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St Albans Cathedral Organ


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The organ is a 3-manual Harrison & Harrison built in 1962.

 

The specification can be found (with difficulty) on the St. Albans cathedral web site http://www.stalbanscathedral.org.uk/

 

Goto the "Worship & Music" page, scroll right down to the bottom, and click where it says "Click here for important information for visiting choirs". The organ specification is given at the bottom of this page.

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Another beautiful one, this organ stays near to untouched since 1962. (Harrison & Harrison, advisor P. Hurtford) French? Well, let's say for continental ears, this is not quite blatant: to me, it is rather a british cathedral organ, splendidly suited for the english choral music.

 

Here is a link to a frame (no direct link possible):

 

go to:

 

http://www.organfestival.com/index1.htm

 

Then click on "A" (All about us) on the right

 

Then on "St Albans cathedral organ".

 

You will find the disposition with a picture of the console.

 

Best wishes,

Pierre Lauwers.

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Guest Geoff McMahon

I think the consultant was actually Ralph Downes. It was in St. Albans Abbey that Sam Clutton bumped into Ralph Downes and said to him "Are you up to your baroque tricks again?" which led Ralph Downes to call his book on his work with organ builders "Baroque Tricks" and a very interesting read it makes too.

 

John Pike Mander

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This is quite amusing indeed.

 

Fact is, this organ shows -once again- that any stop-list tells only one part of the truth. I personnaly find this organ "sounds" more romantic than it "reads". Of course the good acoustics may contribute to this.

 

Best wishes,

Pierre Lauwers.

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I am pleased to see that people like the organ at St Albans which was indeed built by Harrison and Harrison in 1962 and designed by Ralph Downes and Peter Hurford.

 

I find it to be an extremely versatile musical instrument that is more than the sum of its parts.

 

To my mind no other cathedral organ is as flexible - it plays so much of the organ literature with such a sense of authority and integrity with appropriate colours and balances.

 

In spite of remarks made by other contributors in this discussion it does have a strong neo classical flavour and most of the reeds have domed French shallots. I don't know what else you would have to do to make them much more French in style! And yet in the Nave on a Sunday evensong it can sound like a classic Edwardian English Cathedral Organ.

 

I have just come in after practising Elgar's Sonata on it this evening. It is amazing how suitable it sounds even without all the orchestral colours of most cathedral instruments.

 

It spawned the International Organ Festival in St Albans which still flourishes in its 42nd year (the next one is July 2005 from the 7th - 16th).

 

Do please come and join us!

 

You can find more information about all the events from the middle of next year (around April) but I promise you that it will be a great festival.

 

We have John Scott, Ludger Lohmann, Jane Watts, Jos van der Kooy, Erwan Le Prado, David Briggs and Peter Hurford all performing.

 

Take a look at our website: http://www.organfestival.com/

 

The organ specification is on there.

 

Andrew Lucas

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Thanks for your very interesting comments Mr Lucas,

 

Mr Wimpress, it is frenquent that a good acoustics re-inforce the basses, while dry acoustics like found, for instance, in many U.S. churches, demands for incredibly over-scaled bass pipes.

 

French shallots are of course important to the production of french reed tone, no doubt. But here too, this is only a part of a whole. Harrison & Harrison were (are?), from a continental point of view, above all specialists with closed organ tone.

 

Maybe the impressive versatility of St-Albans lies with the fact its voicing is not "pure" this or that? And maybe this is a key to good neo-classical organs.

 

We have "french" type reeds aplenty in Belgium. This is something beautiful but rather crude -not flexible at all-. There have even been something like a craze for spanish "en chamade" reeds on the continent. Something made to fill huge cathedrals with low pressures, but transplanted into little churches here. My God !

 

So it seems St-Albans avoided many excesses, and I wish this instrument to be allowed to stay as it is for a long time, despite tastes changes that may occur. Above all, I wish the 2005 St Albans organ festival the big success it deserves to encouter!

 

Pierre Lauwers.

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To answer Mark Wimpress: both pedal 16 reeds are full length. It is hoped to add a 32' reed (certainly not a fortissimo one!) when the organ is restored in the near future as this was on the wish list in 1962 ,but the combination of funds and perceived lack of space meant it didn't happen.

