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Mander Organs
Colin Pykett

Winter weather

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Having found David Drinkell's posts interesting and useful recently, I found myself wondering what the weather is like in Newfoundland? Hopefully he might be escaping the worst of the 'polar vortex' affecting Canada and the USA.

 

CEP

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We usually expect one moderately big snowstorm before Christmas (and several more in the New Year), but this year it was more than moderate - about two feet of the stuff. Temperatures then dropped dramatically to lows of -20C - not as cold as the -40s in the Prairies but made worse by our position in the middle of the Atlantic. Last weekend, the power company warned that rolling outages would be in effect due to heavy demand on generating equipment. Shortly afterwards, something blew and virtually the whole island lost electricity. In our house, it was out from 9:30 on Saturday morning to 1:30 on Sunday morning, with temperatures outside around -10. At one time, it was reckoned that 125,000 people in St. John's (pop. 150,000) were without power. We also had another snowstorm. On Sunday, most city centre churches cancelled all services, including all the United Churches and the Basilica. At the Anglican Cathedral, it was business as normal - five services including two fully choral ones. We didn't get all the choir - some were ploughed in - but we had enough to do the job. Rolling outages were still in effect, so we carried candles into Evensong (Ayleward Responses, Gibbons Short Service, Bethlehem Down), but the power lasted (it went out for four hours at 9:30pm).

 

It takes a bit more than a touch of bad weather to keep us Anglicans from our BCP. I love my choir....

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There is something to be said for hand or foot pumped organs with mechanical or pneumatic action in places without guarenteed electricity.

 

A few years ago when the European Union was considering banning electrically blown pipe organs on the grounds that no electrical devices should contain lead I did sarcastically wonder if the organ in the Royal Festival Hall should be rebuilt with tubular pneumatic action and hydraulic blowing apparatus from the River Thames. It ought to have been completely legal as it wouldn't have been electrically powered, and I'm sure the scrap lead merchants would have loved to supply all their unwanted lead to make the thousands of miles of tubing that would have ben required!

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I'm sure the scrap lead merchants would have loved to supply all their unwanted lead to make the thousands of miles of tubing that would have ben required!

 

But there probably wouldn't have been a church in the kingdom capable of protecting its organ from rain. ^_^

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I imagine Gordon Reynold's advice about laying in a stock of glycerin to keep the hoar frost off the trebles would be rather redundant advice across the pond...

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I was thinking about that - but wasn't it the altos?

 

Another local peculiarity here is that downtown St. John's is very hilly and our house is so placed that it takes five minutes to walk to the Cathedal and fifteen minutes to walk back. Three times in the last couple of weeks, including Christmas morning, the road was so slippery with compacted snow and ice that the only way to get off the street in the car was sideways, despite studded winter tyres.

 

At least the church is kept warm. Belfast Cathedral was so tall (90' inside) that it had its own micro-atmosphere and we would get clouds in the ceiling in cold weather.

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I have never been to Newfoundland but would like to, if only because of its vibrant connections with my alter ego as a physicist who did a PhD in radiophysics. Speaking of the hills at St John's, I believe it was on top of the appropriately-named Signal Hill that Marconi first demonstrated transatlantic radio reception in December 1901. And what has this to do with organs? Of itself, nothing, other than we now listen to them routinely through the medium of wireless broadcasting, but a few days later he apparently "attended Divine service" on the 15th according to one biography. As a devout Roman Catholic (he later installed a special radio link between the Vatican and the Pope's residence at Castel Gondolfo), presumably he would have attended an RC church in the town. I wonder if David knows which one that would have been?

 

Marconi was also an accomplished amateur musician who (among other things) played the piano as part of various small chamber ensembles. Therefore Is it possible he was also an occasional organist?

 

Contemporary accounts show what a terrible time of year it was when that epoch-making experiment was performed. David's post emphasises this most graphically!

 

CEP

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December 2013 was particularly nasty. We don't usually get such heavy snow until February or March, so it might have been (for these parts) relatively mild in December 2001.

 

The principal RC church in the city is the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, and this would also have been the nearest to Signal Hill, where Marconi carried out his experiments. At the time, this had a Robson of 1853, a very fine example of a "Hopkins and Rimbault" organ. It was, in fact, listed in that book on p.453 of the Third Edition. It has sometimes been assumed in the past that this entry refers to the Anglican Cathedral because the RC Cathedral did not get basilica status until the 1950s, but we don't know what the Anglican Cathedral had before the Hope-Jones/Ingram of 1904 (although from pictures, I think it may have been a Father Willis 'Model' organ). The Robson was rebuilt and finally succumbed to a Hammond, which itself was replaced by the present Casavant (4m in the west gallery, 2m behind the High Altar) in 1954.

 

There's also St. Patrick's, Patrick Street, a wonderful example of the work of the "Irish Pugin", J.J. McCarthy (but with a thoroughly messed-up post-Vat2 interior) and a 1931 2m Casavant sounding well from the west gallery. Other RC churches in the city post-date Marconi's visit.

