Elgar's Organ Sonata and the Organs at Worcester Cathedral
by Colin Pykett
Posted: November 1999
25 January 2021
Last revised: 25 January 2021
Copyright © C E Pykett
The console of the Hope-Jones organ at Worcester cathedral, built 1896. One of the two quire cases is visible in the background. (The temptation to imagine Elgar demonstrating it to Dora Penny is irresistible, regardless of whether it actually happened ! See The Composer below.)
Opinions about the organ installed by Robert Hope-Jones at
Worcester Cathedral in the closing years of the nineteenth century still surface
from time to time despite the fact it was rebuilt nearly 80 years ago and on other
occasions since. It seems to
be one of the foci for the strongly polarized debates which reverberate
to this day about the activities of this controversial organ builder, and it is
unfortunate that some of what has
been written goes well beyond the bounds of objective scholarship.
In this essay the instrument is linked with one of the great works in the
repertoire, Sir Edward Elgar’s Sonata in
G (opus 28). In doing this the
story assumes another dimension, for the genesis both of the organ and the
composition are inextricably linked in what has almost become folklore – that
the Sonata is often assumed to have
been written for the inauguration of this organ.
The background to the Sonata
becomes more fascinating the more one delves into it. It reveals much about what Elgar was doing at the close of
the nineteenth century and the way one of our great cathedrals lost two fine
organs. I shall try to put some
flesh on these bones, and because the Worcester organ is so central to an
understanding of the situation it will be described in more detail.
According to the late
Canon Beswick, Precentor at Worcester in
the 1960’s, the twenty years between 1874 and 1894 represented the
Cathedral’s finest period as far as its organs were concerned 1.
It boasted two splendid instruments.
One was of three manuals largely by Hill, together with a new four manual
instrument also by Hill and commissioned by the Earl of Dudley.
But in 1894 Hope-Jones was called upon ostensibly to rebuild the two
organs as a single instrument. In
fact he did not use the original pipework apart from about 15 registers,
combining them with other ranks of his own individual tonalities.
The resulting organ consisted of 54 speaking stops, 25 couplers and a
plethora of playing aids made possible by Hope-Jones’s novel electric action,
and it was played from a four manual
detached stop key console Included in the playing aids was his Stop Switch, a device which enabled
a new combination to be set up at leisure as it were and brought into action
when the switch was operated. Double touch and sforzando effects were also available. Compound composition keys were placed between the manuals,
similar in function to conventional thumb pistons but with additional facilities
such as "suitable bass". The stop list of this famous instrument makes for interesting
reading, and it is included at the end of this essay.
The organ collapsed in the early 1920’s and no attempt
was made to rebuild it in its original form.
Most records convey contempt for the instrument, and some pour excessive
obloquy on its builder. Yet most
authors, even the moderate ones, found it difficult to be certain why Hope-Jones
was engaged at all, let alone why he was given so apparently free a hand.
This problem has been addressed again recently, as will be described later.
Closer to events, however, others took a more supportive stance.
Hope-Jones published copies of testimonials he had received to the
excellence of his creation. Dr Hugh Blair, the organist, was the author of one of them
and his letter asked “is it too wild a flight of fancy to hope that now we may
find the solution of that problem – hitherto unsolved by organ builders – of
obtaining variation of tone directly from the fingers?” 2 .
Presumably his question was prompted by the possibilities already offered
by double touch or the sforzando effect . His
belief in the technical omnipotence of Hope-Jones was echoed by others in a
similar vein, including John Naylor (York Minster), George
Sinclair (Hereford), Daniel Wood (Exeter) and John Camidge (Beverley).
Hope-Jones corralled these letters together and published them for
obviously commercial reasons, but
these people were just a selection of those in positions of influence who
provided him with his power base. Their
collective professional opinions cannot be disregarded simply because they said
things which we might dislike today. Sinclair
is particularly interesting when we speak of Elgar in view of his (or rather his
dog’s) privileged immortalisation in one of the Enigma variations a few years
later. So if Sinclair liked
the Worcester organ, did Elgar also?
There is evidence that the Cathedral had the reputation of
having difficult acoustics well before Hope-Jones arrived on the scene.
The rebuilt three manual Hill organ of 1874 had about 40 speaking stops
and a specification which we would find not disagreeable today.
