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What Gives An Organ Its Essential Character?


Vox Humana

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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 1030s H & H (complete with authentic sounds and action etc.) - how would this fit in with the opinions expressed so far?

 

AJJ

 

I'm sure H&H would be able to build a repilca of their earlier styles, although I don't think they built any in the 1030s!

 

If you wanted a Willis repilca, then H&H or Mander would be able to do it, but then again so would Willis themselves (the company is still around)

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Guest Barry Oakley
I'm sure H&H would be able to build a repilca of their earlier styles, although I don't think they built any in the 1030s!

 

If you wanted a Willis repilca, then H&H or Mander would be able to do it, but then again so would Willis themselves (the company is still around)

 

In terms of Willis (as remnants of Willis IV?) still being around, is not that stretching it a bit far? Was it not the name that was simply bought?

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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.

 

What is the English Cathedral "style"? Perhaps what you mean is the English Cathedral repertory - in which case Byrd, Weelkes, Gibbons, Morley, Tomkins, Blow, Purcell, Handel, Boyce, Battishill and Samuel Wesley etc are every bit as representative of the genre as Ouseley, Stainer, Wood, Parry, Stanford, Howells, Bairstow, Finzi etc. The trouble is that the words English cathedral style are too often only taken to refer only to the latter - that is to works requiring the sort of romantic, highly coloured, quasi-orchestral type of accompaniment and vast dynamic range associated with the 20c cathedral instrument. Unfortunately, the musical merit of some of these works, like the instruments themselves, is often debatable to say the least.

 

Lord, spare me from yet another Dyson in D!

 

JS

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In terms of Willis (as remnants of Willis IV?) still being around, is not that stretching it a bit far? Was it not the name that was simply bought?

 

Is that true? Even so, Matthew Copley would also be able to build a Willis style organ, as he was a voicer for them while it was still being run by Willis IV. Incidentally is Henry Willis IV still around; I've seen documents on the Alexandra palace website written by him which are quite recent.

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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.

I couldn't agree more, for the reasons you have explained in your later post which match my circumstances closely. I can't quite reconcile your statement above with your admiration of the one major instrument over which we disagree though!

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What is the English Cathedral "style"? Perhaps what you mean is the English Cathedral repertory - in which case Byrd, Weelkes, Gibbons, Morley, Tomkins, Blow, Purcell, Handel, Boyce, Battishill and Samuel Wesley etc are every bit as representative of the genre as Ouseley, Stainer, Wood, Parry, Stanford, Howells, Bairstow, Finzi etc. The trouble is that the words English cathedral style are too often only taken to refer only to the latter - that is to works requiring the sort of romantic, highly coloured, quasi-orchestral type of accompaniment and vast dynamic range associated with the 20c cathedral instrument. Unfortunately, the musical merit of some of these works, like the instruments themselves, is often debatable to say the least.

 

Lord, spare me from yet another Dyson in D!

 

JS

 

I suspect (or hope) you mean musical merit in your opinion.

 

English Cathedral Style quite evidently has to base itself around the most demanding part of its large repertoire for the simple reason that it's easier to find a suitable registration for a verse anthem on a Harrison or Willis than to play Wood and Howells on a Drake or Collins. As someone who was required by a sadistic senior organ scholar to accompany Wood and Howells weekly on I: 4 2 8 II: 8 4 II I can well sympathise with this position. Most cathedrals I have played in (and some larger parish churches too) have a second organ for use in more intimate situations where leading a large congro and colouring the psalms is not a necessity.

 

This is why I think Gloucester (and, to an extent, Norwich) have got it right; it may not appear so on paper (especially in the case of Gloucester) but it is possible to get absolutely sumptuous rich sounds out of it one minute and broken glass the next, as appropriate. You just have to be clever and learn a new way of approaching registration as, in theory, you must do to a limited extent on every instrument you ever play, in order to learn about its tonal pallette. This may mean using some apparently bizarre stop combinations, occasionally playing up or down the octave, and so on. As it happens I have on the stereo as we speak a CD of Briggsy at Gloucester (not its actual title) where from pp-f it sounds for all the world like a Harrison. But when you want to belt it one with Scharffzimbels and Septiemes, you can. Now, I would suggest it is better this way round - to have such sounds designed into a cohesive scheme - than to do the usual, which is to take a Harrison or something and start adding silly fractions to it. These are the monsters that get tinkered with again, and again, and again until the original picture is so muddied that the only way out of the swamp is to start again. For all its faults (and NO organ is perfect), Gloucester is nothing if not unified and coherent in its philosophy, which is 95% of the battle when making a good organ. Of course we know that its designer had some very fixed ideas and I suspect FF's promised book-in-waiting might give some insights into how many of these were undone when RD wasn't looking...

