentially new instrument. The original Wren case was boldly divided in half and placed against the pillars on either side of the quire. At considerable risk to his own reputation, Willis had constructed something of a musical and visual coup de théatre in one of the most important ecclesiastical buildings in the world.  

Jethro, Going Postal
St Paul’s Cathedral

Like so many of the Philistines this Country is adept at nurturing, Wren, apparently, grumbled about the ‘box of whistles’ that had to be accommodated …

But, if wind-power could be harnessed to extend the possibilities of the Organ, what about this even-newer advance, Electricity? Another man with amazing fertility of mind and resilience was Robert Hope-Jones (b. 1859), who brought the use of electricity to bear on the action of the Organ, and whose invention, or development, of novel organ stops was to have a radical effect not only in Britain but, after his emigration thither in 1903, in America, and whose reputation suffered a savage re-assessment after his death (the Vicar of a Kemp-town Church  actually set about the Hope-Jones organ in St. Mark’s with an axe!), as a particularly vindictive, often ill-informed, part of the unthinking mid-twentieth Century venomous hatred of all things Victorian.

Not that Hope-Jones was the first to try to harness the new and, no doubt, exciting power of electricity in the service of the Organ: Dr. Thistlethwaite enumerates several pioneers, such as William Wilkinson in the 1820’s [Thistlethwaite, p.359] and Albert Péschard, two or more decades later [Thistlethwaite, p. 360], but adjudges The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to be the first recipient of an ‘electric organ’, and notes that a commentator at the times commended it for the fact that the organist was able to sit ‘in the orchestra’, near the conductor, and far enough from the organ itself as to be able fully to hear its effect. This was by no means the first ‘Theatre Organ’ in England: how else could an Oratorio be performed, but with an organ accompaniment? Handel had, it seems, bequeathed his ‘theatre organ’ to the same theatre a century or so before. Samuel Sebastian Wesley had spent some time before his eventual appointment to Hereford, playing the organ in opera-houses, and his early works in particular display a mastery of Recitative as well as Aria, and an equal mastery no doubt, of the skill of improvising imitative sounds, suitably to accompany the action on stage. Such was his fame, that Elgar went rushing to Worcester, on one occasion, to hear him play, much as SSW’s idol J.S. Bach had gone miles in order to hear Buxtehude play.

The Organist who managed to teach me a little of his immense skill, used to jest that a capable Organist could represent any sound in The Psalter – except that of ‘a moth, fretting a garment’, and his own accompaniment of Psalm 104 needed no Technicolor or Cinerama on a screen to make it all visible, although he never descended to the vulgar literalism of the organist of St. Hilary (Frank Baker), who (or whose ‘Miss Hargreaves’) suggests that in Fr. Faber’s hymn, ‘Hark, hark, my soul’ the lines in v.3 – ‘Far, far away, like bells at evening pealing,’ must be accompanied by a scale just like ringers’ ‘rounds’; he would, however, (in the spirit of Medieval musicians, disguising some tavern-song as the Cantus firmus of an impeccable piece of sacred polyphony), hide ‘Happy Birthday to you’, or the ‘Helston Flora Dance’, beneath wryly melancholic and mournfully modal progressions on appropriate occasions.

Jethro, Going PostalWhat held the adoption of electricity back, was neither Luddism, nor fear of unleashing Mephistophelian/Frankensteinian power, but pragmatism: how could sufficient electrical power be made available? We, so used to just touching a switch (and paying for the privilege in arrears), may be forgiven for not grasping this – though not, I fear, for grasping the astounding ability of our forebears to look far beyond the actual, and plan for the as-yet-unrealiseable. The Daniell Cell had been invented in 1836, and used in telegraphy, the Lead-acid battery in 1859, the Leclanché Cell, in 1866 (very good for electric door-bells!), but in order to operate quite hefty ‘servos’, an organ’s action will need both a good voltage and sufficient amps.: not only would this require a huge battery of cells, but good insulation of connecting wires, something being worked on as the Century progressed. The illustration to the right, shows a kind of half-way house – ‘electro-pneumatic action’: Hope-Jones’ persistence in the face of many setbacks (sabotage by jealous rivals, has even been suggested), was to carry this forward, so that, eventually, something like this could be arrived at:

Jethro, Going Postal
Figure 1 shows a so-called heavy duty electromagnet arranged to open the pallet of an organ with a conventional slider chest – a direct electric action

Not only, as I have indicated, was Hope-Jones’ fertile, not to say febrile, brain at work on the action, he was also concerned to develop new sound-colours: from the foundation of all organ-tone, the Diapason, he developed the Tibia – a pipe that generated almost exclusively its fundamental tone; working on the oldest organ-stop known, he developed the Vox Humana; whereas his Tibias hugely broadened normal Diapason scale, his String stops narrowed yet further the Dulciana and Salicional scale; refining the mechanism employed in the foghorn, he developed the Diaphone.

Here’s another short blast of the ‘Ally Pally’ Willis – Siegfried Karg-Elert’s Chorale-Improvisation on ‘Nun Danket’:

Well, from all that Hope-Jones work, the way was open for Hill (now amalgamated as Hill, Norman, & Beard), to build Theatre Organs under their ‘Christie’ name (they did not wish to jeopardise their Cthedral and Church work, by association with the perceived vulgarity of the Theatre and Cinema)and John Compton to become the most prominent Theatre Organ builder in Britain: now that so many fine instruments have been destroyed, after the nadir of their reputation in the William Glock era, many have been lovingly restored. Here is  a little of one of the deftest exponents of the Theatre Organ – still educating the ‘lower orders’, with ‘classical’ music as well as the more ephemeral: Quentin Maclean. 1930’s recording was not quite what we’re so accustomed to now! He also recorded Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, getting the Clarinet solo to imitate the orchestral upwards slide, by switching off the blower, and on again, as it begins!

[Works consulted include Dr. Nicholas Thistlethwaite’s authoritative tome ‘The Making of the Victorian Organ’, The National Pipe Organ Register, the Henry Willis web-site, Mander Organs,Wikipedia, Dr. Colin Pykett’s paper on Hope-Jones’ electric action and his patents]

© Jethro 2018