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Modern Tracker Action Organs


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Name me a single electric or pneumatic job which has gone on for 50+ years without needing a virtually new action at the end of it.

Careful now, David ! Such sweeping statements might get you shot down in flames. I know many pneumatic instruments, well in excess of 50+ yrs, that are still working well with original leatherwork AND are most certainly restorable.

 

Electric action...well there's a thing. Ask me if I see electric actions restorable after 50+yrs and I fear the answer would be quite different. For example, will the same transmission technology be available for repair at Worcester in fifty years ? I wonder.

 

H

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snip

Name me a single electric or pneumatic job which has gone on for 50+ years without needing a virtually new action at the end of it.

 

snip

 

 

Sorry David, it's the Victorian trackers that seem to be able to go on for ever. I challenge you to name me a modern tracker job (by a UK builder) that is more than thirty years old and has never given trouble. I could list you twenty or thirty high-profile jobs that have needed serious work well within their guarantee periods.

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Sorry David, it's the Victorian trackers that seem to be able to go on for ever. I challenge you to name me a modern tracker job (by a UK builder) that is more than thirty years old and has never given trouble. I could list you twenty or thirty high-profile jobs that have needed serious work well within their guarantee periods.

 

I could give you one in Glasgow, now only 11 years old, but trouble after less than 5!

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The problem is of course partly that modern instruments are more sensitive than their predecessors were.The Victorian trackers go on forever because they were made to be safe, not light, in their actions.

 

 

 

 

A lot of instruments of this vintage , here at any rate, are actually really clapped out, their rollers despearately need new bushings etc, but because their overlarge pallets have really strong pallet springs, they soldier on - as long as you don't really need to play much more than a hymn on them.

 

 

The simplest cars can be kept on the road forever. Your BMW won't start if the ashtray is dirty.

 

:D B

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"The problem is of course partly that modern instruments are more sensitive than their predecessors were.The Victorian trackers go on forever because they were made to be safe, not light, in their actions."

 

Mechanical actions should only be as light as is appropriate for the size of the organ. Too often, both in the UK, and especially in Germany (and Denmark) mechanical actions are STILL made to feel as much like electric actions as possible. The conscience of the organist is therefore soothed without the inconvience of having to use any arm weight, or play slower than they would otherwise. I played a recital in Germany last year on a brand new organ with a mechanical action designed by the builders (of which they were very proud). There was NO pluck whatever and control was a risky business.

 

"I could give you one in Glasgow, now only 11 years old, but trouble after less than 5!"

 

Actually, the organ in question never worked from day one.

 

"p.s. are Van den Heuvel Orgelbouw still using Barker Machines in their new organs?"

 

I think so, but, of course, they don't make them themselves!

 

In response to 'stewartt's comments - it would be true if the organ was a car or a washing machine. But an organ has intrinsic artistic quality so the musician has a right to expect some aesthetic relationship between the style of the instrument, and the action it uses. I would also suggest longetivity is as important as any of the attributes he suggest. Mechanical action gets my vote every time on that score. Which is not to say that there aren't fine EP or pneumatic organs of course.

 

The late lamented Cees van Oostenbrugge (MD of Flentrop) would never build a new organ without mechanical action or slider chests. BUT he converted his model railway to digital control as soon as he could. :D "Proper modernisation" is a concept which applies to cars, but not to musical instruments.

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

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This thread is extremely interesting.

 

I long wondered why so few great players dared record Bach on authentic,

ancient organs, always preffering neo-baroque ones.

I understood why when I could visit Silbermann, Trost and Wagner organs;

none of these permits the "ti tuh tâh" breathless speed race which is fashionable for

Bach since some decades.

 

To go on with the "automotive " comparisons, who would want a non powered,

direct Porsche steering on a 30 tons Mercedes Actros ?

Or even something which would feel like it ? With such, you would soon end

up in the lanscape with your 30 tons toxic chemicals (for example) last.

 

This is good sense...

 

Pierre

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Name me a single electric or pneumatic job which has gone on for 50+ years without needing a virtually new action at the end of it.

Careful now, David ! Such sweeping statements might get you shot down in flames. I know many pneumatic instruments, well in excess of 50+ yrs, that are still working well with original leatherwork AND are most certainly restorable.

