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British Organs, Past Present and Future

Hector C. Parr


The organ in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, New York, USA, built in 1993 by N.P.Mander Ltd. of London. For a full description click
St. Ignatius Loyola


This essay examines the changing styles of organ building which have prevailed in Britain at different times during the past two centuries. It asks whether a more rational approach to the design of new instruments, and the restoration of old ones, an approach led more by reason than sentiment, may perhaps spare us in the future from the rapid and ephemeral swings of opinion which have characterised the past two hundred years.



In many fields of human endeavour, the growth over the centuries of our knowledge, understanding and skill has shown such steady progress that we might almost believe it had been pre-planned. In the history of Physical Science, for example, the appearance at just the right times of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Planck and Einstein allowed the particular genius of each to solve the immediate problems that were then impeding progress. The story of scientific discovery over the last four centuries reads almost like a carefully planned voyage of exploration. Similar stories can be told in the world of communication, in medicine and in transport.

But not so in British organ building! During the past two centuries the art of building organs in churches has, on at least four occasions, lurched from one extreme to another. The story is certainly not a tale of gradual progress towards a recognisable goal. And yet at each stage there must have been many who believed the organs built in their time did represent some kind of ideal, and who would have been surprised at the castigation to which their instruments have been subjected by future generations.

THE GOLDEN AGE, 1830 to 1880

In most respects the organs built in Britain before about 1830 lagged far behind their counterparts in continental Europe. No British organ built before that date compares in size or complexity with the best examples in France or Germany of even two centuries previously. The great majority of the organs existing in this country, as late as 1850, had one manual only, and no pedals. Where pedal boards did exist, they were usually of short compass, and with no pipes of their own. The compass of the main manual would extend several notes lower than today's manuals, but if there were a second manual, it would probably go down only to tenor C or middle C. Such organs could play some earlier British music, but the rich repertoire of continental works, including the whole Buxtehude-Bach school, would be unplayable, as Mendelssohn discovered during his visits to this country.

How remarkable, then, must have seemed the huge Hill organ at Birmingham Town Hall (1834), or the instrument Willis built for the Great Exhibition of 1851. This had a 32-note pedal board and a total of 70 speaking stops, and most of the pipe-work can still be heard today in Winchester Cathedral. During the next thirty or forty years, Hill and Willis between them built over twenty large organs in our cathedrals and Oxbridge chapels, all with well developed pedal organs and the continental CC compass, making possible for the first time the playing of German music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of these organs still form the nucleus of the instruments which exist in these same buildings today.

But size is not everything. Willis and Hill, along with J. W. Walker and several other builders of the time, are notable also for the excellence of their workmanship, the tonal refinement of their pipe-work, and the inventiveness they brought to bear on some of the organist's problems. Among the innovations which these remarkable builders introduced to this country are the Barker-lever pneumatic action employed by Willis in the exhibition organ, and his stop-control system using pneumatic pistons in the key-slips. Among William Hill's inventions was the high-pressure Tuba which became a unique feature of the large British organ.

The overall character of an organ depends chiefly on its diapason chorus and mixtures, and on its chorus reeds. Willis had the genius to conceive as a whole the tonal structure of an organ. Listening to an organist gradually building up the tone from a single diapason to the Full Great, one should feel not only an increase of loudness, but a steady growth of excitement. A critical point in this progression, a point where many builders fail, is the moment when reeds are first added. If they are too sombre or heavy in tone, then their effect is to increase the loudness but to lower the centre of gravity of the resulting ensemble, and ruin its transparency. On the other hand, if they are too strident in tone, the effect is of increasing harshness rather than excitement. No one has ever surpassed Father Willis in his ability to make and voice reeds which seem to grow naturally from the diapason chorus on which they stand; his Full Great or Full Swell can often only be described as magnificent. It is such excellence, by no means confined to the Willis family, which justifies our description of this period as the "Golden Age" of British organ building.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can see the deficiencies in instruments of this period. Although their pedal organs were a remarkable advance on anything seen previously in this country, they usually lacked the upper work which German instruments had incorporated two centuries previously, and which is necessary for a proper performance of Bach's major works. And mutation stops such as the Tierce became almost extinct during this period, the only species to survive being the Great Twelfth. Some organ music is so fine that it is worth playing even on an unsuitable organ; into this category we can place most of Bach and some of his German contemporaries. Much of the French music of this same era also has great beauty, but it makes such specific demands in its registration that it lacks all interest on an instrument which cannot meet these demands. Mutations are essential for this music, so it is virtually unplayable on a late nineteenth century instrument, and it is doubtful whether many organists knew even of its existence.