 

The same goes for a complete Great reed chorus in the same 'french' style(additional 8 and 4 reeds were planned but then omitted at a later stage), otherwise the organ is just perfect, and as you say the Cathedral's warm but very clear acoustic makes all music sound very good. Something to do with the long flat wooden roof in the nave.

 

 

The whole point about this organ is that you can make it sound like anything you wish : English, German/Dutch or French by careful registration and using your ears and imagination.

 

Ben van Oosten made it sound like it was built to play Vierne whereas Peter Hurford does the same for Bach! I suppose the answer is that it was built to do both equally well. And play Elgar. What more could I want?

 

AL

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Well Mark,

 

Thanks, but do not believe one needs to enlarge St Albans organ in order to have it deserving a visit ; I find it interesting enough as it is, a sound neo-classical design from 1962 by an excellent builder (indeed, one more I'd like to have some instruments from in Belgium). If I had some money left, I'd rather hire something really big as, say, six trucks, in order to help as a -temporary- waste service company to make room in Worcester's cathedral for the two new organs.

The waste place I know near here-Namur's Cathedral-. There we have something that barely deserves the word "organ", with for instance sharply voiced mixtures near to the roof, where nobody could tune them since 1960 (you would need an helicopter, but how to tune then?). Are there still so many roundabouts in Worcester? This could be a problem with the trucks. By the way, maybe Mr Lucas could teach us interesting things about Herbert Howells on another thread here -just a tought while I'm enjoying the psalm-preludes by now-

Best wishes,

Pierre Lauwers.

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One of the best things about this discussion board is when you get it straight from the horses mouth, i.e. Andrew Lucas, John Pike Mander, and before he left for New York, John Scott on the St Paul's organ, and in particular, the Trompette Militaire.

 

My memories of the St Albans organ are restricted to a week I spent in the Cathedral there 20 years ago when my school choir took part in a performance and live recording for Deutsche Grammophon of Berlioz's Te Deum with Claudio Abbado conducting the European Community Youth Orchestra. The trebles were banished to pews in the South Nave aisle and because we couldn't see Abbado, our conductor Richard Hickox conducted us standing on a wobbly chair watching Abbado via CCTV! Anyway, the subsequent DG recording which I now have on CD is the only record I have of the St Albans organ, which has a very independent part in the Berlioz, so you really get to hear it. Listening to the CD again, the organ does sound wonderful as played by Martin Haselbock, with a really beefy full organ sound and a wonderful solo flute at the start of the second movement. It would be nice to have a CD of just the organ on its own. How about it, Andrew?

 

As to the plans to enlarge the instrument, including a 32ft reed. Well, I did get up into the organ loft and there is certainly room up there, acres of it, perhaps for the pipes to lie horizontally. But I hope the overall character of the instrument isn't lost in what, in my opinion, is one of Ralph Downes better organs.

 

Jeremy Jones

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There is no intention to change the character of the organ at all - on the contrary I am well aware of its fabulous integrated character and wish to preserve that at all costs.

 

But the truth is that the organ is now 40 years old and was last cleaned 15 years ago, so it is mechanically worn. The speech of the pipes is getting quite uneven due to dirt and age.

 

In order to allow it to be the focal point for the International Organ Festival and to be reliable and in good working order it needs a thorough restoration of the actions and soundboards.

 

St Albans has never been a wealthy Cathedral so some of the work done in 1962 was done to a very tight budget (for example the casework was altered in a very inexpensive way - and certainly looks like it). We would like to address this.

 

Later on, in the 1970s, a few stops were altered (mainly the manual Mixtures pitches were raised) and some of these alterations create a problem with blend. We would like to restore these stops to their original style and voicing (fortunately Downes left copious notes, of course, and there are many examples of similar styles and balances for us to make good comparisons, not least at the RFH).

 

Finally, the organ does have a few weaknesses - chiefly a Fanfare Trumpet which tries (and fails) to be both part of the Great chorus as well as a fanfare/solo reed. The sensible option would be to provide proper balanced chorus reeds and leave the Fanfare Trumpet to do what it does best.