 

Electric action...well there's a thing. Ask me if I see electric actions restorable after 50+yrs and I fear the answer would be quite different. For example, will the same transmission technology be available for repair at Worcester in fifty years ? I wonder.

 

H

 

Yes, yes, yes - broad sweeping statements etc etc.

 

Just to pick up on the pneumatic bit - they might be restorable, but you're still into heavy-scale stripping down, huge quantities of expensive leather, extremely time consuming to apply and a nightmare if one note fails - all, of course, by comparison with finding the appropriate wooden stick and moving the leather button on the end until the trouble stops. I know a good few too, as I realised when I was driving along. Though given it's been seized up and dumb for many, many years, I think including Southampton Guildhall might be pushing it.

 

If modern tracker instruments fall apart, then they're obviously not sufficiently well engineered and robust and of good quality materials. Doubtless there were Victorian instruments like that too, but they withered and decayed and we were left with the Hills, Bishops and others.

 

 

Cynic's challenge to name an instrument by a British builder which has gone on without giving trouble is not altogether straightforward - a cursory glance through the three Rowntree Classical Organ books reveals lots and lots of Flentrop, Marcussen, Rieger, and Collins. (Hmm.) Well, delve a little deeper and only considering multiple manuals - how about the 1974 Drake Opus 1 still going strong at Bristol University? I don't think New College has had any major mechanical work done yet. There's lots more Drake output heading towards that age, not forgetting Bridgetown (27 years old, and proof it is possible to build a non-ciphering tracker instrument on a wobbly floating floor) and of course the Roger Yates stuff like Dartington (now dismantled to be moved, but still working at the time that happened) and Stogursey. I don't think there's any doubt whatsoever that any of Drake's or Ken Tickell's output is going to last a century and beyond though. Douai Abbey and Grosvenor Chapel, to name but two, have done the best part of 15 years (18 in the case of Grosvenor) without a fault in the book, and both feel tight as a drum to this very day. I only haven't mentioned any Manders as I don't know any well enough.

 

One might almost be tempted to make another broad sweeping statement that the more components come out of the K&A catalogue, the quicker they fall apart. Perhaps just one or two grains of truth there? I used to mind being too outspoken, and was concerned by criticism, but I don't think there is any shame in saying that we all know a reasonable chunk of British organbuilding in the last 30 years is crap. I do think it's important not to name names, but we all know which instruments work and which don't. The only thing which mystifies me is why some builders still have full order books and build new instruments every year when scarcely a single thing in their opus list of the last 35 years has actually worked the way it should without attention from other firms.

 

I think it might be better for me to finish here with what Bazuin said - "The late lamented Cees van Oostenbrugge (MD of Flentrop) would never build a new organ without mechanical action or slider chests. BUT he converted his model railway to digital control as soon as he could. "Proper modernisation" is a concept which applies to cars, but not to musical instruments."

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"I could give you one in Glasgow, now only 11 years old, but trouble after less than 5!"

 

Actually, the organ in question never worked from day one.

 

That's true, I played it within months. I was trying to be kind about 5 years. The action is the least of the problems when put next to the electrics.

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Name me a single electric or pneumatic job which has gone on for 50+ years without needing a virtually new action at the end of it.

 

Halifax Parish Church (Harrison & Harrison 1929) perhaps?

 

I am just looking at Walker's specification and estimates for the work that was done in 1975 when it wasn't far off 50 years old. It amounts only to cleaning, releathering where necessary and the replacement of worn/corroded parts. The action is still pretty sound today, though it would benefit from another round of cleaning and replacement of worn parts.

 

OK, I take David's point about this being a lot of work. But surely you would need to do a fair amount of work on a mechanical action organ to replace worn moving parts if the organ had seen a lot of use.

 

What is interesting about the spec is the work that didn't get done, which would have turned it into a somewhat different instrument - especially the Choir Organ.

 

It has just dawned on me that Sat 3rd October will be the 80th anniversary of the organ's dedication, at which Bairstow played. Perhaps we should have some sort of celebration.

