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DaveHarries

Bristol Catheral - Organ Appeal

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Evening all,

 

Just a post to say that Bristol Cathedral is attempting to raise money for the restoration of the organ (IV/66, Harris 1685 / Seede 1786 / WG Vowles 1861 / JW Walker 1907) which, from a figure given at a recent concert, is likely to cost in the order of £1.5m. Pages have been added to the cathedral's website: https://bristol-cathedral.co.uk/music/organ-and-sound/

Dave

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In the list of organ-builders, we shouldn't forget that our hosts performed a restoration, 1989/90, retaining the pneumatic action and adding a second mixture to the Great (the organ was previously hard-pushed to support a big congregation in the nave, although it was and is of peerless beauty when accompanying in the Quire).

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. The implication in the website articles is to dump the 1907 action in favour of something else. So much for 'historic and sensitive restoration.' There are plenty of pneumatic actions in Germany which seem to have been restored satisfactorily, and even a few in this country.

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Walker pneumatics have a nice touch, but I believe are rather demanding in terms of maintenance, needing more frequent adjustment than some other types.  It has been preferred practice over the last twenty years or so to restore, rather than replace, pneumatic actions, and our leading firms have a good deal of experience in this branch of the craft. I gave the re-opening concert at Colchester Town Hall a few years ago after Harrisons' restoration of Norman & Beard's pneumatics.  The cathedral's website items refers to "antiquated technology" but does not say (in so many words) that it is proposed to replace the pneumatics, although it certainly infers as much. I wonder if the role of the organ in terms of usage time has changed that much, since Walkers' built it early last century (they would presumably have had daily Matins as well as Evensong in those days), but other factors such as modern heating may not have been kind to the action.

Time will tell - as Bernard Edmonds said when our hosts rebuilt St. Paul's, "I too could have told them exactly what should have been done, but fortunately nobody asked me!".  One thing is certain, tonally Bristol is one of our most beautiful cathedral organs and I'm sure no one will want to alter it in that respect.

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On 12/19/2017 at 19:01, hackjo said:

Thank God they're not chucking it out and replacing it with a brand new one!

Absolutely! The instrument sounded fab during the concert on Monday evening (18th December) which was the yearly run of Messaien's "La Nativité" after which a retiring collection toward the organ appeal was taken and it raised quite a bit from the 100+ (reckoned by one of the stewards) members of the audience.

Dave

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I remember hearing "La Nativité" played on this organ by Alistair Jones (then Director of Music at the cathedral school) when I was a student, c.1977, and the organ did indeed sound fab (and, perhaps surprisingly) very well suited to the music.

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I think pneumatic actions are fascinating mechanically but can't help wondering whether they would ever have existed if electricity was more advanced in the second half of the nineteenth century, or if the desire for ever bigger and higher windpressure organs during that period had been delayed just a decade or two. Since the time of the Great Exhibition experiments were being done to connect keyboards electrically with pipes and one of the earliest organs to be built with an electric action was by Bryceson for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the 1860s. Had these actions been just a little more robust I suspect tubular pneumatic actions would never have needed to have been developed and organs like Bristol would have built from the start with some sort of electric action.

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I guess that one reason for the popularity of pneumatic action was that the wind was already there, whereas electricity was not easily available. Early electric actions relied on batteries, etc, which needed constant attention and renewal (it has been suggested that Hope-Jones actions often suffered from the problem of maintenance and from lack of knowledge, as well as from bad-mouthing from those who disapproved of him and what he stood for).  Father Willis's 1886 electric action at Canterbury was still working well when the organ was rebuilt in the nineteen-forties (it was the pneumatics that failed), but generally, British builders had neither the confidence or the interest to develop electric action until John Compton did so and Henry Willis III copied Ernest Skinner's system.  In North America, efficient electric actions were being built from the early years of the twentieth century.

