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Mander Organs
Peter Clark

St Alban's, Splott, Cardiff

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I play regularly at St Alban's in Cardiff and in fact am due to give a recital there in a few weeks. One thing that I have been aware of over the years that I have played there is that the keys are slightly narrower than standard (which on the plus side means that chords over the octave or tenth are more comfortable to play) and I wonder if this is common. The organ was rescued from a redundant Baptist church in the vicinity and recently restored by Deane; but for some reason the church wanted to retain the original console* which as I said does not seem to conform to standard dimensions. It is not uncomfortable once you get used to the variation just mentioned (and the pedalboard seems to be standard RCO). Was there a time when manual dimenions were eventually standardised and are there other examples around of "deviations" from what we now would consider the norm?

 

Peter

 

*perhaps for financial reasons

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I play regularly at St Alban's in Cardiff and in fact am due to give a recital there in a few weeks. One thing that I have been aware of over the years that I have played there is that the keys are slightly narrower than standard (which on the plus side means that chords over the octave or tenth are more comfortable to play) and I wonder if this is common. The organ was rescued from a redundant Baptist church in the vicinity and recently restored by Deane; but for some reason the church wanted to retain the original console* which as I said does not seem to conform to standard dimensions. It is not uncomfortable once you get used to the variation just mentioned (and the pedalboard seems to be standard RCO). Was there a time when manual dimenions were eventually standardised and are there other examples around of "deviations" from what we now would consider the norm?

 

Peter

 

*perhaps for financial reasons

 

Hi

 

We don't have an NPOR entry for this one - perhaps you could do the honours next time you're there? Survey forms can be downloaded from the web site - or type the details up. I find a digital picture of the stop jambs, etc quicker & more reliable than my handwriting! Relevant pictures can be included with the survey.

 

Console dimensions, AFAIK, were first standardised in the late 1800's (including straight, concave pedalboard) and later chnged to the radiating, concave form. Anything older than this is likely to be different to the current pattern - and standards have never been obligatory in organ console design anyway!

 

Thanks

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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I play regularly at St Alban's in Cardiff and in fact am due to give a recital there in a few weeks. One thing that I have been aware of over the years that I have played there is that the keys are slightly narrower than standard (which on the plus side means that chords over the octave or tenth are more comfortable to play) and I wonder if this is common. The organ was rescued from a redundant Baptist church in the vicinity and recently restored by Deane; but for some reason the church wanted to retain the original console* which as I said does not seem to conform to standard dimensions. It is not uncomfortable once you get used to the variation just mentioned (and the pedalboard seems to be standard RCO). Was there a time when manual dimenions were eventually standardised and are there other examples around of "deviations" from what we now would consider the norm?

 

Peter

 

*perhaps for financial reasons

 

Many instruments were built before any kind of 'standardisation' was introduced, and even then it could be argued that resistance to change slowed things down in that respect; most of the pitfalls and problems we face are down to peculiar spacings and alignments between manuals, pedals and benches.

 

I remember some years ago playing the organ of Walton-le-Dale Parish Church near Preston, and finding it hard going to hit all the right notes! This was an early 70's Mander rebuild, and the console had been new at that time. The only thing I could put it down to was slightly narrower natural keys, with the obvious effect on the spread of the octaves etc. Perhaps our hosts can comment on this one?

 

Certainly, the piano has been made with pretty much the same key-widths since the mid-19th century, and only the earliest survivng examples, along with harpsichords and so on, will have narrower keys than those we are generally used to today.

 

CP

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The "standard" typewriter keyboard, which the modern computer keyboard copies, was designed to slow the typist down, as early typewriter mechanisms were prone to the type bars jamming. Several far better layouts have been devised since, but none of them has been able to overthrow the de facto standard.

 

When piano and organ keyboards were standardised, was there any rational, any systematic evaluation, or did it just happen? Was this determined by the kinds of music that people chose to play then, or considerations such as the lightness or heaviness of touch of the instruments of the time?