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"ust to pick up on the pneumatic bit - they might be restorable, but you're still into heavy-scale stripping down, huge quantities of expensive leather, extremely time consuming to apply and a nightmare if one note fails -"

(Quote)

 

This was a marketing add from the "reform" movement.

And it is false.

Willis, Walcker, Gebrüder Link, Sauer, in Belgium Kerkhoff, all built

extremely good pneumatic actions, very long-lasting, and no more

difficult to maintain than tracker actions.

 

It's simple, ladies and gentlemen: should I have an organ built for me

or anyone/where else, it would have pneumatic action for the notes,

electric for the stops, and Roosevelt windchests. :P

Save if it were an organ after an ancient style, of course.

 

Pierre

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OK, I take David's point about this being a lot of work. But surely you would need to do a fair amount of work on a mechanical action organ to replace worn moving parts if the organ had seen a lot of use.

 

Well, no, not really. The joy of a mechanical organ is the same as the joy of a piano - renewing a few sets of bushings, making sure it's all in regulation and blowing the dust off is about all that's required because there simply isn't a weak flexible moving part there (wind system aside) - no leather membranes rowed in their hundreds buried in the depths of it, waiting for a cold dry spell to fail in. Just lots of sticks and pivots, nice and self contained.

 

The occasions where they do go wrong can generally be attributed to something else - a favourite is problems in the soundboard itself causing people to do various quick fixes, like strengthening pallet springs excessively or progressively reducing touch depth in the mistaken belief that slackening one note off a bit will stop it cyphering. All of which throws coupler geometry askew, gives an uneven touch and generally promotes the belief that tracker action is cumbersome, heavy and impractical.

 

Here we are in an atmosphere of financial disaster, whether global or otherwise, most of us working for churches which are scratching around to make ends meet, in many cases with uncertain futures. In dealing with the most expensive asset most churches possess, I can't believe that any of us can sensibly attempt to salute the progress brought about by any organ action more complicated than what is mechanically necessary to admit air to a channel by opening a valve. Looked at in those bare terms, how can charging a magnet to inflate a purse to exhaust a chamber to collapse a lever, all to do precisely the same job as has been done for centuries by pulling a stick, be even remotely sensible? Can anyone explain to me why having umpteen moving parts, contacts to get dirty, wiring to break and lose its insulation, transistors and circuit boards to blow, a power supply to fail, and several sets of fragile leather purses (some of them seriously hidden) - how, how, how could that ever conceivably be considered better than the one, two or three lengths of wood actually necessary to perform the task in hand? I really want someone to answer this genuine question, because I quite simply don't understand. OK, so it enables you to have a 30-stop Great and a mobile console. That might be justification for some circumstances and places, but by no means all.

 

Pierre is welcome to his Roosevelt chests and pneumatic action. I am grateful I shan't be there in 50 years faced with the situation of a church near here in Southampton with dumb notes, dumb stops, permanently on stops and horrendous tuning problems, and a necessity to strip to a skeleton to do anything about it. How can there be the money for such a venture when £300 every other month is going on patching up and keeping it just-about-working for a few hymns? I'm quite sure it won't be long before we bemoan 'yet another electronic' on these pages. While we are so firmly wedded to all this needless complication, is it any wonder!

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David, have you ever seen a Kerkhoff organ ?

 

Roosevelt chest (also with valves, not membranes), pneumatic action

with mechanical console; this is the standard design of a Kerkhoff organ.

They work not 50 years, but more than 100 without maintenance save tuning

and cleaning.

Noch Fragen ?

 

As for the moral inadequacy of "something other than the one, only good way",

I shall completely reverse the sentence:

"Why have binned so many good organs, even during the difficult periods in the 20th

century, recessions, after war period etc, only because the fashion dictated

something else ?"

 

And how long will last much of those 20th century tracker actions ?

As long as Kerkhoff's pneumatic ?

Sure ?

Really ?

 

Pierre :P

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As for the moral inadequacy of "something other than the one, only good way",

I shall completely reverse the sentence:

"Why have binned so many good organs, even during the difficult periods in the 20th

century, recessions, after war period etc, only because the fashion dictated

something else ?"

