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Norman & Beard Question

Henry Willis

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On 11/04/2019 at 11:30, Rowland Wateridge said:

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was, indeed, a turning point.  The Father Willis organ of 70 speaking stops has been variously described as ‘wasteful’ and having ‘unnecessary duplication’ (no certainty about the precise words or sources, but I think W L Sumner and, possibly, Stephen Bicknell).  I will leave to others, more expert than I, to judge the explanation given by Father Willis in 1851:

”The stops in the Great organ require no comment, further than to explain that whenever two stops of the same name occur, as 3 and 4; 6 and 7; 10 and 11; they are voiced to different qualities of tone”.  (The stops referred to are two of, in each case, Open Diapason 8’, Principal 4’ and Fifteenth 2’.)  Nothing earth-shattering about this now, although, less usually, all of the same stops were also duplicated in his 22-stops Swell, the second Principal and Fifteenth both being specifically labelled “(soft quality)”. 

The words quoted here are from Volume XXXIX (1852) of Newton’s London Journal, (properly, The London Journal of Arts, Sciences, and Manufactures, and Repertory of Patent Inventions. Conducted by Mr. W. Newton of the Office for Patents, Chancery Lane. (Assisted by several Scientific Gentlemen). There is no indication that they are Willis’s own words though I do not think that he would have objected to them. Possibly Newton or one of his Scientific Gentlemen interviewed Willis before setting pen to paper, but if so none of the bravado of the bumptious upstart got through the dispassionate filter of the writer (probably William Pole), who, incidentally, introduces the curious spelling ‘dulceana’ both in the stop-list and the commentary.

 As to the main point, the supposed ill of duplicated stops or perhaps stop-names attending the birth of large English organs in the first part of the 19thcentury, there was at the time a severe shortage of nomenclature. The same shortage existed in the 18thcentury without causing comment. Richard Bridge’s instrument at Christ Church, Spitalfields, perhaps the high-point of English organ building prior to 1851, has, amongst others, 3 Stopped Diapasons, 3 Open Diapasons, 4 Principals, 3 Trumpets, 2 Clarions, 2 Cornets, 4 Flutes (1 German) and 2 Fifteenths. No organ builder of those days was embarrassed to do likewise. Nor were Elliot or Hill or Camidge or whoever was responsible for the sad failure at York in 1832. 

 The problem at York (and Birmingham 2 years later) was one of scaling. When the scaling issue was rationalized by Töpfer and others the matter of duplication became one of similar stop-names rather than repeated, homophonic ranks. The problem with the Willis 1851 Exhibition organ is, as we now see with the benefit of hindsight, the lack of chorus string tone, a variety that did not then exist. The writer of the article in Newton’s Journal referred to above, described the Choir Viol di Gamba as a small-scale tapering stop of ‘thin tone’, suggesting an imitative essay. Further on, speaking of the Dulcianas (16ft to III), he says that the effect “…when the swell is shut, is very remarkable, resembling a band at a distance.” That in itself was novel and not then possible to reproduce either at York or Birmingham. Willis relied on the Dulciana for some years to fill the position now held by strings in various forms. Wells Cathedral in 1857 had no manual string tone. Cranbrook in 1854 had a Gamba TC, but we must speculate about its tone and purpose. At Rawtenstall Methodist in 1860, a full compass Gamba appears on the Great, the mark of Willis’s middle period. However, it was not until the middle of the decade that a Great 8ft string became a regular feature. One imagines (despite Willis’s alleged overbearing nature) that organists had to be persuaded of their virtue.

 There is one exception to the lack of string tone in Willis’s early instruments, namely the Pedal Violon 16ft. The Exhibition organ had one as did Wells and subsequent sizable instruments. Willis himself thought that the Violon and the Bourdon combined together to form a third rank.

 And it is in the matter of the blending of one rank with another to form a third distinct sound that Willis might have explained, had he thought it worthwhile, his use of duplication.

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“bravado of the bumptious upstart” ..what a delightful phrase which paints such a vivid picture!

I am led to believe the author is the last pupil apprentice of HW III

May I persuade him to share first hand some personal experiences of HW III

before the sands of time obliterate the fine detail and we rely on anecdote alone?

