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Gloucester Cathedral Organ

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The organ of Gloucester Cathedral is tuned to so-called equal temperament and has been so, as far as I know, since at least 1888. That is, unless Andrew Nethsingha has had it altered very recently.

 

I, like you, think that Gloucester is equal temperament. However, I was once told that it is not an easy organ to tune and there have been several tuners since Nicholson's took it over. If they have been of the old school, used their ears, and set the 12 notes up without reference to one of those digital tuner things then I expect they have all tuned in a variation on equal temperament. Would this account for what is now perceived to be an un-equal temperament?

 

That aside I was also told the sun has an effect as moves round from East to West and shines on the case and (even with the roof now unfortunately removed) can throw out the tuning. Before the recent rebuild domestic venetian blinds had been fitted on the East front behind the historic Harris front pipes (I kid you not) but whether they were re-instated by Nicholson at the time Downes scheme was amended I do not know. When I last heard, a year or so ago, the organ's tuner was a Lay Clerk at the Cathedral.

PJW

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I, like you, think that Gloucester is equal temperament. However, I was once told that it is not an easy organ to tune and there have been several tuners since Nicholson's took it over. If they have been of the old school, used their ears, and set the 12 notes up without reference to one of those digital tuner things then I expect they have all tuned in a variation on equal temperament. Would this account for what is now perceived to be an un-equal temperament?
Probably not - unless the bearings have gone seriously astray... I really don't know who tunes on behalf of Nicholsons (and don't really care, either)

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Probably not - unless the bearings have gone seriously astray... I really don't know who tunes on behalf of Nicholsons (and don't really care, either)

 

I think PJW meant whether the bearings were originally set by ear. It is no exaggeration to say that setting true, perfect equal temperament by ear is in fact impossible, there being so many decimal places.

 

The inherited versions tuners tend to carry round with them is of course a variation, but not sufficiently different to be called "unequal" in most cases, apart from where this has been intentional (I know about Willis and Broadwood).

 

Which makes it all the more salutory to set a correct equal temperament octave with a really good meter, and realise just how bloody awful it really is - every third wailing away like a celeste.

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Next question....do you or anyone else know what year the C compass (top C) first came in on organs?

Just the results of glancing through the books on my shelves:

 

Williams in his monumental survey of European organs up to 1850 comments that by 1820 a compass to f''' was to be expected, but I can't find a compass beyond g''' in the book at all. Plenty of 5-octave instruments in Italy, though (CC-c''' in 1483, FF-f''' in 1842). I hardly dare say that the earliest organ cited by Williams in his New History of the Organ that has a c'''' compass is Hope-Jones at W***r (1896). However, moving on quickly to the Cambridge Companion to the Organ, I find Gray & Davison made a c'''' compass at Leeds Town Hall in 1859. But Bicknell cites the Elliot & Hill organ of York Minster built after the fire of 1829 as having three divisions with a six-octave CC-c'''' compass!

 

Paul

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I think PJW meant whether the bearings were originally set by ear. It is no exaggeration to say that setting true, perfect equal temperament by ear is in fact impossible, there being so many decimal places.

 

The inherited versions tuners tend to carry round with them is of course a variation, but not sufficiently different to be called "unequal" in most cases, apart from where this has been intentional (I know about Willis and Broadwood).

 

Which makes it all the more salutory to set a correct equal temperament octave with a really good meter, and realise just how bloody awful it really is - every third wailing away like a celeste.

Yes, exactly...

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I was a tuner's assistant at Gloucester 79-81 in the HN&B days. The Swell was particularly tricky to tune. The 4ft Principal is planted on the two outermost soundboards in C and C# sides, with a central soundboard with more Swell ranks between. Opening the case doors on the North & South sides caused the tuning to alter. Changing the position of the East front shutters caused the tuning to alter. The blinds behind the East Swell front were put in (if memory serves) to prevent the Open Flute 4ft going violently out of tune with the shutters closed. Then factor in the pressure drop from the schwimmer regulators... what chance ?

 

There is no doubt in my mind that the organ speaks with a unique voice - character, if you like. Something which I find appeals to me more and more (character, that is) in preference to anything bland, be it large or small. It still fascinates me that the Gloucester organ so polarizes opinion, 36 years after installation. Proof in itself of character ?

 

H

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I assume Twyford went with equal?
The bearings were set by ear. I would not care to patronise Mr Hopps or Mr Bicknell with how to tune an organ...

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The bearings were set by ear. I would not care to patronise Mr Hopps or Mr Bicknell with how to tune an organ...

 

Presumably if it was going to be unequal, you'd have made a conscious choice to go with it? so it's roughly equal?

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I was a tuner's assistant at Gloucester 79-81 in the HN&B days. The Swell was particularly tricky to tune. The 4ft Principal is planted on the two outermost soundboards in C and C# sides, with a central soundboard with more Swell ranks between. Opening the case doors on the North & South sides caused the tuning to alter. Changing the position of the East front shutters caused the tuning to alter. The blinds behind the East Swell front were put in (if memory serves) to prevent the Open Flute 4ft going violently out of tune with the shutters closed. Then factor in the pressure drop from the schwimmer regulators... what chance ?