 

Here are two examples of unusual combinations at Romsey, undoubtedly a good organ but one which people usually treat in a four-square way. I have a piston which gives you this: Sw, Principal, Oboe, Clarion, Mixture; Gt, both doubles and stopped diap; Choir, principal 4; Pedal, 32; Gt-Ped and Sw-Choir. That might look peculiar on paper, but in reality you play the Sw down an oct to have a contra oboe, cornopean and full sw sound, the Gt doubles are the best pedal stops on the instrument, and rather than crescendoing with the box too much you transfer to the Choir at the same pitch to have an 8' diapason.

 

Another keeps a similar pedal registration (i.e. Gt 16's plus the 32), and also has: Sw 16 and 4, choir Dulciana, Sw-Choir. With the box tight shut this sounds remarkably like celestes with octave and suboctave couplers and the Gt can be played up an octave to give a remarkable horn-like solo.

 

You wouldn't buy a car on the strength of driving it a mile or two in a built up area, and equally until you really KNOW an organ (a process which can take years) you can't expect to have unlocked all its secrets. But you can tell straight away if the car is two or three welded together... and we'd all walk away from that, I'm sure...

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...............which takes us back to the gist of something Peter Hurford once said or wrote - that ones ears are perhaps the most important things when it comes to choice of sounds ie instead of preconceived registering or 'stoplist spotting'. When I was a student having organ lessons at what is now ajt's establishment on the south coast I used to come up with the most unorthodox ways of obtaining the sounds I required. The same still applies on occasions.

 

AJJ

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What is the English Cathedral "style"? Perhaps what you mean is the English Cathedral repertory - in which case Byrd, Weelkes, Gibbons, Morley, Tomkins, Blow, Purcell, Handel, Boyce, Battishill and Samuel Wesley etc are every bit as representative of the genre as Ouseley, Stainer, Wood, Parry, Stanford, Howells, Bairstow, Finzi etc. The trouble is that the words English cathedral style are too often only taken to refer only to the latter - that is to works requiring the sort of romantic, highly coloured, quasi-orchestral type of accompaniment and vast dynamic range associated with the 20c cathedral instrument. Unfortunately, the musical merit of some of these works, like the instruments themselves, is often debatable to say the least.

 

Lord, spare me from yet another Dyson in D!

 

JS

 

No, John - I meant 'style' - as opposed to the style of music in, for example, French, German and Dutch cathedrals and greater churches. I have some knowledge of some of the music which is sung and played in a number of places which would fit into this latter category and I wished to draw a distinction between the widely diverse types of music.

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I'm losing the plot here. How can you reduce Weelkes, Purcell, Wesley and Howells to a single style?

 

But I do agree that it is easier to accompany Byrd on a H&H than Howells on a Collins.

 

As in the sense of the range of repertoire which is likely to be sung in an English cathedral - as opposed to, say, St. Sulpice (well, the French consider it to be the second cathedral in the City of Light), Bayeux Cathedral, Bonn Cathedral, Bamberg Cathedral, Antwerp Cathedral, etc.

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I couldn't agree more, for the reasons you have explained in your later post which match my circumstances closely. I can't quite reconcile your statement above with your admiration of the one major instrument over which we disagree though!

 

If it should afford a shred of comfort, Neil, Gloucester is not my favourite accompanimental organ - this would probably be Bristol (which also includes the acoustic ambience of the building). However, I rate Gloucester highly as an instrument on which to play much of the repertoire which I prefer - and as an excellent organ on which to improvise.

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I'm losing the plot here. How can you reduce Weelkes, Purcell, Wesley and Howells to a single style?

 

But I do agree that it is easier to accompany Byrd on a H&H than Howells on a Collins.

 

I had to accompany Howell's Behold O God and Gloucester Service on the Collins in the Turner Sims concert hall. Yuck.

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In terms of Willis (as remnants of Willis IV?) still being around, is not that stretching it a bit far? Was it not the name that was simply bought?