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  • 3 weeks later...

What I meant by a fully fledged and independent instrument was firstly, the fact that until the mid 19th century, there was not one organ built that had any pipes exclusively made for the pedal organ which had remained completely unnecessary so far as English organists were concerned. The organ built for the new St. Paul's Cathedral in London by Bernhard Smith in 1708, although provided with three manuals still had no pedals, let alone any pipes of its own. It wasn't until 1720, on the request of Georg Friedrich Händel that an attached pedal to the Great manual was provided to enable for him to play organ music from the continent, including probably the music of his great contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach. Apart from this, English organs at the time were extremely conservative in providing tonal variety in their specifications, simply because they were only there to accompany the singers or the choir. You either needed a quiet or soft sound to accompany anthems, or a larger sound to accompany pieces in which the whole community was permitted to join in with. However, I'm not sure when this congregational hymn singing developed in Britain because most of the organs then faced solely into the choir from the chancel screen. The introduction of both east and west facing Principal ranks (i.e. Diapasons) must date from then because originally most of these gallery organs had either no pipes facing into the nave or were provided with wooden dummies.

In other words, no independent pedal, nothing in the way of tonal variety, except for loud or soft registrations. No string stops, no character voices except for Trumpets, Bassoons (if you were really lucky) and the very occasional Vox Humana which was imported from the Netherlands, most likely from a builder from the continent. It is not surprising therefore that there doesn't seem to be very much written music exclusively for the organ before the 18th century. Henry Purcell seems to have written some but not much of his output survives. Not until organists like John Stanley or William Walond, both London organists to you find any specific music for the instrument, although none of their pieces had a pedal part. the other peculiar term for organ music in Britain is the "Voluntary", originally just an improvised piece but which slowly developed into a two-movement piece (slow and fast) within the Anglican Church in the reign of the first Hanoverian King, George I.

With best wishes,


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I did some research on pedals on early English organs as a small part of a talk I gave to the Bradford Organists' Association back in 2009.  I append my notes below, but in essence there MAY have been an example of pedal pull downs ass early as 1635 (Jesus College, Cambridge).  Earliest confirmed independent pedal pipes was 1793 - added by Avery to the organ in Westminster Abbey.

On another point, I'm not sure I fully agree about the lack of tonal variety - it's surprising just what can be done with limited resources.

No time for more now - I'm preaching & leading the service this morning (as well as playing) and need to get ready!

Every Blessing


From my notes for a talk/demonstration on Early English Organs:-

Development of pedals – separate keyboard for pedal stops (pix) – compass of pedals – (pix. – inc. Toe pedals from “Organbuilding 8 & Gt. Chishill) (Also same benefice – Elmdon St Nick, Flight c.1867)

Pull Downs may have existed at Jesus college, Cambridge in 1635 – no independent pedal pipes. 

1720-21 pedals at St Paul’s Cathedral, London. CC compass

St Mary, Redcliff (1726) –CC compass

Samuel Wesley is quoted as saying “pedals might be of service to those who could not use their fingers” (1840)

By early 1800’s most larger organs had at least pull-downs, and most had a set of independent pedal pipes.  (Some chamber organs had 16ft stop in bottom octave for use by hand or feet).

Earliest confirmed pedal pipes 1793, Westminster Abbey – added by Avery 1793.  Thistlethwaite lists some 43 organs that possibly had pedal pipes dating from 1773 (Green’s organ for Walsall Parish Church – details uncertain) to 1820.  16ft pipes unpopular with builders while GG compass was the norm – cost & size.

Pedals initially provided a “third hand” for pedal points and complex textures.

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I should also add that the 1831 organ in York Minster (by Elliott and Hill) featured eight independent pedal stops, four at 16' and four at 32'(!).  The present organ has only three 32' stops (soon to be four again) and two of these date from the 1831 organ, some of the earliest 32' stops in this country.

Just prior to this, around 1820, pedal stops were placed within the screen: seven on the right side and six more on the left side (presumably as viewed from the east).  It is uncertain whether or not one of these two sections might have been played from the manuals.  Of course, in early 1829 all of this was completely destroyed by the lunatic who set fire to the organ and surrounding furnishings in the choir.

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