 

There is no doubt in my mind that the organ speaks with a unique voice - character, if you like. Something which I find appeals to me more and more (character, that is) in preference to anything bland, be it large or small. It still fascinates me that the Gloucester organ so polarizes opinion, 36 years after installation. Proof in itself of character ?

 

H

 

I totally share these thoughts. Gloucester is unique and being a tuners assistant myself from time to time (after the Nicholsons rebuild) I did notice that there were pitch variations between departments. It's not an easy organ to tune, also by the fact that the pipes are close to each other as well and of course the huge acoustics don't help either.

 

Like the Gloucester instrument as an example, organs are imperfect instruments and tuning is a compromise from start to finish. I've yet to hear any pipe organ in equal temperament.....

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I totally share these thoughts. Gloucester is unique and being a tuners assistant myself from time to time (after the Nicholsons rebuild) I did notice that there were pitch variations between departments. It's not an easy organ to tune, also by the fact that the pipes are close to each other as well and of course the huge acoustics don't help either.

 

Like the Gloucester instrument as an example, organs are imperfect instruments and tuning is a compromise from start to finish. I've yet to hear any pipe organ in equal temperament.....

 

 

As an apprentice I used to help tune the old organ at New College Oxford for Dr H K Andrews - who, on occasions could be slightly difficult. The pipework was at different height levels around the instrument, including and upper and lower soundboard in the Swell Box. The temperature changes could be horrific just by leaving the main door open in winter.

 

Dr A always came in to check the tuning at the end and always played the Treble C Great Principal against Middle C on the Swell 15th. If these were perfectly in tune all was fine - if not.......! Fortunately he always came in at the same time so we could ensure at least these two pipes were in tune.

 

FF

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Can anyone please enlighten me what the temperament of the Gloucester organ is? to my ears, it does not sound equal.

 

Any info greatly received,

 

Richard.

 

I'm hoping to play it in a few weeks time so I'll report back then.

 

Peter

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Gloucester Cathedral shop now stocks a new booklet about the organ by John Balsdon. Unfortunately, it does not mention pitch or temperament in the specification details.

The 2010 details include the new Trompette Harmonique 8 [on 8 inches wind] playable on the Choir Organ and also Manual IV, [the west positive]. A new tranfer has also been added; Great reeds on Choir.

The booklet includes a CD (which I have not yet heard) with tracks by Sumsion [for those who want to hear the old organ], Sanders, Briggs, Nethsingha and Partington.

PJW

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.... what's this? Anyone got any more info?

 

 

I happened to be in Gloucester last Friday - amid the semi-chaos of the Three Choirs preparations - and bought the above-mentioned booklet and CD (£10.50). The text by John Balsdon suggests that John Saunders and Ralph Downes had considered incorporating a solo reed back in 1970 (v an interesting revelation).

 

The new Trompette Militaire stands at the far northern edge of the pulpitum, on the opposite side to the console, with just a few pipes to be seen from the north choir aisle.

 

Tonally in seems rather less unobtrusive, at least as heard on the last track of the CD in Andrew Carter's Trumpet Tune. I suspect, however, a fair judgement requires a proper live hearing in the building. It may prove its worth in leading the singing of large congregations. Whatever its many virtues, this always seemed to me one role in which the organ has hitherto been slightly lacking.

 

JS

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I heard the organ yesterday at Ashley Grote's quite superb 3 Choirs recital.

 

The new stop is not at all overpowering in the Nave but has a real presence both solo and in the tutti and is a very worthwhile addition. Is there room for 16' & 4' equivalents?

 

Only kidding... :o

 

Added Wednesday lunchtime...

 

Choral Evensong comes live from Gloucester today (11 August) on Radio 3 at 4pm.

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The new stop is not at all overpowering in the Nave but has a real presence both solo and in the tutti and is a very worthwhile addition. Is there room for 16' & 4' equivalents?

 

Only kidding...

 

I think I just heard it (the new stop) at the end of the Nunc before the Gloria??

Sounded excellent to me (notwithstanding the BBC's habit of compressing the sound levels!)

 

Richard

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Indeed.

 

I thought that the BBC had stopped the dreadful habit of cutting short the final voluntary - and what a voluntary to curtail. I can't repeat what I shouted at the hi-fi... :o

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I thought that the BBC had stopped the dreadful habit of cutting short the final voluntary - and what a voluntary to curtail.

Quite. What other instrument would they do this to? I can't think of one.

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Quite. What other instrument would they do this to? I can't think of one.

 

A disgraceful intrusion by the BBC woman announcer who seemed to like the sound of her own voice.

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A disgraceful intrusion by the BBC woman announcer who seemed to like the sound of her own voice.

 

... and with only about a dozen bars to go! Could they not have cut a bit of Mr Trelawny's tiresome waffle instead?

 

JS

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... and with only about a dozen bars to go! Could they not have cut a bit of Mr Trelawny's tiresome waffle instead?

 

JS

 

I dont think they would ever do this with any other live performance. I was as livid as the rest of you.....I got the impression that Ashley was aware that time was running out and was having a race with the BBC towards the end with his tempo?

I suppose we should be grateful that the BBC still broadcast (most of) choral evensong these days....

 

Richard

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I too must add my disgust that the BBC cut short the organ voluntary, which the organist must have spent hours rehearsing. How muppetorial can the BBC get. Complete muppetry!!

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