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Pneumatic actions evolved incrementally, starting from a simple pneumatic motor which was inflated by the wind fed via a tube from the soundboard pipe-hole.  The motor opened the pallet valve.  This system enabled pipes to sound which were separated by a significant distance from the soundboard itself but it did little or nothing to relieve the touch of the organ.  This was followed by the pneumatic lever type of action which was essentially an add-on to a conventional tracker action, made famous by the way Cavaille-Coll used it though he did not invent it.  This did relieve the touch of a heavy tracker action.  Then came tubular pneumatic action.  So this relatively leisurely rollout of incremental technology did not overtax the research and development overheads of organ builders in the way that electric actions did not long afterwards.  Electric actions were a disruptive or killer technology as we would say today, and they hit the organ world hard.  Hardly anyone understood anything about electricity in those days, and that included organ builders.  This is not a criticism, because how many people even today understand basic things like how to use the Ohm's Law equations and its analogue for magnetic circuits, Hopkinson's Law?  So one can imagine what it must have been like in the mid-nineteenth century trying to get a handle on it and design a half-decent electromagnet for example.  Then there were all sorts of practical problems, like enamelled magnet wire was still in the far future, so the wire had to be fabric-covered (silk or cotton).  But this then had to be wax-impregnated to keep out the damp.  Unfortunately rodents then ate the wax, and moth larvae fed on the fabric (which was later impregnated with moth-killer which is why magnet wire from that era was typically blue or green).  And so it dragged on ...  and on ... for decades.  In the meantime many builders who dabbled initially with electric actions returned to tubular pneumatics with relief because they suffered from none of these issues, which is why they were still widely used until well into the 20th century.

Hope-Jones managed to solve a lot of the problems because he was a professional electrical engineer, holding the MIEE qualification for starters.  But even he had to devote far too much time to R&D to the detriment of running his successive businesses, which was a major contributor to their downfall rather than being merely a reflection of his alleged lack of business nouse as is often facilely assumed today.  Somebody had to do all this clever stuff, and who else was there in those days?  An organ builder couldn't just hire an engineering consultant as might happen today - there weren't any to speak of.  And the era of third party suppliers from whom one could buy-in parts such as magnets likewise had not arrived, so builders had to make everything themselves or make one-off arrangements with small engineering firms.  Henry Royce, he of later Rolls-Royce fame, was one of these.  But it was an expensive and uncertain way to go.  In the early days of any new technology there are therefore lots of casualties which fall by the wayside, such as Hope-Jones's several companies.

Perhaps our hosts have other angles on the differences between pneumatic and electric actions which haven't been drawn out so far, in that they have developed a particular reputation for conserving and restoring the former type.

CEP

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One of the problems with wholesale replacement of any part of an organ, such as the action, is that the eager custodians are tempted to do other things as well, such as altering the physical arrangement of the instrument, the soundboards or the winding. To say nothing of tonal alterations to satisfy 'the changed role of the organ' or the 'more sophisticated technical demands....of contemporary organ music'. Bright and shiny reasoning is always produced as to why these changes should be made,, but the result has been that almost every British cathedral or pseudo-cathedral organ has been constantly transformed, at enormous cost, and it is always a triumph. Until thirty years later. Since the Bristol organ is uniquely, comparatively little altered, surely it should be restored in its present state?

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On 28/12/2017 at 23:03, ptindall said:

One of the problems with wholesale replacement of any part of an organ, such as the action, is that the eager custodians are tempted to do other things as well, such as altering the physical arrangement of the instrument, the soundboards or the winding. To say nothing of tonal alterations to satisfy 'the changed role of the organ' or the 'more sophisticated technical demands....of contemporary organ music'. Bright and shiny reasoning is always produced as to why these changes should be made,, but the result has been that almost every British cathedral or pseudo-cathedral organ has been constantly transformed, at enormous cost, and it is always a triumph. Until thirty years later ...

This is an admirably succinct summary of a common problem.  However it is easy to be wise with hindsight or to have insufficient knowledge of exactly why changes are made, so one has to be careful when being critical of particular cases.  As an example,  I've studied the recent changes wrought to a justly well known Romantic four manual organ built in George V's reign with tubular pneumatic action.  Little expense seems to have been spared at that time, to judge by things like the 16/8/4 reed choruses on swell and great, and the luxury of several quiet manual flue doubles.  The effect prior to the recent intervention, and making allowances for some mechanical and winding defects which obviously had to be remedied, was of an instrument with mellifluous and well-blended chorus work everywhere as well as some stunningly beautiful solo voices both soft and loud.  But at the recent rebuild the action was electrified (maybe not so great a sin as some maintain), the soundboards were moved around so that inter alia the mixtures would project better, and one of the 16' manual doubles was discarded.  In addition some of the fluework was revoiced to become less fluty.  It is still a splendid instrument, and in terms of craftmanship the organ builders did a fine and worthy job, though its character has changed to one (i.e. me) who knew it previously, so one has to get to know its capabilities again from scratch.  But these remarks are not intended to be negatively critical, and a fine organ has now been given a new lease of life for a long time.  So the point is that making changes at a rebuild is not necessarily a bad thing.

