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What Gives An Organ Its Essential Character?


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What is it, above all else, that makes an organ a "Walker", a "Hill", a "Grant, Degens and Bradbeer", or a [insert builder of your choice]? Is it the pipes, or is it the non-speaking parts? As a player, I would maintain that it is the sound of the instrument, but comments on another thread made me wonder whether builders might possibly have a different take on this. What do you think?

 

Let's try to keep specific instruments out of this.

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What is it, above all else, that makes an organ a "Walker", a "Hill", a "Grant, Degens and Bradbeer", or a [insert builder of your choice]? Is it the pipes, or is it the non-speaking parts? As a player, I would maintain that it is the sound of the instrument, but comments on another thread made me wonder whether builders might possibly have a different take on this. What do you think?

 

Let's try to keep specific instruments out of this.

 

To me tis the sound and what it feels like to make the sound. The best builders in my view tend to be the ones that keep continuity in their actions and voicing from job to job and consistently within each job = integrity. All the examples you mentioned achieve this for me, at least in certain eras. Mechanical reliability has to be another related issue, which is why (for all their many admirable qualities) I will forever approach Peter Collins instruments with a degree of trepidation, having had a very embarassing (and noisy) experience on one or two of his efforts (a permanent and unwanted Regal to Pedal, e.g.) I would always feel happier at a Tickell organ, because I know it's going to work, even if I won't personally find the tonal style does much for me.

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Consoles

I think a comfortable console helps, whatever the tone.

 

Some firms have definitely 'got it right'. Once one has played a few original Father Willis jobs, an early J.W.Walker or a 20's or 30's H&H the whole style of those very different organs leads one into the right frame of mind to get the best out of them (assuming that one has brought along the right music). It's a sort of reassurance that one is dealing with an instrument of real integrity. I often regret that other major builders did not seem to standardise their consoles for more than ten years or so at a time. Hills would be a classic case of this.

 

To see a venerable console spoiled by modern (non-matching) additions, modern ill-fitted electrics or drawing pins is always a real disappointment. How can people do these things? I once saw a three-manual Brindley and Foster organ dating from the 1880's with the stopjambs painted matt black and everything re-named in German on red dymo tape. To give further sauce to this story, the gentleman responsible was shortly to become one of the founder members of BIOS!!

 

 

Tone/Musical Effect

The famous firms became famous essentially because they seemed able to 'deliver'; their small organs make as much sense as their large ones. FHW is a classic case - you may find his instruments over edgy, or reed-dominated (lots of people did at the time, too) but you have to admire the way everything always combines into one all-encompassing whole. In the case of many FHW's, this whole can sound a bit 'brass-band-ish' whereas a Hill or a Walker doesn't.

 

Hill reeds don't seem to hold their tuning and tone so well as Willis ones - probably because their reeds are rarely on such a generous pressure. The truth is, I wouldn't want to choose between masterpieces of different builders - let's have them all.

 

I would rather play Bach on a Willis than a 20's H&H, but I would rather play Bach on a Hill or a Walker too. If I had to find an English organ which would work equally well on Bach and Franck (a tough test) then FHW comes as close as anyone.

 

 

What Really Matters?

The vital thing (for me) even in the smallest organ is that there is not just a good plenum but also that the bread-and-butter sounds are well-finished - the 8' flues, the 8 4 2 choruses. The fact that Dulcianas are taken right down to CC and not just finished off with a coughing stopped bottom octave which is shared with something else.

 

I really like playing on a low-pressure chorus; I like Stopped Diapasons on only 2" or 2.5".....unfortunately, I also like well-finished (you could call them 'traditional English') reeds because these blend with choruswork and voices. I have to be pragmatic, very very rarely will you find both on the same organ.

 

My old organ-builder foreman used to say that on every organ at least one stop has to have a bit of a devil in it... I know what he meant. If it's a tiny church organ, something has to give the effect of finality, of completeness...be it a splashy Swell Cornopean or a decently bright Great Mixture. Sometimes I find myself playing on organs where the voicer has 'played safe' and although everything is beautifully done, that final excitement on 'full organ' (or a harvest hymn) just isn't there. Taking some sample organs built by our host firm.... St.Giles' Cripplegate is a justifiably famous Mander organ of a noticeably bolder, more risk-taking kind than, say, Winchester College, St.Matthew's Westminster or Magdalen College Oxford. Yes it is larger, but it is also just that bit 'outspoken', just that little touch OTT that lifts one from one's seat!! Do you know what I mean?