As the nineteenth century drew to a close, a marked change of direction became apparent in the style of organ being built and admired. The reason is far from clear; it has been suggested that the building of large Town Hall instruments, and the type of music played in these secular surroundings, influenced people's taste in organ tone colour, but I do not believe this can explain fully the change which was to influence similarly the character of organs in churches and cathedrals throughout the land. Whatever the reason, there was a demand for more sombre sounds than the bright transparent tones of the best instruments of the previous period, and organ builders responded by changing markedly both their typical stop lists, and the character of much of the pipe-work controlled by these stops.

The tendency is manifest in several different aspects of the organs being built then. Even firms such as Willis became less ready to introduce Mixture stops in medium sized instruments, and where these were included, their scaling, and that of the 4' and 2' members of the chorus, made them noticeably subordinate to the 8' diapason on which they stood. Often two or more 8' diapasons were included where formerly one would have sufficed, and the biggest of these might be of very wide scale. Such a stop can have a noble dignity when used sensibly, but was an unwelcome member of any chorus where clarity mattered. Bright, free-toned reeds became unfashionable, in favour of smoother and darker sounds. And a thick-toned Clarabella or Hohl Flute was more likely to provide the 8' flute on the Great, where formerly it would have been a perky little Stopped Diapason.

This same trend continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Many new organs were provided for our smaller churches and chapels between 1880 and 1914, and some of them displayed these characteristics at their worst. The Great organ often contained no diapason chorus at all; if it consisted of just four stops, these would most likely be Open Diapason 8', Dulciana 8', Hohl Flute 8' and Harmonic Flute 4', a stodgy recipe unsuited both to the leading of congregational singing and to the playing of any good organ music. Larger Greats would be more likely to contain a 16' Bourdon than a Mixture. And we can learn much about current tastes in registration from the combination pedal settings in these instruments. Operating these in sequence, we often obtain all the 8' stops, plus the 16', before the mechanism dares to add even a 4' flute. The ff combination invariably draws everything, even the 8' and 4' flutes (and the Dulciana). Pity the poor organ blower, and pity Old Bach! The transparency of Bach's counterpoint is destroyed if the middle voices are engulfed by the thick tones which surround them.

It was the smallest organs which suffered most from this fashion. The work of our best builders often displayed fine craftsmanship, and contained some attractive quiet stops, but the overall chorus in a small instrument could not do justice to any of the great schools of organ composition. Larger instruments were not so restricted, for their size made them more versatile. If you have four Open Diapasons, you should be able to find one on which to build your chorus, and if you have a twenty-stop pedal organ you can omit the Open Wood when playing Bach. So some of the largest instruments at this time could, in fact, make a magnificent sound, very different from that in any other country, but capable of playing quite a large proportion of the repertoire. Between 1900 and 1939 the firm of Harrison & Harrison rebuilt many of the organs in our cathedrals and college chapels, and their excellent workmanship and meticulous voicing gave us some of the finest organs in the world. Where there were deficiencies they could often be overcome by skillful playing. I remember watching a young man, then an undergraduate but now a distinguished and well-known musician, giving a recital in King's College Cambridge, before the addition of the Great IV rank Mixture in 1968. He played the D major (BWV 532), and knowing that the only Great Mixture then existing, a Sesquialtera (with pitches 17,19,22), would prejudice the clarity of Bach's counterpoint, he drew diapasons at 16', 8', 4', 2 2/3', and 2', and played the whole Fugue an octave higher, thereby simulating a delightful little quint mixture on a light 8' foundation.