In saying all this I am only making some general points by referring to a special case.  But more importantly I should point out that I am not relating the issues to Bristol cathedral in any way, which merely triggered these more general remarks.

CEP

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18 hours ago, ptindall said:

One of the problems with wholesale replacement of any part of an organ, such as the action, is that the eager custodians are tempted to do other things as well, such as altering the physical arrangement of the instrument, the soundboards or the winding. To say nothing of tonal alterations to satisfy 'the changed role of the organ' or the 'more sophisticated technical demands....of contemporary organ music'. Bright and shiny reasoning is always produced as to why these changes should be made,, but the result has been that almost every British cathedral or pseudo-cathedral organ has been constantly transformed, at enormous cost, and it is always a triumph. Until thirty years later. Since the Bristol organ is uniquely, comparatively little altered, surely it should be restored in its present state?

Correct, to a point. As our hosts know only too well, the Bristol action, particularly the divisions using drum purse exhausters is very changeable. It can be made to repeat as quickly as any electric job at a given time on a given day preferably without an r in the month but with no guarantees for the next day. It could be made to work better and kept as t/pn but not without substantial redesign and hence is of questionable value and utility outside that of a museum piece. The additional maracas voice controlled directly from the Swell keys not relyant on a drawstop is also at best distracting unless Latin or Caribbean music is being performed.

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Delighted to see the interest in the appeal. It's very early days - I will post news and updates when there is something to tell, but the scheme of work is unlikely to be fully formed until the tendering process, which will happen once most of the funding has been raised.

We have compiled a CD in aid of the appeal from some of my Tuesday lunchtime recital performances and, if anyone would be interested, details are here:

http://www.paul-walton.com/#/recordings/4569256178

Contrary to the web-page, if just ordering the appeal CD, please make cheque payable to Bristol Cathedral.

All best wishes,

Paul Walton

(Assistant Organist, Bristol Cathedral)

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I'm pretty sure I know the organ Colin alludes to above as its description is hard to disguise! I wasn't aware the flues had been revoiced and I'm not sure why the Choir Dulciana or its Pedal duplex had to go either but I do recall comparisons being drawn with Armley which was restored at around the same time. In the latter case the pneumatic action was retained but rather than revoice the organ which would have been criminally reckless, the soundboards were moved around to ease sound projection, just as the soundboards in the other instrument were moved partly to improve projection and partly to ease internal access, and the result seems to have been very successful.

As for the question as to why cathedral organs seem to have frequent rebuilds, I do wonder whether it's largely related to the type of action used. It seems to me that large organs with mechanical action are far less susceptible to major rebuilds than organs with electric action (think of the various three and four manual organs installed in concert halls over the past say 40 years, how many if any have had any significant changes or additions to their specification? Then think how many large cathedral organs with electric action haven't had significant changes over that same time period). You can't just add a whole load of new stops to a mechanical organ, usually the case won't be big enough to cram in any extra pipework and even if there was the space, you couldn't easily enlarge the soundboards to accommodate extra stops. Yet something like St Paul's Cathedral started off life as a (by today's standards) small three manual, and whilst the case is still there, most of the present organ is anywhere but inside the case, and that's only possible thanks to electric transmission.

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Having just read Contrabombarde's reply, it seems a bit silly not to reveal the organ I was speaking of above.  Yes, it is Malvern Priory!  I simply felt a bit shy when penning the earlier post in case the organ builders (Nicholson's) thought I was criticising their work on another organ builder's forum, which I am not.  It is and was a gorgeous instrument which was dealt with entirely sympathetically in my view.  Also I might add that Nicholson's have been very helpful in providing details to assist my research into the physics of organ pipes which draws on the sounds of this organ, and I'm glad of the opportunity to give them a public 'thank you' for this.

Incidentally, the reason why the 16' Dulciana was discarded was because it was deemed virtually inaudible according to one of the articles I read about the rebuild.  Everything I've said here is already in the public domain.

CEP

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I'm not sure that I can agree with Contrabombarde's hypothesis regarding the frequency of cathedral rebuilds.  There have been some recent examples of relatively modern tracker organs needing major action work.  On a smaller scale, I have experienced severe cyphering on modern tracker actions - two that come to mind are a British instrument in the music department of a school in Surrey and a Belgian one in an RC church in Essex.  In the latter case, I think the whole thing was engineered on too light a scale to stand up to normal use.  As the boss of the firm which maintained it observed, one wouldn't get trouble like that from a typical Henry Jones centenarian.