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I often regret that other major builders did not seem to standardise their consoles for more than ten years or so at a time. Hills would be a classic case of this

 

As a matter of interest, Paul, for how many years was the classic early 20C Hill console in production? The earliest that I’ve encountered is 1902, the latest 1914. Presumably, the design changed after the amalgamation with N&B.

 

Digressing slightly, does anyone who plays a HW III find the American style multiple inter-division octave couplers useful, or do they just create unnecessary confusion?

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I often regret that other major builders did not seem to standardise their consoles for more than ten years or so at a time. Hills would be a classic case of this

 

As a matter of interest, Paul, for how many years was the classic early 20C Hill console in production? The earliest that I’ve encountered is 1902, the latest 1914. Presumably, the design changed after the amalgamation with N&B.

 

Digressing slightly, does anyone who plays a HW III find the American style multiple inter-division octave couplers useful, or do they just create unnecessary confusion?

 

1) The nicest Hill console I've ever used was somewhere in Banbury (I think) to a design by Hollins - stops horizontal above Sw keys, brought on by a button beneath the drawstop, and then shut off in the usual way. I found it very handy for drawing huge clumps at a time.

 

2) Yes, very useful, but even MORE useful when taken away from the confusing strip under the music desk and placed (like Salisbury) with the divisions they enhance. I was amused to note the other day that Salisbury has more couplers than Romsey has speaking stops - no mean feat - and in fact that St Mary's Southampton has more speaking stops than either (though a fair bit of borrowing on the pedal). I found it very handy indeed to be able to choose whether or not the octaves and suboctaves were coupling through.

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1) The nicest Hill console I've ever used was somewhere in Banbury (I think) to a design by Hollins - stops horizontal above Sw keys, brought on by a button beneath the drawstop, and then shut off in the usual way. I found it very handy for drawing huge clumps at a time.

 

Do you mean this?

 

http://npor.emma.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/PSearch...N01269&no=1

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Paul and David make some good points.

 

For me, there is no one aspect which elevates an organ from the everyday to the state of being something rather special. It is the entire experience: aurally - the instrument needs to have superb voicing, be it Romantic, Baroque or whatever. It should be possible for even unlikely combinations to succeed. The tutti should be thrilling (regardless of the size of the instrument and the building in which it stands). Quieter stops should have an almost vocal quality, on which melodic lines are both interesting and beautiful. It would also need to have good diapason choruses - clear and clean, with brilliance but not shrillness.

 

I am particularly fussy about consoles. A good console will be comfortable - as a well-worn pair of jeans are also comfortable. Stop layout will be clear and un-fussy. My own preference is for a minimum of gadgets and switches. I dislike greatly consoles which resemble the type of equipment favoured by airline pilots. Often, I find that older instruments (for example, those by Harrison & Harrison, or Willis II and Willis III) tend to have the most comfortable and user-friendly consoles.

 

A good acoustic is also desirable. This need not include a six-second reverberation period - just enough to warm the sound and enable the player to experience the thrill of aural 'feedback' from the building.

 

Ideally, the instrument will, in addition to giving a good account of major repertoire, be a good vehicle for the accompaniment of service music of English cathedral style.

 

Notwithstanding, I have occasionally encountered instruments (and buildings) which do not fulfil each criterior above, yet are possessed of some virtually indefinable extra 'something', which transcends an old and awkward console, or an acoustically dry building. This tangible aural quality is worth any number of shiny new consoles, or electronic wizardry. If the instrument truly sings (at all dynamic levels), then it will be an inspiration to those who are fortunate to play and to hear it.

 

However, since Vox actually asked for views on what made an instrument truly representative of its builder - if I have understood the question correctly - and without naming particular instruments, I think that I would perhaps add that, for me H&H (from about 1914-1985) made the best consoles and Walker (around 1960-70) made extremely reliable electro-pneumatic actions - not forgetting the superb electro-mechanical action which HN&B made for the organ of Gloucester Cathedral. Winding? Either H&H again, or Willis. Pipes and voicing - if I could only choose one, it would have to be Walker, from between 1880-1910.