 

Smaller key widths would certainly make many stretches easier, and would there be any disadvantage to players other than getting used to something different? The works of a number of composers, such as Francois Couperin suggest that either they had very large hands or they used narrow keyboards.

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The works of a number of composers, such as Francois Couperin suggest that either they had very large hands or they used narrow keyboards.

Of course, low left-hand stretches are often accounted for by short-octave keyboards. The twelfths C-g, D-a, E-b were easy if you could play a tenth. That said, I do wonder whether baroque players always held every note for its full, written length. In the English virginalist repertoire some contemporary fingering does imply that players were happy to quit notes early if necessary. I don't know whether the same held true later. Do we have any Baroque specialists who can comment on this?

 

One particular case that springs to mind is the Bach Canzona, which would seem to be for manuals only. There is a large stretch at bar 54 that cannot be played by the hands alone exactly as written and cannot be explained by a short octave either. There's also a stretch at bar 115 that's none too easy, even with large hands. The easy way out is to assume that this must mean that the pedals are to be used, but this is hardly practical in the heavily ornament-laden copy of the piece, which surely must be for hands only (is it actually intended for organ?) and the use of pedals adds nothing musical IMHO.

 

As I'm sure we all know, Burney reported that Bach had been known to use a stick in his mouth to play notes that he couldn't otherwise reach.

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The 8th bar ort the Litanie section in Dupre's Cortege et L:itanie has a very awkward LH - from tenor B to low G# but with a tenor G# and D# as well.I find this easier with a coupled pedal but no pedal stop suppplying the lower G# and then bringing the pedal 16 (still coupled) on for the next bar. However on the St Alban's organ (and, Tony N, I will provide a full spec soon, if not a history) this LH bar is unproblematic.

 

Peter

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The 8th bar ort the Litanie section in Dupre's Cortege et L:itanie has a very awkward LH - from tenor B to low G# but with a tenor G# and D# as well.I find this easier with a coupled pedal but no pedal stop suppplying the lower G# and then bringing the pedal 16 (still coupled) on for the next bar. However on the St Alban's organ (and, Tony N, I will provide a full spec soon, if not a history) this LH bar is unproblematic.

 

Peter

The depth of touch in the keys could also make a big difference to a stretch like this. A deep touch could make it very difficult not to snag the tenor A.

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The size, shape and positioning of the sharps in relation to the natural keys can also cause problems and I would have hoped had been specified when keyboards were (later?) standardized. A Henry Jones organ of 1875 I am aware of had keys made by S W Browne, a commercial firm of that time. In the 1980's the organist complained that he occasionally got his fingers stuck in between the sharps!

PJW

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The depth of touch in the keys could also make a big difference to a stretch like this. A deep touch could make it very difficult not to snag the tenor A.

 

Another problem is that the fourth finger can inadvertantly glance the manual above if the overhang is too great!

 

Peter

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A Henry Jones organ of 1875 I am aware of had keys made by S W Browne, a commercial firm of that time. In the 1980's the organist complained that he occasionally got his fingers stuck in between the sharps!

This is a hazard on many early organs on the continent. It's a useful reminder that the organists of the time never put fingers between the raised keys. Another reason for trying to learn appropriate fingering for early music!

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Is anyone aware of scholarly research on the subject of manual key widths, as measured, say, by octave spans?

 

On a visit to Chopin's birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, where there is one of his pianos, it was explained that the key spacing was slightly narrow than the modern standard, with the result that the tenths and other big spans in many of his works were more easily managed than on a modern concert grand.

 

JS

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I play regularly at St Alban's in Cardiff and in fact am due to give a recital there in a few weeks. One thing that I have been aware of over the years that I have played there is that the keys are slightly narrower than standard (which on the plus side means that chords over the octave or tenth are more comfortable to play) and I wonder if this is common. The organ was rescued from a redundant Baptist church in the vicinity and recently restored by Deane; but for some reason the church wanted to retain the original console* which as I said does not seem to conform to standard dimensions. It is not uncomfortable once you get used to the variation just mentioned (and the pedalboard seems to be standard RCO). Was there a time when manual dimenions were eventually standardised and are there other examples around of "deviations" from what we now would consider the norm?

