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Father Henry Willis's Greatest Hits

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk

Of course we all know of several widely-acclaimed organs by HW - even if not everyone agrees on exactly which ones are greatest. I have suspicions about some of them not being tonally 'as originally intended' any more, and recently posted one of the reasons why I personally do not regard Truro as a typical work. For various reasons Lincoln would be another such.

 

I hope that those responding to this topic will add their favourites rather than their fondest moans amd that favourites (ideally) would only include instruments they have actually heard 'in the flesh'. Sadly - or maybe fortunately (since I am on the firinges of the recording business) the microphone sometimes does not tell the whole truth!

 

To start the ball rolling, here are a few Willis instruments that I believe sound as intended - my only authority for saying so (because I have not set foot inside any of them) is that they very clearly share the same ideals in terms of balance, pallette available and effectiveness in the building.

 

Blenheim Palace - there will be moans from some who didn't/don't like the fact that a small firm (of whom they may not approve) has been carrying out partial restoration over several years. Situated in a poor acoustic and with the usual problems from over-heating/occasional complete shut-down of heating - this is still a stunning organ with (I ven ture to suggest) one of the best solo Tubas ever made - A shaft of gold! In case this comment makes me look like a total power-crazed-fiend, the soft stuff is exceptional too.

 

Union Chapel, Islington - in a tatty state in a (sadly) under-used and not easily accessible building. The organ was rebuilt in a very limited way (maybe 80 years ago) by Monk and Gunther (a small East London outfit) which gave it some action revisions and a Choir Swellbox. But just play it - ignoring the odd infelicities if you can (bakelite panels behind the original HW1 drawstops, worn action and [maybe still] rough tuning). They have the finest Swell Trumpet in the world. .....Well, (cynics will winge!)..... the finest Swell Trumpet I have ever heard, in any country, by any builder.

 

No.3 (small 2-decker) - I wish I knew the name of the place - maybe research on NPOR will bring it up, but Martin Monkman of Amphion took me three weeks ago to an untouched two-manual organ in the wilds of North Yorkshire. Great had 8.8.8.4.4.2 Swell had 8.8.4.8 and Pedal had 16 Bourdon, of course. This looks like nothing on paper, and we've all sat down at similar-sized jobs and come away disappointed less than half an hour later! Well, in the flesh it was like the Willis-on-wheels at St.Paul's. The full Swell was absolutely startling - I swear that organ could play virtually everything - including any reasonable liturgical job, which, let us remember, is what the church or the donor paid for! No name plate, but HW1 in every note!

 

I'll add to this little list myself as time goes on.

 

Those who don't care for Willis instruments will tell you that their organs were mass-produced and I am prepared to accept that this could well be the case. However, if the resulting organs are 'mass-produced' they certainly don't sound like it. If Henry and George Willis (and the later Henrys and Vincent) came up with solutions to common voicing problems, who can blame them from exploiting these to their commercial benefit. Actually, one should add, I don't think they ever made much money - but they sure kept busy!

 

There were always some who didn't like the Willis style. I certainly wouldn't want to have all large organs limited to this concept, but if you approach these instruments with an open mind you have to admit that a sterling result was regularly achieved. What higer praise can one give to a firm?

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I agree about Blenheim Palace. I was also sorry to read about the parlous state of the organ in the Union Chapel.

 

How about the extremely small three-clavier Willis in Kilkhampton Methodist Church (near Bude, North Cornwall)? I think that there are two stops per department but with the usual Bourdon only on the Pedale.

 

Oxford Towm Hall - another wonderful Willis. I gave a recital there, last summer (well, actually swapped a recital for some money...) The organ was a joy to play, even with only four composition pedals each to Pedal/GO and Swell. The full organ was a most thrilling sound - the chorus reeds were quite brassy. The quieter registers were, without exception, extremely good.

 

No doubt there are many others!

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I agree about Kilkhampton - here's the spec. for info as it's quite unsusal - 'supposedly it was originally a house organ:

 

CHOIR: Lieblich Gedact 8, Principal 4

GREAT: Open Diapason 8, Flûte Harmonique 4

SWELL: Salcional 8, Hautboy 8

PEDALE: Bourdon 16

Tremulant (inoperative)

Couplers: 3 to Pedal; Swell to Great, Choir to Great, Octave coupler to Great

Trigger pedal to Swell Horse-shoe pedal for Great to Pedal reversible

Four composition pedals to all the manual stops

Compass: 56/30

 

The 1876 at Davidstow in Cornwall sounds similar to the Yorkshire example above.

 

AJJ

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Thank you! I had not played it for a few years and so I had forgotten the stop-list.