But it was found to be inadequate for accompanying congregations in the
nave, perhaps partly because of its position in the north choir aisle. Thus the Earl of Dudley’s new organ was sited further
forward in the south transept and this, with its 53 stops and four manuals, must
have improved matters considerably. Against
this background it is not surprising that Hope-Jones not only retained both
these cases in more or less their original positions but added a third on the
south side of the choir. He put
most of his pedal organ in the transept case which was one of Gilbert Scott’s
Perhaps to pre-empt any further criticisms of lack of
power, the organ was voiced with high wind pressures and the specification
included batteries of powerful reeds with octave and suboctave couplers on all
departments. Dr Ford of Carlisle
Cathedral found the power and volume of tone to be “immense”, and Blair
pronounced the reeds “quite wonderfully grand”. Some of these together with other stops were retained by
Harrison’s in the 1925 rebuild, and I was familiar with the instrument in this
form prior to the further interventions in more recent years. Following one
recital given by George Thalben-Ball in the early 1970's a friend complained of
ringing in the ears for hours afterwards! Therefore
whatever its other shortcomings might have been, lack of power did not seem to
have been among them and so we can presumably grant that Hope-Jones had
succeeded in solving this major problem.
It must surely, also, have been a convenience to be able to
control the pipes in both the nave and the choir from the one console, rather
than the two of the previous arrangement with its separate organs.
And although on paper the organ looked like a huge octopod, it is
necessary to remind ourselves of some of Hope-Jones’s ingenious tonal ideas
which compensated for this aspect to some extent.
Firstly, at least some of the unison inter-manual couplers only operated
via double touch whereas the sub and super octaves operated directly.
Moreover, the suboctaves only worked on the light wind stops and the
superoctaves on the heavy wind ones. This
implies that additional power with brightness and not excessive gravitas was
meant to be endowed by means of coupling, and that the multiplication of unison
ranks which normally occurs with couplers in ordinary organs was reserved for
deliberate effects via double touch.
Secondly, although there was not a single mutation or
mixture on the organ, the
appearance of two Quintadenas is noteworthy.
Such stops speak the twelfth almost as prominently as the fundamental,
therefore if one used the four foot Quintadena with an octave coupler one would
get pitches at intervals of 8, 15, 19 and 26 above unison 7.
Adding the eight foot Quintadena as well would provide a sort of “6
rank mixture” with a composition of 1, 8, 12, 15, 19 and 26. An article
elsewhere on this website discusses Hope-Jones's Quintadenas in detail 16
. Hope-Jones is reputed to have voiced his Quintadenas fiercely, and this
no doubt resulted in the one that "sounded like a five rank mixture" in his organ
at St Mary’s Warwick 3.
We have just seen how this might, indeed, have come about.
There was even an equally fierce Tiercina stop at Worcester which spoke the seventeenth
as well. Such makeshifts cannot of course replace real mixture work, but it is
nevertheless a relevant factor when playing an organ of this sort.
I have done tonal experiments of this nature at the console of a smaller
Hope-Jones instrument 4 and can vouch for their effectiveness in some
circumstances. It persuaded me that
when playing a Hope-Jones organ it is best not to distinguish between the
speaking stops and the couplers to the extent we do today.
At some risk of over-simplification, we can consider his instruments
simply to have had an undifferentiated array of stop keys from the registration
point of view. Possibly it would
have been unusual to register without
using couplers, thereby making all the “stops” of comparable importance, and
the strange registrational techniques this implies would be rather foreign
Why did Hope-Jones surface at Worcester? In the light of the foregoing, some reasons may seem plausible. Although the two previous organs were by all accounts magnificent, they were nevertheless separate instruments, one optimized for the choir and the other for the nave. This may have been inconvenient. Even with the two organs there may still have been problems of lack of power or presence in the nave and choir simultaneously, and as we have seen Hope-Jones may have promised to solve this by producing something which must have been near-deafening yet more convenient to play. Interestingly, there was a strikingly similar situation not too far away at St Paul’s, Burton on Trent where in 1894 a new four manual Hope-Jones organ had also replaced a three manual Hill 15. Clark has opined that one reason for the change here may have been the need to get the sound further down the building 3 , and he also introduced the idea of a connection between Hope-Jones and his patronage by the brewing magnates of the area. Further work has strengthened his opinion that this was the likely reason for the appearance of Hope-Jones at Worcester as well. He also suggested that, in view of the relative geographical proximity to Worcester, the St Paul’s organ may have been examined by the Cathedral authorities before they committed themselves in a similar manner only months later. The installation of the Worcester organ also occurred only a few years after the more energetic Blair had replaced William Done, who has been depicted as an exemplar of an older and more conservative musical tradition 5 . The proposed new console with its array of stop keys, elaborate aids to registration and light touch must have seemed as mouth-watering to some organists of the day as a Ferrari would be to a man used to driving a family saloon.
A summary of the attributes of the Hope-Jones organ
relevant to a player would therefore include:
1. An enormous dynamic range, ranging from the nearly inaudible to nearly the threshold of pain.
2. The ability to pass from one combination to another instantaneously because of the stop switch, composition pedals, double touch, compound composition keys and a sforzando pedal (few organs today have this range of playing aids).