 

There is one thing which I should mention about our winters. It's true that we get more snow than any other capital city in the world, temperatures can be vicious and winds high, but today is typical in that the sun is shining brightly and the place looks glorious. It's too cold for snow (you need temperatures within a few degrees of freezing). One learns to wrap up well and life goes on as usual.

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There is something to be said for hand or foot pumped organs with mechanical or pneumatic action in places without guarenteed electricity.

 

Contrabombarde's quote has wider ramifications than winter power outages. I have always felt (vaguely) that an instrument which needs kilowatts of power drawn from a sophisticated supply system is somehow an embarrassment in musical terms. Does this partly explain why the organ is sidelined to some degree, and why it is sometimes an object of amusement or even ridicule to other musicians, especially when electric actions go wrong let alone the blower. (Electric actions also need the National Grid remember - they won't run on batteries). Hence jibes such as "whoever heard of a violin/oboe/trumpet played by an electric action?"

 

Following this trail can be hilarious at times, such as when reading about the motley collection of human blowers who used to lounge for centuries outside churches of all sizes, waiting for an organist to turn up. As late as the 1920s they were to be seen outside Notre Dame in Paris, until a desperate subscription in this country raised enough money to make them redundant.

 

Was that a good thing? At least that enormous instrument would not have been at the mercy of power outages in those days.

 

These thoughts also return when I play a humble foot pumped reed organ - a self-contained musical instrument which needs no electricity as Contrabombarde rightly said. Although I am not their greatest fan, I still remember the occasion when I entered a beautiful church in Lincolnshire many years ago. I think it was in a tiny village called Addlethorpe. Musically, it contained nothing but a Mustel harmonium, but it sounded stupendous in that acoustic - almost like a miniature Cavaille-Coll organ.

 

I sometimes think we organ enthusiasts have indeed lost something along the way.

 

Unfortunately I've gone way off-topic. Maybe this should have been posted somewhere else. I'll shut up now.

 

CEP

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....the motley collection of human blowers who used to lounge for centuries outside churches of all sizes, waiting for an organist to turn up. As late as the 1920s they were to be seen outside Notre Dame in Paris...At least that enormous instrument would not have been at the mercy of power outages in those days.

 

No, just the unions...

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As a life-long member of a trade union I would support the right of all to benefit from such membership and I would imagine that organ blowers must have suffered from heartless managements no less than other manual labourers. Has there been any research into organ-blowing as an occupation? And the effect of organ blowers' working practices on the life and work of organists and organ-builders? I've just thought how much blowing would be required during the voicing and tuning of a large instrument in the old days.

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I have always felt (vaguely) that an instrument which needs kilowatts of power drawn from a sophisticated supply system is somehow an embarrassment in musical terms. Does this partly explain why the organ is sidelined to some degree, and why it is sometimes an object of amusement or even ridicule to other musicians, especially when electric actions go wrong let alone the blower. (Electric actions also need the National Grid remember - they won't run on batteries). Hence jibes such as "whoever heard of a violin/oboe/trumpet played by an electric action?"

Just about every pop group in the country must be held in derision, then!

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I think Colin was referring to the field of classical music. The only electric power needed for most classical concerts is for the lights. Occasionally there might be a Vibraphone that needs plugging in, or a freak bass guitar (Tippett).

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At the risk of digressing this topic further, I was interested in the comments about human blowers.

 

I'm researching the history of a small organ which I'm involved with moving. Consulting the archives of previous churches that have been home to this organ, I've noted quite a few regular payments in the ledgers for the "organ blowers" and regular public votes of thanks to them in the AGM minutes. The going rate from 1917 seemed to be about 2/6d every quarter and seemed to remain thereabouts until the 1950s. The addition of an electric fan to this organ around this time brought this practice to an abrupt stop. But the organ blowers seem to have been paid more regularly than the organists!

 

The organ is being moved to a fairly remote village parish church in Hampshire - indeed, it is a Hill organ for a hill village! Readers may like to know the blowing handle is being retained in operational order in case of power cuts, which can afflict the village during inclement weather.

______________________

 

Also of interest is the work of Rini Wimmenhove, who builds and restores chamber organs. His bureau and chest organs (which most people would now call a chamber organ) are blown by foot by the player. There is a small reservoir and feeder underneath the soundboard and a little tell-tale stick rising out of the organ to the side of the keyboard. This means his chamber organs can be played anywhere with a consort without the need for electricity. Am I alone in finding this a far more attractive aesthetic than the ubiquitous fan in most chamber organs?

Rini is an extremely skilled and gifted craftsman - his organs (normally with wooden pipes throughout) are exquisite and exceptional musical instruments.

 

http://www.huisorgelbouw.nl/page/portfolio/

http://www.huisorgelbouw.nl/page/Fotopagina_22/ - photos of dedication, construction, etc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVwNGz96B7E&noredirect=1

There's a CD of the chest organ too, which gives a good idea of the remarkable scope and quality of this instrument.