 

Davidstow I did not know about, I will have to check it out - if I can get down there this summer. Cornwall in the summer is just wonderful - I do miss it!

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An aside.... but the Kilkhampton Willis (see above) combination pedals are very cunningly devised to allow registration easily by adding and subtracting by hand after the combinations have been set by foot. There are four pedals, each pedal draws Swell to Great, Choir to Great and Great to Pedal, plus a selection of speaking stops. Playing on the Great one gets:

 

1. Salcional 8, Principal 4.

2. Salcional 8.

3. Salcional 8, Hautboy 8, Flûte Harmonique 4, Principal 4.

4. All manual stops with 8ve coupler.

 

Rather amazing if you think about the various possible permutations for recital or service work and in this context it is better to have combination pedals to the whole organ than just divisionals. (In fact I think I prefer this in the small parish tracker context generally.)

 

AJJ

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Yes, I think that this is a good idea.

 

Interestingly, the organ in Kilkhampton Parish Church has quite cleverly arranged pistons. Apart from almost certainly having the first general pistons in the county (two, in 1953) the three thumb pistons for the Pedal/GO are set differently to the three foot pistons. This means that, if one uses thumb and foot pistons alternately, a very smooth crescendo is possible.

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Interesting - I never noticed this - 'have not been there for a while though but did some research on Roger Yates for an article in Organists' Review back in the '80s so spent some time there with the then Rector - Ronald Watts who had been instrumental in getting the Yates work done at Kilkhampton PC. He was also an organist himself so maybe console details etc. were worked out between him and Yates.

 

AJJ

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Yes, Kilkhampton is a good instrument. I particularly like the Pedal Sub Bass 32p and the Bombarde - a real French rank which is most exciting - when it does not have dead pigeons down the resonators....

 

Apparently Ron Watts became quite a good amateur organist before he died. He and Yates certainly did a good job designing that organ, although my preference would be to have a liitle more weight on the GO fonds - at present, in the tutti, the Pedal 32p and the Bombarde definitely win. I would also prefer a céleste in the Swell, instead of the Twelfth - in this, I do know that the present organist, Mr. Mike Richardson, a great friend, agrees with me. However, it is supposed to be a classical organ.

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Yes, I think that this is a good idea.

 

Interestinly, the organ in Kilkhampton Parish Church has quite cleverly arranged pistons. Apart from almost certainly having the first general pistons in the county (two, in 1953) the three thumb pistons for the Pedal/GO are set differently to the three foot pistons. This means that, if one uses thumb and foot pistons alternately, a very smooth crescendo is possible.

 

Hi

 

Sorry, but Wurlitezer beats this by a long way - the Rye Wurlitzer (dating from the 1920's) had all 8 thumb pistons configured as generals on the original setter board. I would guess that other Wulitzwers of the same vintage had similar arrangements??

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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Yes, but it is not situated in Cornwall! For a rural Cornish church to have general pistons in the early 1950s was almost certainly unique.

 

I am happy to confess blissful ignorance of cinema-type organs. This is not meant disparagingly - I just do not like them! :blink:

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Of course we all know of several widely-acclaimed organs by HW - even if not everyone agrees on exactly which ones are greatest. I have suspicions about some of them not being tonally 'as originally intended' any more, and recently posted one of the reasons why I personally do not regard Truro as a typical work. For various reasons Lincoln would be another such.

 

I hope that those responding to this topic will add their favourites rather than their fondest moans amd that favourites (ideally) would only include instruments they have actually heard 'in the flesh'. Sadly - or maybe fortunately (since I am on the firinges of the recording business) the microphone sometimes does not tell the whole truth!

 

The 1906 Willis II at All Saints Lincoln - since it has had its Great 15th reinstated is well worth a visit - See NPOR for spec. (Cousans revoiced it as a Harmonic Flute 4 ! - Julian Paul, who has done so much to keep the Cathedral organ in good shape put the 2' back in the '80s)

 

AJJ

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Guest Roffensis
The 1906 Willis II at All Saints Lincoln - since it has had its Great 15th reinstated is well worth a visit - See NPOR for spec. (Cousans revoiced it as a Harmonic Flute 4 ! - Julian Paul, who has done so much to keep the Cathedral organ in good shape put the 2' back in the '80s)

 

AJJ

 

Holy trinity,Walton breck, Liverpool. As per W.T.Best who was here 1861 to 1854. The organ is 1863, 3 manual job, 27 stops with choir stops all marked solo, old English lettering throughout. Rushworths removed one of the 9 reeds in all in 1939, a Vox H. for a poor Echo gamba. otherwise original, and very brassy with it.