Another unfortunate development during this period was the growing popularity of tubular pneumatic action, not only for instruments with their pipe-work scattered all round a cathedral, but also for small instruments where it was quite unnecessary. Organ builders seem to believe that such an action transmits the signal from key to soundboard at the speed of sound, but this is not so. The initial short pulse of wind does travel at such a speed, but this is unable to open the valve at the other end of the tube. The pneumatic motor there moves only after the inertia of all the air in the tube has been overcome, and enough wind moved bodily to inflate it. So this action is inevitably slow, and if the departments of the organ are at different distances from the console, they will differ in their response times. Worse still, the delay in the "attack" of a note often differs from the delay in the "release", so that the organist's carefully practised articulation is ruined by the instrument. In contrast, a good electro-pneumatic action can often respond well to the organist's touch, and while it clearly is less direct than a completely mechanical system, can be very satisfactory where tracker action is ruled out because of distance.


The years of the Second World War provided many people with time to think, and fostered in them the resolution to build a better world when hostilities ended. Within a few years we had a new government, Secondary Education was introduced for all, and the National Health Service formed. And many servicemen with an interest in organs had discovered the historic organs of North Germany, and the more recent copies built in the 1930's in the spirit of the German Orgelbewegung movement. In such a climate of change and renewal it is not surprising that, on their return to civilian life, these travellers were dissatisfied with the dull instruments inhabiting so many of our churches at that time. But the fervour of their demands was surprising.

It has often been claimed that the design of the instrument in the Royal Festival Hall was the chief catalyst for the emergence of the "neo-classical" organ on this side of the channel, but this is only a partial truth. The choice and naming of its large array of stops, their scaling, and their voicing on low wind pressure, did make possible authentic performances of the pre-1750 French and German repertoires, and was indeed a revelation to many. But other aspects of its design owed little to the eighteenth century. An essential characteristic of the classical German instrument is the Werkprinzip, the positioning of the separate departments, with case work to project the sounds into the building, so that the listener is aware of the direction from which each division is speaking. The layout of the RFH pipework, spread widely and randomly across the rear wall, was very different. And the feature which was to become an essential hallmark of the neo-classical revival, a mechanical connection between keys and pallets, could not possibly have been used in the RFH. In fact Harrisons employed that same electro-pneumatic system which they had developed half a century previously for their large cathedral instruments.

Whatever the reasons, however, within a few years numerous uncompromising organs had been built on which, for the first time ever on these shores, we could give authentic performances of all Bach's works and much of the classical French repertoire also. Those who designed and advocated these instruments were hard taskmasters. Not only should an organ have the stops of a 1700 instrument, but it must not be marred by any suggestion of the decadence of later periods. Many were built without a swell box; Bach had no swell pedal, so neither should we. Bach certainly had no composition pedals or pistons, so neither may we. Not surprisingly, therefore, opinions became polarised. The "Baroque" fraternity accused the "Romantics" of being reactionary, while the latter objected to the limitations and the forthright tone of the classical instrument. When they complained that the whole nineteenth century repertoire was unplayable on a Baroque organ, the reply might be, "Who wants to play Romantic music, anyway?"

The designers of some of these instruments can be described only as fanatical. The key action had to be mechanical throughout, of course, but electrical or pneumatic operation of the stop mechanism was also forbidden. Such modern developments as 45 degree jambs, composition pedals or pistons and overhanging keyboards were also banned, and some builders even recommended hand-blowing. One wonders if they travelled to work on horseback, and wrote their letters by candle light. It must be said also that their attempts to copy the sounds of the Baroque instrument often failed. A Schnitger chorus has a scintillating brilliance, but not a trace of harshness, while a modern copy is so often hard and brittle. Furthermore some builders failed to realise that the type of brilliant mixture work which sounds thrilling in a resonant continental cathedral can become a tiresome scream in the dry acoustic of a British church or chapel. And while the Schnitger reeds sit comfortably on top of the diapasons and mixtures, their modern imitations often buzz unhappily above them. In their enthusiasm, these builders seemed driven to over-emphasise all the traits they admired.