 

Hi

 

I can assure you that Willis is still very much in business - and I'm a very satisifed customer. They have just completed restoring the organ in my church - finishing on the Friday before Christmas, and the quality of the workmanship is excellent.

 

They operate from the former R&D factory in Liverpool (which I visited twice whilst our instrument was there) and that seems to be reasonably well equiped - and they have dealt with/are working on some pretty siezable jobs.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

 

Is that true? Even so, Matthew Copley would also be able to build a Willis style organ, as he was a voicer for them while it was still being run by Willis IV. Incidentally is Henry Willis IV still around; I've seen documents on the Alexandra palace website written by him which are quite recent.

 

Hi

 

From conversations I had at Willis' I think he's still alive, but retired from the business.

 

Tony

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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.

 

Well, I am biased obviously, but I couldn't agree more. In my last recital there I included Guilmant, Gade and Jongen and it did brilliantly. Although it's 15 years old now it still feels like a brand new organ - crisp, light, comfortable. This is indeed down to hard painstaking work and a great deal of fastidiousness. I would go so far as to say it made a better fist of these pieces than quasi-romantic jobs like St Stephen's Walbrook, a job which I think I'm right in saying is only fundamentally 4 or 5 years older than Grosvenor (since the last major work) and which was terribly unreliable and difficult to manage.

 

Once again it boils down to having a philosophy and sticking with it. The only major regret with Grosvenor is its balanced swell pedal, there at the insistence of Richard Hobson; on that style of instrument and that typical style of music (not to mention the shape of the console) I think I would have found a trigger (Drake any-position job) easier to manage and less inclined to make me smash my knee hard into the keyboard platform.

 

Another example of superb workmanship leading to a very pleasing and reliable instrument is that 1903 Walker I've been going on about - we finished getting it out yesterday, and EVERYTHING (right down to the ground frame) was dovetailed and dowelled to perfection. Even the little knocking thing to wake up the pump operator was fastidiously engineered with its own little geared rollerboard and an unequal square - that one small component looked like it had gone through 15 years of rigorous testing. The whole organ was almost entirely modular and there were comparatively few screws in the job. There was not the slightest chance of any part of the structure of that organ moving even a millimetre. It must have taken hours and hours and hours to do. I wonder just how much quality work like that is being turned out nowadays.

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It must have taken hours and hours and hours to do. I wonder just how much quality work like that is being turned out nowadays.

 

The Aubertin at St Louis en L'Ile is like this too.

 

AJJ

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I had to accompany Howell's Behold O God and Gloucester Service on the Collins in the Turner Sims concert hall. Yuck.

The choir of Queen's College, Oxford, did a CD of Howells and Leighton for ASV back in 1993. The accompanied Howells pieces (Chichester Service, Hymn for St Cecilia, My eyes for beauty, Like as the hart) were obviously chosen carefully, but even so they must have been more difficult to pull off than the Leighton. The organist (David Went) copes very well indeed. He did have a swell box though.

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The choir of Queen's College, Oxford, did a CD of Howells and Leighton for ASV back in 1993. The accompanied Howells pieces (Chichester Service, Hymn for St Cecilia, My eyes for beauty, Like as the hart) were obviously chosen carefully, but even so they must have been more difficult to pull off than the Leighton. The organist (David Went) copes very well indeed. He did have a swell box though.

 

And there was that Choral Evensong not so long ago from Clare College Gambridge when (to my ears at least) the Von Beckerath was made to accompany some rather inappropriate stuff - Howells etc, I seem to remember.

 

I had to accompany Howell's Behold O God and Gloucester Service on the Collins in the Turner Sims concert hall. Yuck.

 

It can't have been as odd (soundwise) as the performance of the Saint Saens Organ Symphony not long after it went in!

 

AJJ

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Is that true? Even so, Matthew Copley would also be able to build a Willis style organ, as he was a voicer for them while it was still being run by Willis IV. Incidentally is Henry Willis IV still around; I've seen documents on the Alexandra palace website written by him which are quite recent.

 

 

Hi

 

From conversations I had at Willis' I think he's still alive, but retired from the business.

 

Tony

 

Although I’ve not seen Mathew Copley for many a year, his company “Organ Design & Construction Ltd” is (as far as I know) still trading.

 

:P

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Although I’ve not seen Mathew Copley for many a year, his company “Organ Design & Construction Ltd” is (as far as I know) still trading.

 

:P

 

Isn't he in the process of putting an instrument of interesting design and construction into the RC Cathedral of St Mary in Edinburgh?