 

I know that this still does not really answer the question - it is quite a difficult question to answer succinctly (as you can see).

 

Perhaps, as David Coram wrote, "... the sound and what it feels like to make the sound." This is the essence of what makes a truly inspiring instrument.

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... possessed of some virtually indefinable extra 'something', which transcends an old and awkward console... If the instrument truly sings (at all dynamic levels), then it will be an inspiration to those who are fortunate to play and to hear it.

 

On behalf of Romsey Abbey I extend my appreciation! Oh, did you mean YOURS???

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On behalf of Romsey Abbey I extend my appreciation! Oh, did you mean YOURS???

 

Ha!

 

To be honest, there are several aspects of the console of the Minster organ which are both uncomfortable to manage. Several of us have been unsuccessful in attempting to elicit exactly what makes it so awkward.

 

However, despite the fact that you have managed to mention a specific instrument, I have a huge respect for the organ of Romsey Abbey. The sound and feel of it in the building is quite superb. However, I think I prefer my pistons.

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There's just something about the feel of certain instruments - the feel, for me, encompasses not just the mechanics of making the note sound, but the way in which the sound develops and reaches me and the sound quality itself. It's the gratification factor (or, as someone said to me earlier, "gratisfaction" - something pleasing for free) of playing - confluence of console, touch, acoustic and tone.

 

More I think about it, the acoustic and voicing within the acoustic are probably more of a factor to me then anything else.

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There's just something about the feel of certain instruments - the feel, for me, encompasses not just the mechanics of making the note sound, but the way in which the sound develops and reaches me and the sound quality itself. It's the gratification factor (or, as someone said to me earlier, "gratisfaction" - something pleasing for free) of playing - confluence of console, touch, acoustic and tone.

 

More I think about it, the acoustic and voicing within the acoustic are probably more of a factor to me then anything else.

 

And, of course, a nice chamade stop. :rolleyes:

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not forgetting the superb electro-mechanical action which HN&B made for the organ of Gloucester Cathedral.

Sean, I know that the degree to which we agree on the issues regarding the scrapping of the Worcester Cathedral organ is matched by the degree to which we disagree about the vitues of its Gloucester counterpart. But this difference of opinion is based upon its tonal qualities which, I accept have considerable merits, but personally believe leave an organ which is both inadequate in leading large congregations and unsuitable for performing its bread-and-butter job of accompanying choral evensong. However, I find it difficult to believe that even its most ardent supporter could take such an uncritical view of the HNB action. The simple fact of the matter is that an organ which, to all extents and purposes, was entirely new in 1969 has subsequently undergone two major rebuilds due mainly to its mechanical inadequacies. Its touch and responsiveness may have won admirers but its reliability and longevity were disasterous.

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Sean, I know that the degree to which we agree on the issues regarding the scrapping of the Worcester Cathedral organ is matched by the degree to which we disagree about the vitues of its Gloucester counterpart. But this difference of opinion is based upon its tonal qualities which, I accept have considerable merits, but personally believe leave an organ which is both inadequate in leading large congregations and unsuitable for performing its bread-and-butter job of accompanying choral evensong. However, I find it difficult to believe that even its most ardent supporter could take such an uncritical view of the HNB action. The simple fact of the matter is that an organ which, to all extents and purposes, was entirely new in 1969 has subsequently undergone two major rebuilds due mainly to its mechanical inadequacies. Its touch and responsiveness may have won admirers but its reliability and longevity were disasterous.

 

This does surprise me, Neil! I have played for many services on this instrument and had a number of lessons on it (from DJB). I have never experienced any failure or problem with any part of the action. Neither did David lead me to believe that the instrument had been anything other than totally reliable. Are you sure you mean the Gloucester organ?

 

I am also puzzled by your statement regarding two major rebuilds. Nicholsons renewed all the magnets in 1999-2000, during the major restoration of the instrument - which seems quite reasonable since they had been functioning for almost thirty years. I am unaware of any major rebuild between 1971 and 1999!

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Generally I would say that it is the tonal qualities that colour our opinion of different instruments and builders. Certainly from the listeners' perspective this is all that counts.