 

Absolutely right. And witness also the instruments which were once out of date (but now historic) which were gutted, electrified, and improved - typically something like built ?1780, cleaned 1820, pneumatic + strings 1890, add more 1905, add more 1929, electrify 1941, add a Cimbel 1957, re-electrified 1975... then fell apart, with the sensible options being a) put in the skip and get an electronic or b ) take back to mechanical, and re-establish the layouts and proportions envisaged by the person who built the case - and finally promise never, ever to let history repeat itself.

 

Hats off to those who take the hard route because if they do so wisely, then yes they will last hundreds of years. I don't know about you, but I may still (if I'm lucky) be alive to confirm my suspicions that Grosvenor, Bridgetown, Douai, Limehouse, Giles-in-Fields, John's Oxford, St Antoine et al will feel just as taut and new-out-of-the-box in 2060 as they do now. (I wonder what will have happened to the Turner Sims by that time!) If I'm right, I'll send you a postcard.

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As a parish church organist since I was fourteen I have played organs with Victorian tracker action, trigger swell pedals, balanced swell pedals, electro pneumatic, direct electric, barker lever etc etc. If done properly, they can all work very well, but it really doesn't matter at all which is used because the people listening can't hear the difference anyway.

The type and state of the action might not be discernable in the reception of the music, but it can sure as hell affect the delivery of it. Try teaching Hurford-style articulation on an electro-pneumatic with a detached console and then on a good modern tracker and see which students cotton on most easily.

 

Mention of Stogursey reminds me that getting on for 30 years ago (probably) I played for a wedding there. I had to play the incoming and outgoing voluntaries (both big Bach pieces) and conduct the choir (Palestrina Missa Brevis plus a few other things), while the service itself was accompanied by an eminent cathedral organist. Afterwards the eminent organist said some generously nice things about my Bach and added that he could tell that I was used to playing tracker action organs. (He may very well have meant, "I wouldn't play it like that in a month of Sundays!" but the point remains valid!) Well, actually at the time I hadn't regularly played a tracker instrument for very many years, but the organs I learned on in my youth had all been tracker and there is no doubt that their influence has been permanent. I have no idea on what sort of organ the eminent organist first learned, but his handling of the Yates/Drake was so super-legato that one could almost imagine that one was listening to an electro-pneumatic cathedral instrument. Quite remarkable.

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.................................I wonder what will have happened to the Turner Sims by that time! If I'm right, I'll send you a postcard.

 

Please don't be too hard on this one - it was a revelation to some of us when it went in and I for one gained vast ammounts from weekly lessons on it for two of my three undergraduate years (during the first year I learned here - a bit of a contrast!). Peter Evans the Professor of Music at the time was it's prime instigator and most certainly no fool. Whatever one thinks with hindsight it was a pretty good aquisition for the mid '70s and I still have fond memories of early morning and late night working sessions for graduate recitals etc. A fellow undergrad. of mine worked with Collins for his 'gap' year so we were also able to be quite involved with the installation etc.

 

A

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Grosvenor, Bridgetown, Douai, Limehouse, Giles-in-Fields, John's Oxford, St Antoine et al will feel just as taut and new-out-of-the-box in 2060 as they do now. (I wonder what will have happened to the Turner Sims by that time!) If I'm right, I'll send you a postcard.

Q... "What would you like people say about you in fifty years time?"

A... "Doesn't he look good for his age"...

 

I hope the postcard will be addressed to somewhere nice and not too hot!

JC

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Please don't be too hard on this one - it was a revelation to some of us when it went in...

 

Of course it was a revelation, and there's no knocking that as an experience for many people, you included. But can it honestly be called a good organ, when even after two significant rebuilds since 1977 it remains incredibly spongy and lacking in feel, badly constructed (the Brustwerk doors, usually held shut by a galvanized steel gate hook, nearly knocked me out when they swung open unbidden last time I played it) and not really very well voiced (not because of any personal prejudices, but simply because so many pipes speak so differently from their neighbours)? A YingTzanIdliPo piano from China might be a revelation to a piano student who had only ever played a Duck Son and Pinker with drawing pins in the hammers and scrambled egg between the keys, but that doesn't make it a fine work of musical art. It just makes it different, which might be good enough in isolation, but probably not good enough in the grander scheme of things, particularly when its undoubtedly squeaky tones have done so much to alienate people from taking it seriously and contributed to the efforts of a generation being written off. There were superlative instruments being made at this time (Clifton Cathedral, Hexham, countless others), but we take one look and sneer and say "very 1970s" or "organ reform". And, don't you see, those very remarks applied to different eras are what set people to seek to reinvent the wheel yet again, rather than just aiming to make the existing one better.