 

Another small one is at Clubmoor presyterian, 2 manuals, 13 stops. Hunters lane congregational, 18 stops 2 manuals, also pretty orignal. Walton breck is the one to play, but the church is not very enthusiastic generally.

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Guest Roffensis
Of course we all know of several widely-acclaimed organs by HW - even if not everyone agrees on exactly which ones are greatest. I have suspicions about some of them not being tonally 'as originally intended' any more, and recently posted one of the reasons why I personally do not regard Truro as a typical work. For various reasons Lincoln would be another such.

 

I hope that those responding to this topic will add their favourites rather than their fondest moans amd that favourites (ideally) would only include instruments they have actually heard 'in the flesh'. Sadly - or maybe fortunately (since I am on the firinges of the recording business) the microphone sometimes does not tell the whole truth!

 

To start the ball rolling, here are a few Willis instruments that I believe sound as intended - my only authority for saying so (because I have not set foot inside any of them) is that they very clearly share the same ideals in terms of balance, pallette available and effectiveness in the building.

 

Blenheim Palace - there will be moans from some who didn't/don't like the fact that a small firm (of whom they may not approve) has been carrying out partial restoration over several years. Situated in a poor acoustic and with the usual problems from over-heating/occasional complete shut-down of heating - this is still a stunning organ with (I ven ture to suggest) one of the best solo Tubas ever made - A shaft of gold!  In case this comment makes me look like a total power-crazed-fiend, the soft stuff is exceptional too.

 

Union Chapel, Islington - in a tatty state in a (sadly) under-used and not easily accessible building.  The organ was rebuilt in a very limited way (maybe 80 years ago) by Monk and Gunther (a small East London outfit) which gave it some action revisions and a Choir Swellbox.  But just play it - ignoring the odd infelicities if you can (bakelite  panels behind the original HW1 drawstops, worn action and [maybe still] rough tuning).  They have the finest Swell Trumpet in the world.  .....Well, (cynics will winge!)..... the finest Swell Trumpet I have ever heard, in any country, by any builder.

 

No.3 (small 2-decker) - I wish I knew the name of the place - maybe research on NPOR will bring it up, but Martin Monkman of Amphion took me three weeks ago to an untouched two-manual organ in the wilds of North Yorkshire. Great had 8.8.8.4.4.2   Swell had 8.8.4.8 and Pedal had 16 Bourdon, of course. This looks like nothing on paper, and we've all sat down at similar-sized jobs and come away disappointed less than half an hour later!   Well, in the flesh it was like the Willis-on-wheels at St.Paul's. The full Swell was absolutely startling - I swear that organ could play virtually everything - including any reasonable liturgical job, which, let us remember, is what the church or the donor paid for!  No name plate, but HW1 in every note!

 

I'll add to this little list myself as time goes on.

 

Those who don't care for Willis instruments will tell you that their organs were mass-produced and I am prepared to accept that this could well be the case.  However, if the resulting organs are 'mass-produced' they certainly don't sound like it.  If Henry and George Willis (and the later Henrys and Vincent) came up with solutions to common voicing problems, who can blame them from exploiting these to their commercial benefit.  Actually, one should add, I don't think they ever made much money - but they sure kept busy! 

 

There were always some who didn't like the Willis style.  I certainly wouldn't want to have all large organs limited to this concept, but if you approach these instruments with an open mind you have to admit that a sterling result was regularly achieved. What higer praise can one give to a firm?

 

Depends what you mean by sterling. The balance beween manuals is usually very poor, and his organs rely heavily on reeds to give power. The diapasons typically fall off below tenor C, and the flutes are much of a muchness. At times his organs could be truly great, such as St Georges Liverpool, and Ally Pally, and i believe Canterbury Cathedral, but overall I always had the impression of mass production. Gray and Davison actually made the reeds in the early years, and that explains similarities there. I have utmost respect for a good Willis, where it occurs, but much prefer Hill, which to me comes over as more purely singing tone, and very musically balanced. That from a ex Willis finatic who just realised that they were perhaps not the greatest that ever walked. Just amogst them. :lol::blink:

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Hill organs are indeed often excellent. I much prefer the structure of Hill's diapason choruses - particularly when he capped them with a 19, 22, 26, 29 mixture. There is also generally a great variety of quiet ranks - take, for example the old Hill at Shrewsbury Abbey. Not well-known and with several stops still prepared-for, it is still a superb instrument. Certainly, a few years ago, the pneumatic action was still working well. There had been one or two alterations earlier in the last century (for example, the Swell Oboe had been converted to a 16p stop - I think stopping at TC). However, there was a great variety in the quieter ranks, notably the Choir Organ. I still cannot help wondering what Chester would have been like if Roger Fisher had just had R&D fit a new action and perhaps one or two minor alterations to the Pedal and Choir organs.