 

Peter

 

*perhaps for financial reasons

When was the organ built?

 

It would appear that if this console makes Cortege et Litanie easier to play, this would be a further benefit of keeping it?

 

The RCO dimensions are a relatively modern phenomena. I believe the RCO dimensions came about during the installation of the HNB organ at the RCO. Hence the only people that made consoles that actually fully conformed to the RCO standard were HNB... All the others - H&H, Compton, Willis III etc - followed their own standards...

 

There are other standards - AGO in the US, BDO in Germany and am I right that there is an ISOB standard? They are all slightly different. However, I'm not sure how much builders really stick to them - they either have their own formula or they vary them for individual organs. For example, if your organs are based on different historical styles you'll build an organ console to completely different dimensions if it's, say, a Cavaille-Coll copy in the Orgelpark in Holland to, say, a Hinsz copy.

 

I'm not sure what value there would be to rebuilding organs so they have standard console dimensions. Would someone explain please? Would it be necessary to do this to St. Sulpice in Paris as well?

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I'm not sure what value there would be to rebuilding organs so they have standard console dimensions. Would someone explain please? Would it be necessary to do this to St. Sulpice in Paris as well?

 

In the case of some historic instruments this would be a disaster, as we would lose information about the playing styles of the time that the console was built, and appropriate fingerings for compositions intended for that instrument.

 

For a discussion of experiments with key sizes, measurements of players' hands, and changing dimensions through history, see:-

http://www.steinbuhler.com/html/our_research.html

and for more detail:-

http://appca.com.au/proceedings/2009/part_...Boyle_Robin.pdf

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When was the organ built?

 

It would appear that if this console makes Cortege et Litanie easier to play, this would be a further benefit of keeping it?

 

I am certainly not advocating getting rid of it! I love it these days. As I said, one can adapt to it quite quickly. Also it is of historical interest. Tomorrow I am going to try some other music on it, maybe the Yon Toccata for flutes which I think will work well (the organ has no mutations but two mixtures, great and swell, the former needs to be used only now and then as I think it a bit fierce, as is the Great 2', but the swell 8 and 2 combined is most effective).

 

On the bummer side, my regular chuch, St Peter's Roath, was targetted by lead thieves at the weekend and so the damage to the roof caused rain to get onto the organ gallery. No real harm thankfully but the pedalboard had to be removed as water was getting under it. The most harm seems to have been done to the porch.

 

Tony N and others have said that this is not uncommon these days.

 

Vandalism seems rife though. When I got home about an hour ago I found that someone had put dog poo (or possibly worse) into my food recycling bin. Swines, ignorant and antisocial bleeps.

 

Not really our forum's remit but just wanted to let off steam!

 

Peter

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Very generally, there are many cases in the early period when notes were not intended to be held for the written/printed length, as can be seen from certain instances when fingering survives in a version stemming either from the composer or the scribe, who may well, of course, have been at several removes from the composer. The short and broken octave keyboards in historic instruments will certainly enable one to play tenths very easily. Printing was a costly affair well into the 18th century and the etxt was intended as a guidance in many cases rather than an obligation. Learning early fingering is well worth the considerable effort involved, especially if one looks at the conflicting and contradictory evidence in tratises about which fingers are deemed good and which bad ie which go on strong beats. In his preface of 1578 to Cabezón's Obras de Música, his son commenst that the Canciones Glosadas in 5 and 6 parts are so difficult that one should apply whichever fingering one finds most comfortable and easy!! And indeed M Praetorius tells us thta there is far too much written about this finegring or that being the better, as long as the effect is correct then use what you will! The long out of print book by Barry Ife and Barbara Sachs gives generally good translations of many early treatises.

 

Regards for now, John

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