 

AJJ

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Isn't he in the process of putting an instrument of interesting design and construction into the RC Cathedral of St Mary in Edinburgh?

 

AJJ

[/

quote]

You may be interested to know that the re-designed organ will mercifully look nothing like the curiously proportioned drawing on Matthew Copley's website!

Spread across the west wall and divided by the west window, the layout is:

 

Left Right

 

SOLO SOLO Tmpt

 

GREAT Console SWELL

_______________________________________

 

PEDAL PEDAL (at floor level)

 

The small CHOIR section is in the sanctuary area at the East end.

 

Alistair

 

Isn't he in the process of putting an instrument of interesting design and construction into the RC Cathedral of St Mary in Edinburgh?

 

AJJ

Oops!

 

Hopefully you get the idea.

A

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Guest Roffensis

I likewise know of no organ built in the style of Father Willis, but I know of at least one renowned organ by Father Willis, that has been rebuilt by another builder, with various additions made, that sound nothing like Willis' work, and whose stops stick out like a sore thumbs. :P

 

R

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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.

 

 

=============================

 

I have thus far avoided answering this question, because I am not quite sure what 'Vox' is searching for in the answers.

 

It's a sort of all-embracing question, covering the organ as machine, church furniture and musical instrument, yet if one were to change the console and discard the organ case, a Father Willis or an Arthur Harrison would sound much the same if no other major changes were made; assuming that they were in original condition to start with.

 

I believe therefore, that it is the "in-house" tonal-style concept which is the dominant factor; especially if one were a blind, non-organist, listening in the pews.

 

However, it goes beyond even "in house tonal-style" does it not?

 

One organ which always impresses me is that in Leeds Parish Church, which is really quite a mongrel in many ways. With bits of Schulze, (now back in operation again after decades of silence), quite a lot of Hill, some Abbott & Smith, quite a lot of Arthur Harrison, and in recent years, new pipework added from local organ-builders: in reality probably coming from the same pipe-makers and voicing source.

 

It impresses me I think, because everyone who has worked on this organ has been keen to make the result an integrated instrument of music, rather than a mere fashion statement. So whilst the essential character, (in the worst possible acoustic), remains that of Arthur Harrison, the instrument has been marvellously transformed into something much better and more flexible. Furthermore, whilst the console has been changed quite a bit, it still has the Arthur Harrison layout, whilst externally, it is still the strange looking instrument once famously described as "that weird mass of carving."

 

However, to return to the original question, the various styles which emerged from British organ-builders were sufficiently different as to amount to a recognisable and individual style. There is no mistaking the sound of Father Willis, with their bright, stringy but somewhat restrained choruses, the lush flutes, impeccable orchestral reeds and storming climax reeds, beneath which were placed heavy wood basses and thunderous Ophicleides. Quite how Father Willis arrived at that style escapes me, but he did, and it is to be respected.

 

The Hill approach was much more conservative; for had they not originated from the dynasty which eventually leads back to the old-sound of Snetzler? The problem with Hill organs of the 19th century, is finding organs from that stable which are the same as those which went before, for it was a very changing age. Nevertheless, I don't think Hill ever really moved that far away from the classical school of old-English organ-building. The voicing is rather on the dull side, but as the choruses build up, they build up magnificently. As for the work of Thomas Hill, that reached a new high-point at Sydney and Beverley, but there was still evident restraint. Were Sydney an American organ, it would blow the roof off the town hall, but instead, the sound is just glorious and in keeping with the size of the building.

 

If we compare Father Willis instruments with those of William Hill, there really is no comparison to be made, because they were totally different animals.

 

I suppose that, in the final analysis, it is the mind of the organ-building creator which marks the essential differences, and only a few organ-builders are instantly recognisable around the world. It's interesting that they were often among the best in their respective fields.....Skinner of Boston, Arp and F C Schnitger, Silbermann, Holzhey, Cavaille-Coll, Father Willis, Arthur Harrison....perhaps even Wurlitzer.

 

Of course, when we come across instruments which are still very recognisably the product of their original creator, even where changes have been made, then we discover something very special indeed.

 

That's why I cited Leeds PC, because it would certainly possible to install a newer and very different instrument, but in that acoustic, it simply could not be better than what is there now, and which has been respected by those who have worked on it. It stands as a tribute to all those involved over the last century and a half.

 

It's still a mongrel though!!

 

MM

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