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Although I promised above to keep quiet from now on, I was moved to reply to Colin Harvey's remarks about the going rate for organ blowers nearly a century ago. In his youth, my late father (b. 1921) used to blow the organ of a Sunday and got paid either 6d (2.5 pence today) a service or 6d a Sunday - I'm not sure which. On the face of it this is considerably more than the 2/6d per quarter which Colin quoted. However I think I recall my father saying that he was only one of several local lads who queued up for this no doubt welcome addition to their disposable income. He also said that the organist would kick the panelling on the side of the console if he became worried about the supply of wind, presumably as revealed by the tell-tale visible only to him. It was also, apparently, a mortal sin not to start blowing in good time when the sermon was drawing to a close. Perhaps another kick occurred if the individual concerned was in default at that critical time.

 

Ultimately he and his colleagues would have been made permanently redundant in 1937 when a completely new organ with electric blowing (and electric action powered by a dynamo) was installed, though I doubt he would have continued with the job when he would have been well into his teens by that date.

 

There is a somewhat more serious side to all this. I think it is true that the subject of organ blowing by muscle power has been inadequately researched, which is a pity in view of the part it played in the social and cultural contributions of the organ to local life. The more one thinks about it, the more fascinating it becomes. Therefore perhaps this thread ought to move elsewhere on the forum so that it can continue to be discussed and given the attention it seems to call for.

 

CEP

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When Charles Church, Plymouth, brought its first organ into use in 1847 it paid the organ blower 10 shillings a quarter. By 1854 this had risen to 3 guineas per annum, but the blower also had to "take charge of the West Gallery". From Christmas 1865 the duties job were defined as:

To blow the organ at all regular and special services.
To light, and extinguish the lamps.
To toll the Bells on Sundays and Holy days after morning services.

To toll the Bell on Wednesdays and Fridays also at sacramental lectures, and at all other times when required.
To clean up the higher and lower yards on Saturdays, to beat the door mats, and to keep the [sic] both yards well weeded.

The salary for this was to be £8 a year.

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When Charles Church, Plymouth, brought its first organ into use in 1847 it paid the organ blower 10 shillings a quarter. By 1854 this had risen to 3 guineas per annum, but the blower also had to "take charge of the West Gallery". From Christmas 1865 the duties job were defined as:

 

To blow the organ at all regular and special services.

To light, and extinguish the lamps.

To toll the Bells on Sundays and Holy days after morning services.

To toll the Bell on Wednesdays and Fridays also at sacramental lectures, and at all other times when required.

To clean up the higher and lower yards on Saturdays, to beat the door mats, and to keep the [sic] both yards well weeded.

 

The salary for this was to be £8 a year.

Not much changed fees - wise then!

 

A

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Contrabombarde's quote has wider ramifications than winter power outages. I have always felt (vaguely) that an instrument which needs kilowatts of power drawn from a sophisticated supply system is somehow an embarrassment in musical terms. ...

 

 

 

CEP

 

 

Surely no more so than having an instrument blown by persons of doubtful intelligence* - or in varying states of inebriation, truculence or fatigue ?

 

 

 

* c.f. the description of the organ 'blowers' of Nôtre-Dame de Paris in Rollin Smith's book on Vierne.

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I gave a recital on a one manual foot-pumped organ last summer - amazingly I got through to the end without once running out of wind, though to prevent me forgetting to pump I had to keep one eye on the music and the other on the position of the little lead weight suspended from a thread adjacent to the music stand that had an alarming tendency to shoot up faster than I could pump if I let my attention wander for a moment.

 

As this thread seems to have taken on a life of its own around blowers, I might have previously shared the frustration of the time I was working in Africa and used to visit Uganda every couple of months. I'd try to fit in an organ practice once or twice each visit, which meant a marathon two hour journey across Kampala to Namirembe Cathedral, and not infrequently I'd get there to find there'd been a power cut to that quarter of the city so no blower. I guess Bach must have had to perfect his skills on the pedal harpsichord, given that the St Thomas organ required 5-10 burly men to keep it winded.

 

There's a story somewhere about the time Samuel Wesley overstayed his welcome at a church whose new organ he was trying out after a service. The pumper was already keen to get home and when Wesley introduced a second subject into his fugual improvisation, already past 15 minutes long, the vicar signalled to him, paid his due and he abandoned the organ in mid-fugue.

 

The late John Birch had to abandon a recital at Norwich Cathedral after burning out the blower partway into his program - goodness knows what he had been playing. As for electric actions, Wayne Marshall probably regrets playing the movable console during a BBC broadcast at Bridgewater Hall soon after the Marcussen was built, since the transmission failed. That organ at least had a mechanical console that he could have sat at. Unlike the the infamous Proms Concert just after the Royal Albert Hall organ reopened when the blower could not be started due to an electrical fault. The concert went ahead with the organ subsituted for a Yamaha keyboard for the organ concerto (Ive's fourth symphony).

 

On the positive side, lightening strikes maybe aren't such a bad thing if they can put out electric action organs that don't deserve to live (thinking of Llandaff in particular).

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