Another manifestation of this over-enthusiasm was seen in the style of flue-stop voicing adopted by some British builders during this period. Many German organs of the seventeenth century were voiced on very low wind pressure, making it unnecessary to reduce the air flow to each pipe by closing down its foot-hole, final control of a pipe's speech being achieved by narrowing the "flue", the slit through which the air is projected across the pipe's mouth. This resulted in pleasing tone and prompt attack, but unfortunately it is difficult to voice the reed stops on such low pressure. So in the eighteenth century there was a tendency to increase pressures somewhat, and it became necessary to reduce the foot-holes of the flue pipes to make them speak properly. This introduced a fresh problem, however, in that the sound of some flue-pipes was preceded by an objectionable "spit" before settling down to the proper note. It was to avoid this fault that the process of "nicking" was adopted, the cutting of a row of small nicks across the width of the flue, and in this way the pipe's sound was stabilised, and the voicer was able to regulate the pipe as he wished.

But now in the 1960's and 1970's, in their attempts to copy the style of the German Baroque instrument, some voicers came to believe that both the reduction of foot-hole sizes and the practice of nicking were, in some way, reprehensible. As a result some of their stops suffered from poor speech to a greater degree than had ever occurred in previous centuries. The resulting spitting sound was renamed euphemistically as "chiff", and was soon accepted as an authentic feature of the classical organ, and indeed came to be admired by some. It is true that, when listening to contrapuntal music in a resonant building, a mild degree of chiff can help to clarify the part writing. But in much romantic music it sounds just like a fault, which indeed it is. An extreme case, when playing passages of rapid semi-quavers, can sound comically like an out-of-tune xylophone; each note consists entirely of chiff, with no time for the correct sound to begin.

The limitations of such an instrument in a house of worship soon became apparent. Without a swell box how does one reduce an extemporised interlude to a whisper? Without modern solo stops how does one accompany anglican chant? Without the wonderful English Full Swell how does one play Parry's "I was glad" or Stanford in B flat? Without a good selection of Fonds and a Celeste how does one play Franck? Without composition pistons how does one make the dramatic changes demanded by Liszt or Reger? Without a powerful solo reed must we reject much of Whitlock's fine music? The bigoted advocates of the classical instrument failed to realise that their blanket dismissal of the Romantic tells us only of their own limited musicianship.

RENAISSANCE, 1980 to 2000

Reaction was not long in arriving. One of the most highly acclaimed of the organs built in 1969 was considerably altered in 1985, with its reeds revoiced and its mixtures tamed and remodelled. And during the 1980's an increasing number of new organs were built with warmer upper work, more agreeable reeds, and some quiet romantic stops, to widen their versatility.

At first it seemed possible that the uncompromising neo-classical organs of the 1960's and 70's might be followed by another generation of equally restrictive instruments, but in a different genre. There is an increasing interest in both English and French organs of previous generations, and several instruments have been built recently in the style of some earlier period, with the same fanaticism as had characterised the classical revival. These instruments deliberately impose upon the organist all the inconvenience and limitations of a previous age, in the name of historical purity. And this same quest is taken to rule out any attempt to design an "eclectic" instrument; we are told that it is wrong to combine in one instrument the styles of different countries or different periods. Is the intransigence of one age to be followed only by the dogma of another?