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But can it honestly be called a good organ, when even after two significant rebuilds since 1977 it remains incredibly spongy and lacking in feel, badly constructed (the Brustwerk doors, usually held shut by a galvanized steel gate hook, nearly knocked me out when they swung open unbidden last time I played it) and not really very well voiced (not because of any personal prejudices, but simply because so many pipes speak so differently from their neighbours)?

 

Point taken but all this did not seem to be at all so obvious and apparent when it went in. Many of the 'great and good' visited to play recitals but one did not get the feeling that things then were as fundamentally bad as you report - I have not heard or played the instrument for about 20 years so my experience is dated somewhat. I do agree with you about Hexham but am not so sure about Clifton.... Re Chinese pianos - 'not sure whether the example you give and the TS organ are quite on the same parallel. Coincidentally there is a 3 manual in a large city near here from a then reputable firm - much heralded when it went in somewhat before the TS Collins that I played and examined recently. Quite irregular sounds, an internal framework of giant meccano and plywood sides etc. Maybe both of these were more signs of the times and should be seen as a particular point in time leading towards where we are at present. At the time of the TS organ this UK company could quite possibly have been one to have gained the contract if it had not gone to Collins - unless of course the powers that be had gone to Phelps etc abroad. Goetze & Gwynne, Drake etc. were not as up in front as they are now.

 

A

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am not so sure about Clifton....

Oh, but it's superb! Have you actually played it? The problem with that cathedral is the acoustics. All the sound, choral or organ goes up into the roof. The amount that escapes into the body of the building is rather unimpressive. But at the console the organ sounded glorious. Could do with a few more pedal stops though. Mind you, my memories of it are from the late 1970s and I note that according to NPOR some voicing was done in 1984. Nothing too drastic, I hope...

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I had heard that they [syncordia] were out of business. Rieger used the Syncordia system in one organ and ripped it out again as it never worked, and if I am not going completely mad somebody from Fisk told me that they'd done the same.

 

 

B

 

It's true. I can confirm it for Fulda Cathedral, where they simply switched off the "second rank" of magnets to get the standard on-off coupler effect.

 

Here is another firm trying to achieve proportional electric action, Eltec

in Italy. I think they provided parts for the spectacular Guillou-Blancafort organ of Teneriffa.

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Quite irregular sounds, an internal framework of giant meccano and plywood sides etc. Maybe both of these were more signs of the times and should be seen as a particular point in time leading towards where we are at present...

 

I am not sure that we are much further on at present.

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I would like to thank David Coram for his writings! I visited the TS Collins in 2002 (I've been about a bit!), and his story about the Brustwerk doors reminded me of trying to photograph it on a timer from the back of the hall. Every time I closed the doors, they slowly opened themselves before I got back to the camera. I thought it was a strange organ, especially in the relationship between the three manuals, the funny action, the r/c pedal etc. And, whatever else was happening in the UK in the middle 1970s, when you consider that Jürgen Ahrend had built this already in 1959:

 

http://home.planet.nl/~kort0158/DHzorgvliet.html (scroll down to the colour photo)

 

it puts an organ like TS firmly in context.

 

"There were superlative instruments being made at this time (Clifton Cathedral, Hexham, countless others), but we take one look and sneer and say "very 1970s" or "organ reform". And, don't you see, those very remarks applied to different eras are what set people to seek to reinvent the wheel yet again, rather than just aiming to make the existing one better."

 

I think Clifton (which I haven't seen) and Hexham (which I have) are actually more 'modernist' reform organs, built at exactly the time when the style reached its zenith (in places like Ingolstadt, Trier and Ratzeburg). Whatever their qualities (which are unquestionable - these organs must be preserved!), Ahrend's organ mentioned above was far more prophetic for the great organ building of our time.

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

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