 

From a player's perspective its less clear cut. Console design and quality, action reliability and touch cut in here. From my own perspective one admires and enjoys playing the organs of Bristol Cathedral and Romsey Abbey despite their console (Romsey) and action (Bristol) but this leaves an impression of a builder, at a point of time, that had full control of their tonal palette sadly unmatched by the mechanical and ergenomic aspects of organ design and control.

 

At the opposite of end of the spectrum possibly H&H's long unchallenged position as contract holder of choice for the maintenance of the major organs in this country must have owed something to the (often disccussed on this formum) unsurpassed comfort of their consoles.

 

As a player, one's reflections of, for example, the wonderful Willis organ in Hereford Cathedral can not be divorced from the comfort and memory of its very typical Willis III console.

 

So, I suppose, what I'm saying, is that the answer to the original question depends in part upon whether you're just listening or playing the instrument. From a listener's perspective only the sound counts, but as a player our whole experience of a particular builder is coloured not only by the sound, but also by whether the instrument is comfortable (and easy) to play.

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From a player's perspective its less clear cut. Console design and quality, action reliability and touch cut in here. From my own perspective one admires and enjoys playing the organs of Bristol Cathedral and Romsey Abbey despite their console (Romsey) and action (Bristol) but this leaves an impression of a builder, at a point of time, that had full control of their tonal palette sadly unmatched by the mechanical and ergenomic aspects of organ design and control.

 

I know we weren't going to go down the instrument-specific route, but only on one or two occasions have I ever felt "connected" and "involved" with an electropnuematic action. For some reason, big pneumatic jobs such as Bristol I am fine with, and certainly the barker levers at base are very fine. I just don't like operating switches! I would rather it was a bit heavier, like Sherborne or perhaps Chichester, than left me feeling like a typist. That's what I meant about the feel of producing the sound - rather have a Fred Dibnah than an IBM.

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How does all this tie up when a new instrument is built specifically in a past style - maybe the Twyford Harrison for example or much of the work of Bill Drake or Goetze and Gwynne? I have not played enough of these to be able to judge - I suppose what I mean is whether or not a modern instrument setting out to be intentionally close to something from the past feels/sounds like a modern instrument or something older. Theoretically someone could request and have built a 1930s H & H (complete with authentic sounds and action etc.) - how would this fit in with the opinions expressed so far?

 

AJJ

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... and certainly the barker levers at base are very fine.

I've only played at Romsey the once, but certainly found the action and touch to be very good. It was really the console layout, and lack of playing aids, that I was commenting upon - altough I guess there are few consoles of this age, on organs of this size, still in use so its perhaps an unfair comparison.

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How does all this tie up when a new instrument is built specifically in a past style - maybe the Twyford Harrison for example or much of the work of Bill Drake or Goetz and Gwynne? I have not played enough of these to be able to judge - I suppose what I mean is whether or not a modern instrument setting out to be intentionally close to something from the past feels/sounds like a modern instrument or something older. Theoretically someone could request and have built a 1030s H & H (complete with authentic sounds and action etc.) - how would this fit in with the opinions expressed so far?

 

AJJ

 

I hope the following post is deemed an appropriate response:

 

1. English baroque

I very much like the Bill Drake at Grosvenor Chapel. It does feel like an old organ, although because of the quality of the finish (both tonal and mechanical) it is not quite like any other 'old' organ I know. For a start, you can approach it at the same time of the year when every other organ in London is drifting about in pitch and find the Trumpets in tune. How is that done? Hard, painstaking work, I think. It has the stops which one would expect on the genuine article, but a few little extras (like the decent pedal department) and, of course, just those very things that have virtually always disappeared from real organs from the chosen period (Cornet etc.) are still there. Because of the console design, few aids, straight jambs, a reasonably generous draw on the stopknobs which have paper labels, the mindset of the player is immediately biased towards the sort of music for which the instrument was designed, i.e. pre-romantic repertoire. Having given a few recitals upon it, and wishing to balance my programmes, I reckon it copes very well with a good deal of music that came later. There's not overwhelming power anywhere, and there are no strings or orchestral reeds.... but it is the perfect instrument for that building and always a joy to play. In case you may think I am biased, I have never met Bill Drake, own no shares in his company nor have ever recorded on one of his organs.