So there are still disagreements in the organ world. But there are two aspects of today's organ building which almost everyone applauds. The neo-classicists fiercely advocated the advantages of mechanical key action, with no assistance from electricity or air-pressure. This would have been unacceptable if it had meant a return to the heavy touch of the typical Victorian organ, on which it is often impossible to play rapidly when two or more keyboards are coupled. But during this century our builders have developed a pleasingly light touch for their tracker action by the use of lower wind pressures, by careful design of the pallets, and by the use of new materials. The advantages of such an action for the player are considerable. Not only have the keys a natural "top resistance" which leads to cleaner and more precise playing, but the absence of any delay in the opening and closing of the pallets makes it possible to control exactly the start and end of each note. Peter Hurford has wisely said that "the difference between good and bad playing could be measured in milliseconds". It is also true that a good mechanical action allows the player some control of the actual starting transients of a pipe's sound, although it must be said that few players have the skill to take advantage of this.

The other recent development for which we must be grateful is a rediscovery of the art of organ-case design. The visible pipework of many instruments from the 60's and 70's is housed in featureless wooden boxes, reminiscent of nothing more than upended coffins, for which future generations will never forgive us. What pleasure and relief it has been during the last few years to see the return of real organ cases, often based on the lovely designs and craftsmanship of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

And as we approach the end of the twentieth century there are signs of a more rational approach to the tonal problems of designing new organs, and restoring old ones. At last there seems to be a realisation that organs exist primarily to play music, and that the vast repertoire of fine organ and choral music which today's instruments may be called upon to perform during their lifetime demands, above everything else, versatility. If there is difficulty distinguishing between versatility and eclecticism, then "eclectic" must cease to be a term of abuse. Some compromises are essential if an instrument is to fulfill all the demands that will be made of it. This new approach does seem to be illustrated by the fine instruments which several of our builders have completed in the last few years, instruments which are lovely to look at and which can give musical, and reasonably authentic, performances of works from many different schools of composition. Future generations may yet decide that the story of British organ building, so frequently blown off course in the past, is at last heading in the right direction as we enter the twenty-first century.

THE FUTURE, 2000 to 3000?

So what can we do to keep the ship on a steady course as it sails into the new millenium? The lesson to be learnt from the past is surely that, in the planning of new organs or the refurbishment of old ones, we should be guided more by the reason than by sentiment. The idea of having an untouched Schnitger, or a Cavaillé-Coll or a Willis in one's parish church may appeal strongly to the emotions, but gives us no help as we plan the instrument which will eventually have to serve there, perhaps for the next hundred years. Instead, ought we not to start by examining carefully all the different functions such an organ may be required to fulfill, and considering impassively the features which will make these possible?

What are the functions of a typical church organ? Here is a list of a dozen, each demanding something different from the specification and design.


1. Lead congregational hymn singing.
2. Accompany choir anthems and oratorio choruses.
3. Accompany psalms sung to Anglican chant.
4. Play quiet voluntaries and interludes.
5. Play Bach and Buxtehude.
6. Play Franck and Widor.
7. Play Stanford and Whitlock.
8. Play Liszt and Reger.
9. Play deGrigny and Couperin.
10. Play Messiaen and Duruflé.
11. Play orchestral arrangements.
12. Play Handel Concerti.

I suggest that the designer should start with a list such as this, arranging the items carefully into order of importance. This can best be done by estimating what proportion of its time the organ is likely to spend performing each of the functions. Of course the sequence will depend upon circumstances, but the above list may possibly represent the requirements for a medium sized town parish church, committed to traditional Anglican worship, and holding occasional concerts and recitals. Congregational and choir accompaniment must certainly head the list, followed by the playing of devotional music before, during and after services. The need for compromise is at once apparent. To perform perfectly all the functions on the above list would demand an instrument of over 200 stops.

Then, as the designer considers each feature of his proposed instrument, he can assess its implications for each item on his list of functions. Any particular feature may affect any particular function in a range of possible ways; it may be essential for that function, it may be merely desirable for that function, or it may have no effect. It is those features which are essential for one of the agreed functions that must be given the most thought, for excluding any will rule out one or more of the purposes for which the organ ought to exist.