 

The Pedal organ is very good as far as it goes, but in the longest nave in England it does sound like there is something missing in the tutti combinations, rather like not having timpani in a performance of "The Messiah". The full organ sound can sound as if it isn't really 'grounded'. We believe that a suitably scaled and voiced 32' reed is what is needed. Our advisor (and organ builders) tell us that there is room within the organ to add such a rank without compromise.

 

Peter Hurford, one of the orginal designers, also thinks these additions would be suitable enhancement of what is still a great organ. Unlike the RFH organ it sings into an acoustically sympathetic building which is partly why it sounds so good.

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I find what you say about the mixtures quite interesting, and of course going back to the original design to be a good idea.

 

I noted there are octave couplers on the Swell and Choir organs.

 

Twenty-five years ago, after a recital on a 1960 neo-classical organ, there was a "after-recital discussion" with the recitalist, a well-known teacher.

 

"The mixtures of this organ are too grave", he said. I tried an answer like this: "Well, sir, with the octave couplers they are usable for Bach. There are 72 pipes on the soundboards so it's designed that way". He had a glance at me as if he would eat me alive for dinner and answered: "Mr Lauwers, did Schnitger and Co build something like an octave coupler?" "Of course they did not, sir". "So this discussion has no purpose, Mr Lauwers".

 

I would be interested to know St-Alban's original and present-day schemes.

 

Best wishes,

Pierre Lauwers.

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As we are in the first stages of the process of negotiations with all interested parties I cannot give any more information because it could easily be misleading.

 

Fortunately the organ is not in a state where we need to do this work urgently, but I am keen to stay ahead of that position, not least because the organ needs to be in top condition to sustain the Organ competitions.

 

I have high hopes, and am quietly confident, that we will achieve a restoration within the next 5 or so years.

 

Therefore it is best not to speculate on detail. I just don't remember using the word "soft" or half-length!

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This looks to be an interesting subject.

 

Although only having heard the instrument at St. Albans Abbey through the medium of broadcasts and recordings, it always sounds fantastic - I hope one day to hear it live in the building.

 

The projected additions seem to make sense, too. Downes seemed unduly reticent to specify 32' reeds for rebuilds in which he was consultant (e.g.: Buckfast, St. Albans and Paisley abbeys, Gloucester Cathedral, Brompton Oratory and Fairfield Halls). I realise that to include this stop is not always advisable - for reasons of space or acoustics for example. However, it is interesting that David Briggs chose to add such a rank at Gloucester in 1999 and that Andrew Lucas is now considering the same course at St. Albans.

 

I have always (well, for a long time) wondered what the Choir Flauto Traverso 8' sounds like at St. Albans. Can Mr. Lucas confirm whether or not it is as drop-dead gorgeous as the Harmonic Flute 8' on the Choir at Coventry? (I have long considered this stop to be the sexiest sound I have ever heard - a sort of audible Angelina Jolie - however it is just possible that I have a diseased imagination.)

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You wrote:

 

I have always (well, for a long time) wondered what the Choir Flauto Traverso 8' sounds like at St. Albans. Can Mr. Lucas confirm whether or not it is as drop-dead gorgeous as the Harmonic Flute 8' on the Choir at Coventry? (I have long considered this stop to be the sexiest sound I have ever heard - a sort of audible Angelina Jolie - however it is just possible that I have a diseased imagination.)

 

 

Reply:

 

I have looked at the pipes and the mouths are nothing like Angelina Jolie's. The pipes are conical and the stop is one of the gentlest in the organ, quite neutral in quality in the tenor and middle octaves, becoming more round and flutey in the treble. I doubt that it sounds like the stop you mention in Coventry at all. It is however very versatile and is the main stop that can comfortably accompany a piano or pp solo on the Swell.

 

I'm amused by the threads about Canterbury and Gloucester Cathedral organs in another part of this site. Surely playing music is more important than making sound effects?

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Whilst it is difficult to argue with your comment re. the importance of making music rather than sound effects, I think there can be differences between the ideal recital instrument and the ideal cathedral organ. People find God in different ways, for some of us an atmospheric and etherial pre-service improvisation hopefully followed by sensitive and colourful accompaniment of the psalms can take us away from the hum-drum of everyday life and towards another plane. Perhaps this too is of importance.

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