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Depends what you mean by sterling. The balance beween manuals is usually very poor, and his organs rely heavily on reeds to give power. The diapasons typically fall off below tenor C, and the flutes are much of a muchness. At times his organs could be truly great, such as St Georges Liverpool, and Ally Pally, and i believe Canterbury Cathedral, but overall I always had the impression of mass production. Gray and Davison actually made the reeds in the early years, and that explains similarities there. I have utmost respect for a good Willis, where it occurs, but much prefer Hill, which to me comes over as more purely singing tone, and very musically balanced. That from a ex Willis finatic who just realised that they were perhaps not the greatest that ever walked. Just amogst them.  :blink:  :mellow:

 

You make some interesting points!

 

I am particularly interested to hear the thought that Canterbury surpassed Salisbury and Lincoln (in its un-restored state, presumably). I understand from a previous assistant at Lincoln (who is also extremely familiar with the Salisbury organ) that he certainly viewed Lincoln more favourably than Salisbury. He expressed the opinion that it was both louder and more magnificent. However, Canterbury is comparatively little talked-about as far as I know.

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
Hill organs are indeed often excellent. I much prefer the structure of Hill's diapason choruses - particularly when he capped them with a 19, 22, 26, 29 mixture. There is also generally a great variety of quiet ranks - take, for example the old Hill at Shrewsbury Abbey. Not well-known and with several stops still prepared-for, it is still a superb instrument. Certainly, a few years ago, the pneumatic action was still working well. There had been one or two alterations earlier in the last century (for example, the Swell Oboe had been converted to a 16p stop - I think stopping at TC). However, there was a great variety in the quieter ranks, notably the Choir Organ. I still cannot help wondering what Chester would have been like if Roger Fisher had just had R&D fit a new action and perhaps one or two minor alterations to the Pedal and Choir organs.

 

 

In haste, several points:

 

1. The Willis balance question - I agree, but this 'ideal' of manuals that balance was not thought important at the time. This is a price you often have to pay for liking a symphonic organ of this period - most C-Coll organs also do not have a balance. The idea is that the whole builds seamlessly together. You get the odd lone voice - Edwin Lemare for instance, who deliberately designed St.Margaret's Westminster to have a Swell organ of greater power than the Great and very thoughtfully wrote down his rationale for later generations.

 

2. The point about the reeds being the loudest stops by quite some way has its good points too. This of course is the ticket which brought in the fashion for H&H - complaints about the big Willis jobs that the Diapason chorus was thought not big enough - Albert Hall being specifically criticised on this point when new. One could see this as a positive thing, however - by that I refer to the fact that these Diapason choruses not being over-powered tend to be more musical and more bearable for long periods - I would compare a standard FHW chorus to an Arthur Harrison and typically the Willis might be a little hard, certainly bright but not as loud.

 

3. I know the Shrewsbury Abbey organ - I used to be organist there! It is indeed pleasant, refined and civilised. Doesn't inspire me, though - not in impact or tone particularly. I know several big Hills and like them enormously - but they have limitations too. Take Eton (which is one of the best) the sorrow is that there is insufficient difference in character between Swell and Great - you can change manauals without couplers drawn and everything sounds the same. Mind you - this is often the secret of blend and a good build-up. I mustn't put the cat among the pidgeons and say that Hill reeds don't stay in tune as well as Willis's, some do some don't. It is hard to be fair to a builder whose work has so often been spoiled. By the way, Lichfield as recently rebuilt is totally magnificent.

 

Keep the suggestions coming.

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You make some interesting points!

 

I understand from a previous assistant at Lincoln (who is also extremely familiar with the Salisbury organ) that he certainly viewed Lincoln more favourably than Salisbury. He expressed the opinion that it was both louder and more magnificent. However.

 

This is interesting - having 'sung against' Lincoln regularly for a number of years and also recieved organ lessons on it during this time I feel that part of its appeal is due to the space it has to speak into. (To hear Jennifer Bate play Messiaen there and in the same concert accompany the Durufle Requiem was a revelation!) Despite this, however I never had any feeling of 'lag' when playing. Salisbury I played once briefly but have largely experienced in a 'non participatory mode' - one feels much closer in to things there - the Choir Lieblichs etc. and in consequence the effect is very different - perhaps more intimate. The 32's 'round the corner' effect also adds to this in that the reed has perhaps a more 'safely out of the way' feel than that at Lincoln.