Here are some of the features the designer must consider.


1. How many manuals?
2. How many enclosed manuals?
3. If there is a third manual, is it Choir, Positive or Solo?
4. Action for manuals: tracker, electric, pneumatic or tubular?
5. Action for pedals: tracker, electric, pneumatic or tubular?
6. Action for stops: mechanical, electric or pneumatic?
7. Composition thumb pistons? Toe pistons? Generals? Sequencer?
8. Great Diapason chorus: 16'? Mixture(s)? Character of mixture(s)?
9. Great reeds: 8'? 16'? 4'? Character of reeds?
10. Mutations? On which manual(s)? Character of mutations (French or German)?
11. ....... and so on!

To take one example, suppose we have reached feature no.10; is the organ to contain any mutation stops? They would be desirable occasionally for functions no. 3, 4 and 5. But they are essential for functions no. 9 and 10. So we must assess very carefully the seriousness of building an organ in this particular place on which French music of the classical and modern periods cannot be played.

This may all seem obvious, but a study of instruments built over the past century suggests that such a systematic design policy has often not been applied. The Edwardians would surely have been surprised to learn that many of their smaller instruments could fulfill only two out of twelve reasonable demands (namely numbers 3 and 4 from the above list of functions). Even the dedicated neo-classicists might have reconsidered some of their instruments on realising they too could fulfill only two of these demands (namely numbers 1 and 5).

When we discuss the restoration or rebuilding of an organ from a previous era, rather than the construction of a new one, there is one further matter of importance which must be considered. In an ideal world, all the finest instruments of Smith, Byfield, Hill, Willis, and the other great organ builders of the past, would be preserved unaltered indefinitely, as a record of the style and quality of the time they represent, and a memorial to their creators. There are situations where this is possible, particularly when a building can house two organs, as at Jesus College or Great St. Mary's in Cambridge, or when an instrument is not required for regular use. In such a case the need to preserve a historic instrument for future generations is paramount; on the occasions when it is played, the organist must accept its limitations or its imperfections. We must never allow the wonderful Willis at Blenheim Palace to be "improved" or "brought up to date".

But if a historic instrument is in regular use, some difficult decisions must be made. In fact we should allow "Preservation of historical integrity" to become just one of our several aims, and carefully place this in the list of functions which the organ is to fulfill. In a church with little music, it may be possible to put "Preservation" at the top of our list; the unaltered instrument may be able to lead congregational singing successfully, but we must accept that most other functions will suffer from the limitations imposed by the organ's archaic features. However, this approach may be quite unacceptable in a church with a capable choir and a vibrant musical life. We have no right to condemn future generations of worshippers and music lovers to a restricted musical diet, even if it means sacrificing some of the features of an organ with a significant history. To treat a living church as if it were a museum is a greater evil than to prejudice the integrity of an organ of historical importance.

To return, in conclusion, to the building of new instruments, this country's organ building businesses are fortunate in having among their workforce many fine and dedicated craftsmen. Some of the handsome organ cases built in recent years, along with the lovely consoles, and the internal parts which are crafted just as finely even though they are seldom seen, all bear testimony to the devotion and skill of a remarkable profession. An organ is a work of art, but unlike every other work of art it is also a machine with a definite purpose. Some of the instruments being built today do show that the practical requirements of this machine are in the forefront of their designers' minds, unsullied by ephemeral infatuations and fashions, and the resulting organs must be among the finest we have ever produced in the long history of British organ building. There is evidence that the excellence of British instruments is now being recognised abroad, as evidenced by the increasing volume of our exports, and by the appreciative reaction of the delegates at the International Society of Organbuilders conference in Cambridge in 1996. Let us now hope that British Organ Building will follow a more consistent course in the twenty-first century than it did in the twentieth, and that our best work will become the envy of the rest of the world.


(c) Hector C. Parr (1998)


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