The reason for multiple rebuilds is more likely to be that old components had been re-used, so that different parts of the instrument tended to wear out quicker than others. Then, of course, tastes change and the correct solution fifty years ago might not be the best today.

With regard to electric action, it was dangerously easy for cheap builders to do a cheap job with a short life-expectation.  In North America, where confidence in planning and building electric actions was arrived at much sooner than in the UK, it is quite usual to encounter 80 year old electric actions which are functioning well, given normal maintenance and the usual periodic overhaul. In the cases of both the Casavant cathedral organs over which I have presided (St. John's, Newfoundland 2003-20016, Fredericton, New Brunswick 2016 to date), the rare action problems which have presented themselves have hardly ever been due to the electrical side of things. Back home, there are a number of elderly Comptons which are still soldiering on with their original actions.

No one is without prejudice, so I will confess (again) that my preference is for electric action with a full set of octave couplers so that the fullest advantage may be had from the pipe-work (North American organs were planned with the couplers as an integral part of the tonal scheme, but the principal holds true  with British organs also).

"Rushworths' could really do it when they wanted to", as the old boys used to say, and Malvern is a prime example. I haven't been there since the latest re-planning, but I thought it was gorgeous when I played it in the 1990s.  Holy Rude, Stirling is another, possibly their finest (although I have some doubts about some minor tonal fiddling which took place over the years).  And I've always preferred the Rushworth in the Chapel at Christ's Hospital to the Hill in the Great Hall (but, as forumites will know, I am in general a terrible heretic when it comes to most old Hills - I would probably have got on well with Colonel Dixon!).

I hope all here had a fine Christmas (the cathedral choir here did a mighty fine Charpentier Messe de Minuit - I was proud of them), and that the New Year will be happy and prosperous.

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4 hours ago, David Drinkell said:

"Rushworths' could really do it when they wanted to", as the old boys used to say, and Malvern is a prime example. I haven't been there since the latest re-planning, but I thought it was gorgeous when I played it in the 1990s.  Holy Rude, Stirling is another, possibly their finest (although I have some doubts about some minor tonal fiddling which took place over the years).

 

I played Malvern a few years ago and thought it a very fine instrument of its kind (although it's not a kind I admire). Holy Rude, which I have not played, has a spec quite similar to The Foghorn, though I'm not so sure how similar the sound is,  given the strong personality that forged the Plymouth instrument.  The Foghorn has proved to be a millstone around the church's neck. When it was built in 1957 it was locally iconic, but nowadays it is far too grand for the musical aspirations of the church, which currently aspires to little more than praise music. However, the church does care enough about the instrument to have appointed an "organ curator", who tells me that he has got the whole thing working adequately again for the first time in some years. You can't really blame the church. The major problem has been electronic obsolescence.  For years the organ has been kept hobbling along only because one of the church's musicians has been a whizz with electronics. Basically parts have been failing and it has been impossible to source replacements because they are no longer made. In this scenario you end up faced with no alternative but to replace a complete electronic system at a cost you can't afford. There really is a lot to be said for mechanical action.

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6 hours ago, Vox Humana said:

 ... The major problem has been electronic obsolescence.  For years the organ has been kept hobbling along only because one of the church's musicians has been a whizz with electronics. Basically parts have been failing and it has been impossible to source replacements because they are no longer made. In this scenario you end up faced with no alternative but to replace a complete electronic system at a cost you can't afford. There really is a lot to be said for mechanical action.

Oh dear, one of my long-term hobby horses has hoved into view here which I can't resist chipping in about.  An electric action using the original type of electromechanical technology which they used in the first place can usually - in fact it is probably safe to say ALWAYS - be repaired by any local organ builder or even an educated member of the congregation if push comes to shove.  This sort of technology uses no electronics, just electromechanical relays and lots (yes, LOTS!!) of wiring in the form of fat cable harnesses.  But its foremost advantage is its survivability and ability to resist obsolescence.

I've written articles about the matter in places such as Organists' Review, and you wouldn't believe the stick I came in for for my pains (or maybe you would).  Threats of litigation from certain electronics firms for 'defamatory remarks', 'damaging their business', etc.  Together with insulting letters from top organ advisers.  I'd love to print some of it just for your entertainment, but discretion sometimes has to take the place of valour and there's no point setting the pot boiling again.