 

2. English romantic

The much enlarged FHW at St.David's Cathedral is a less-thorough going copy of the style, so maybe I've picked a less perfect example. To be honest, I don't know where a direct FHW or H&H copy has been installed. Certainly the design of St.David's is very sound and well-executed. The console looks perfect (I have written about this somewhat critically elsewhere, so won't repeat my doubts here) and the stoplist now includes many stops which would have been present on a larger FHW and weren't before the recent work. I am convinced that if H&H wanted to produce a complete (fake) FHW they or Manders would have the experience to come close. Tonally, there are some surprises, which (except in the case of the awkwardly sited 32' reed) make sense in that building.

There are, of course, cases where spoiled/severely compromised organs have been brought back into line. Both Lichfield Cathedral in its H&H incarnation and Eton College Chapel as restored by Manders come into this category and are wonderfully improved from what they were. I enjoy the Eton organ very much and am sure that nobody who is not equipped with details of the new work would ever know that quite a bit of the pipework is not Hill, indeed not old at all. Because the console has been returned to its 1902 appearance, a player's expectations are raised. Once raised, they are not disappointed in the very least - it's just wonderful.

 

If I were a multi-millionaire, it would be great to be able to finance this exact treatment in several other places....

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Ideally, the instrument will, in addition to giving a good account of major repertoire, be a good vehicle for the accompaniment of service music of English cathedral style.

 

 

Hi

 

Why should an organ that's not in an Anglican church with a choir have to be at accompanying in the English cathedral style? Organs in secular buildings and free churches - and increasingly in Anglican churches - are just not called on to deal with this repertoire!

 

Surely the priority is that the organ can deal with the repertoire that's needed in the specific venue.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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How does all this tie up when a new instrument is built specifically in a past style - maybe the Twyford Harrison for example or much of the work of Bill Drake or Goetz and Gwynne? I have not played enough of these to be able to judge - I suppose what I mean is whether or not a modern instrument setting out to be intentionally close to something from the past feels/sounds like a modern instrument or something older. Theoretically someone could request and have built a 1030s H & H (complete with authentic sounds and action etc.) - how would this fit in with the opinions expressed so far?

 

AJJ

My experience of Goetze & Gwynn organs is limited to just four instruments - St Endellion, Marldon and the two EEOP organs- and my tentative conclusion so far is that they all have what I assume to be a characteristic Goetze & Gwynn sound (perhaps a slightly unfair comment about the smaller EEOP organ since I have no yardstick for its delightful wooden Principals). I couldn't begin to define exactly what it is, but presumably it must be something in the voicing. It's certainly nothing to do with the feel of them: St Endellion feels quite different from Marldon and both are very different indeed from the EEOP organs. There is nothing wrong with this since, as far as I know, the St Endellion and Marldon organs only ever aimed to be "in the style of" rather than direct replicas, but it leaves me no option but to remain very open minded about how authentic the Tudor organs sound.
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Hi

 

Why should an organ that's not in an Anglican church with a choir have to be at accompanying in the English cathedral style? Organs in secular buildings and free churches - and increasingly in Anglican churches - are just not called on to deal with this repertoire!

 

Surely the priority is that the organ can deal with the repertoire that's needed in the specific venue.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

 

Because it was a personal view, Tony - and I rarely play recitals on concert hall instruments, so I am less concerned with them. However, I spend quite a lot of time regularly accompanying cathedral-style choral services at my own church and a number of others. Therefore, I require an organ which is able to produce the sounds which I deem appropriate to this repertoire - I can hardly be expected to speak of the habits and preferences of others! I was referring to certain cathedral instruments (without actually maming them) because I am quite well-acquainted with many of them in this country and in continental Europe.

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Guest Roffensis
What is it, above all else, that makes an organ a "Walker", a "Hill", a "Grant, Degens and Bradbeer", or a [insert builder of your choice]? Is it the pipes, or is it the non-speaking parts? As a player, I would maintain that it is the sound of the instrument, but comments on another thread made me wonder whether builders might possibly have a different take on this. What do you think?

 

Let's try to keep specific instruments out of this.

 

 

It's the art of voicing and balancing to a given style, and there are huge variations between builders, thankfully!

R

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