 

AJJ

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I've noted on an earlier topic my own admiration of the organ in St. Michael's, Tenbury, which I would suggest as a candidate for your list.

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I've noted on an earlier topic my own admiration of the organ in St. Michael's, Tenbury, which I would suggest as a candidate for your list.

 

And St Dominic's Priory in Hampstead/Belsize Park also.

 

AJJ

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A little point about "balance".

 

This is a hazardous notion, in that its meaning is completely different

in a romantic organ than with baroque or "Orgelbewegt" ones.

 

The first true romantic organs had their Claviers differentiated no more

by location or pitch, as with the Werkprinzip, but by different levels of

power, for instance:

 

Manual I FFF

Manual II MF

Manual III P

Fernwerk ppp

 

This you will find, to a more or less extended degree, in english, belgian and french organs, but with a difference: the Swell , which in France and England can sometimes be as powerfull as the great (16-8-4 reeds in France, ditto+mixture as Full Swell in

England).

But the principle remains.

As to the reeds dominating:

-With ACC, whose "customers" did not accept chorus Tierce ranks, the tutti is actually a "Grand jeu", that only the reeds and the Cornets are audible, upseting

the rest.

-With Willis, the reeds and the Chorus Mixtures (in place of the Cornets, but then with Tierce ranks) dominate the same way.

 

So the aim was the tutti, not a kind of "balance" we seek today.

 

Best wishes,

Pierre Lauwers.

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I was told frequently by my teacher at Lincoln (an ex Assistant Organist) that the 8' & 4' Tubas were intended to act almost as super Great reeds - ie in a chorus context. At some point a Great to Solo coupler was added to facilitate this. I am not sure if this is the case at Salisbury etc. though. (I did once add the Tubas to the final part of a piece being played by a friend for whom I was page turning at Salisbury - it sounded good to me but his reaction was almost such that medical help may have been needed!)

AJJ

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I was told frequently by my teacher at Lincoln (an ex Assistant Organist) that the  8' & 4' Tubas were intended to act almost as super Great reeds - ie in a chorus context.  At some point a Great to Solo coupler was added to facilitate this. I am not sure if this is the case at Salisbury etc. though. (I did once add the Tubas to the final part of a piece being played by a friend for whom I was page turning at Salisbury - it sounded good to me but his reaction was almost such that medical help may have been needed!)

AJJ

 

Aren't the Tubas better "outside" the tutti, I mean rather pitted against it from

a Solo manual?

Noise isn't an aim in itself; was any Tuba intended for use in chords?

Pierre

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Guest Roffensis
Hill organs are indeed often excellent. I much prefer the structure of Hill's diapason choruses - particularly when he capped them with a 19, 22, 26, 29 mixture. There is also generally a great variety of quiet ranks - take, for example the old Hill at Shrewsbury Abbey. Not well-known and with several stops still prepared-for, it is still a superb instrument. Certainly, a few years ago, the pneumatic action was still working well. There had been one or two alterations earlier in the last century (for example, the Swell Oboe had been converted to a 16p stop - I think stopping at TC). However, there was a great variety in the quieter ranks, notably the Choir Organ. I still cannot help wondering what Chester would have been like if Roger Fisher had just had R&D fit a new action and perhaps one or two minor alterations to the Pedal and Choir organs.

 

I know Shrewsbury and yes I agree, its a gem. As to Chester, it was not altered as much as people think, and I have a EP record of it from Sanders day, and the Boellmann Toccata off that has been reissued by priory, giving a interesting impression. I am also reliably informed that there is some pipework stored in the job, from what I don't know, whether from the 71 rebuild or later..... er hem. One thing is sure, that it should have very conservative rebuild, and reverse as much as is possible, including any mindless tinkerings that may have occurred. Certainly the 32' reed was made more polite in '71. In Liverpool there is a 1870 Gray and Davison, dramatically rebuilt and enlarged by Hill in 1907 as a 4 decker, 40 stops. This organ is in St Francis Xavier and is, believe me, a veritable gem. It's supposed to be getting restored. A lot like Chester too.

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Aren't the Tubas better "outside" the tutti, I mean rather pitted against it from

a Solo manual?

Noise isn't an aim in itself; was any Tuba intended for use in chords?

Pierre

 

I agree totally but in the Lincoln context as a special effect it worked. Maybe it is the acoustic - I am not sure - but the Tubas there are certainly not the obliterating type - the Chancel Tubas at St Paul's Cathedral could be used similarly.

 

AJJ

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