I'll leave it there because Vox Humana's post admirably confirms my view independently, and in any case, this forum is not the place for excessive self-advertisement.  But you can find it all on my website, including the original print articles, if you want to search for it ...

CEP

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Putting on my Chartered Engineer's hat for a moment, knowing that I'm certainly not the only one here, my view is that the various statements on obsolesence made in the forum in general and elsewhere are not only entirely justified, but wholly unremarkable. Indeed, I would be more concerned for those making astonishing claims for longevity and reliability, as their apparent lack of experience may actually make them liable to the whole world if, or rather when, a grand statement turns out to be flawed, especially as it is likely to be for reasons outside their control. If I were to make such flawed statements, let alone write threatening letters to those who question them, I would in short order become an ex-Chartered Engineer.

In this case there is something to be learned from electronic instrument makers. Many years ago I went to a demonstration of an electronic organ - the location and brand are unimportant and I won't reveal either. Among other matters, the representative was candid and honest in saying that their organs did go wrong from time to time because they used modern technology. However, they dealt with such problems with an emergency call-out service, a good stock of spare parts for more common faults, and a spare temporary organ if needed. No need to pretend or make promises you can't keep, let alone descend into sending threatening letters.

I have no bone in any of these organ technology fights, but like others it's annoying when patently wrong arguments fly around and they need to be countered in a reasonable manner, as ultimately a lot of someone else's money, and perhaps reputation, is at stake.

However, I grew up in Bristol, so it's interesting to see how this restoration will pan out, and how the challenges, both technical and historical, will be addressed. I wonder if they'll put it all back together on a screen and re-attach the former chaire organ?

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At the risk of totally derailing the thread I went on an "organ crawl" many years ago arranged by the local organists' association on a dreary wet day to visit two equally uninspiring instruments. The first at least had the advantage of having recently been rebuilt with a solid state electric action, but our visit had to be curtailed prematurely after it blew a fuse during the first player's performance and nothing could be done to get it going until the builders/electricians could be contacted during the following week.

 

The second organ started off not much better, an ageing tracker action with cyphers on each of its manuals. These were rapidly fixed by one of the organ crawlers lifting up the music desk or clambering into the case I forget which, and the show was back on the road.

 

Elsewhere I have regaled the story of the church I played a wedding at, and had to send a member of the choir with a fast car down to the nearest B&Q during the choir practice immediately before the wedding with a shopping list of Superglue and duct tape to patch up the appalling wind leaks coming from the reservoir and undertake various other emergency repairs such as the ivory falling off Great Middle C (and before anyone asks, I'm an amateur musician, not an organbuilder, so goodness only knows what damage I must have caused running duct tape over the cracks in the reservoirs.)

 

However, much to my amazement and satisfaction the organ was still working five years later for another wedding I played at, except that during the Widor I managed to knock the Great ivory off again :-)

 

Back to Malvern - I was visiting only last week and have played it since the rebuild which I thought was fantastic including lashings of lush softer stuff. However, I do believe that at their best, British organbuilders churned out some pretty fine Romantic warhorses in the first half the 20th century and I'd love to meet the Foghorn one day.

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I understood that the conversion of Malvern to EP was because no builders would take the commercial risk of restoring the pneumatics - it was so congested inside that if anything went wrong, it would all have to come apart again to fix.  An example locally is the tonally rather nice but internally very congested Binns in Great Missenden parish church.  The pneumatics were restored in 2006 but problems started soon afterwards, apparently revolving around failures and leaks in the action tubing.  It was converted to EP a couple of years ago.  It's in a north east chancel case and there is a small window in the otherwise solid west wall of the chamber, previously blocked by wooden pedal pipes.  In 2006 they were Haskelled and the window opened up - the difference in the amount of sound reaching the nave was remarkable.

Robin Jennings' article in the current issue of 'Organ Building' on his new organ at Wolvercote is most interesting.  By 'restricting the cost of the action' (i.e., going for a completely mechanical action) they were able to increase the spec by a couple of stops and hopefully increase its longevity.  I would certainly be very happy to trade pistons on a 16 stop 2 manual for long term reliability, especially with adjustable composition pedals, with a bonus of extra stops and the pleasure of a modern mechanical action.

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Not just pneumatics that take up space - there is a colossal void the size of a large room behind the console of the great organ of Liverpool Cathedral where the electric relays (combination or couplers, I don't remember) used to be before solid state rendered them redundant. I expect you could put an entire pipework division in it if the cathedral intended to enlarge the organ even further!

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