3. An immensely rich tonal palette (note the two versions of the Cor Anglais!), with opportunities to realize continuous kaleidoscopic changes of tone colour .
Three separated cases, enabling the spatial distribution of the orchestra
to be emulated.
These proposed attributes of the new organ must have been known to Elgar at least to some extent while he was writing the Sonata and perhaps he was influenced by them. But even if this was not so, they would undoubtedly have been exploited by at least some organists when playing the organ; it is unlikely that they would not have revelled in what were then entirely new opportunities offered by an instantly famous instrument.
Although it is not directly relevant to the narrative it is interesting to chronicle the events which led to the eventual demise of this organ. Hope-Jones had used inferior material for the leather of his pneumatic motors. Beswick said that rubberized cloth had been used, but the Burton on Trent organ suffered similar problems because unsuitable leather was the culprit. The electrical side of the mechanism had more or less collapsed for several reasons: residual magnetism had built up in the chest magnets and the wiring had been badly burned, perhaps because of short circuits, though in a building such as a cathedral a lightning strike cannot be ruled out. The upshot was that the organ was rebuilt by Harrison and Harrison in 1925 with new actions and as extensive a re-modelling of the tonal architecture as funds permitted. Even so a considerable number of Hope-Jones’s stops was retained, including the majority of the pedal organ. But it is doubtful that the collapse of the action alone was solely responsible for the rebuild. At Burton on Trent the similar Hope-Jones organ was kept going until the 1980’s, surviving water damage along the way 15. The Worcester organ could have been repaired in its original form had there been a will to do it, and an organ which lasted for a quarter of a century before major renovation was necessary scarcely seems to merit the extremes of opprobrium which its defects have since attracted.
Elgar wrote relatively little organ music, a fact which
many of us organists lament. Thus
he only wrote one “real” organ sonata, the one in G major. (The other was a
much later transcription for organ, made with his blessing by Sir Ivor Atkins,
of his Severn Suite for orchestra).
But the G major Sonata is one of his truly great works if it is measured by any of
the usual Elgarian yardsticks – its vastness of conception, the huge
opportunities for tonal coloration which mirror his genius as an orchestrator,
and his unmistakable stamp in its sweeping melodies. It is often said that Elgar wrote the Sonata early in 1895 specifically for the opening of the new organ
at the request of Hugh Blair. Clutton and Niland 8 implied that it
was so. One of today's celebrated
concert organists also holds this view 13 . Even more recently,
since this article was first posted on this website, yet another Elgar biography
has appeared in which the same misunderstanding is repeated 14 !
and Elgar had been friends for some years since Blair’s appointment in 1891,
and perhaps he was attracted by Blair’s innovative energy which was already
making its mark on music at the Cathedral. In 1894, as we have seen, the
Cathedral had commissioned Hope-Jones to build his organ and news of this
ambitious scheme may have reached far beyond the provincial confines of
Worcestershire. Blair wanted to
have something appropriate to perform in front of a gathering of American
organists later in the year and they may have been attracted by the buzz of the
H-J proposals. Unfortunately Elgar
only delivered the manuscript five days before the date set for the
performance (8 July 1895) and apparently Blair did not do too well.
Rosa Burley, the head teacher at one of Malvern’s many exclusive schools and a
friend of Elgar, wrote that “he made a terrible mess of poor Elgar’s
There is a difficulty over dates here which must cause us
to review this commonly quoted historical anecdote. Hope-Jones started to build
his organ in 1894 and completed it in 1896.
Yet Blair’s unfortunate première took place in July 1895, so it is legitimate to ask what instrument he
performed the Sonata on. Could
Hope-Jones have completed such a massive undertaking in less than a year?
Surely Blair would not have played such a complex work on an incomplete
instrument? Was it played elsewhere
than in the Cathedral? Was one of the Hill organs maintained in a functional
condition while the Hope-Jones instrument was being built?
granted that the work could not have been premièred on the Hope-Jones organ, it
is nevertheless legitimate to ask whether Elgar wrote it for this instrument.
Kent thinks not;
he is emphatic that it was intended for the larger of the Hill organs, though
his remarks should be set in the context of one who clearly dislikes Hope-Jones
and his works ("He initiated some of the most bizarre and
grotesque sonorities that have ever emerged from an organ") 6.
Elsewhere in the same
essay Kent maintains that the stop indications in the manuscript "establish
beyond doubt" that Elgar composed the work for the four manual Hill organ
of 1874. This is arguable if only because the sketches call for a Trumpet,
which did not exist on either of the Hill instruments. Therefore it
remains valid to query whether Elgar would have produced such a monumental work
specifically for an organ that was about to be dismantled.
It is inconceivable, given his closeness to Blair, that Elgar did not
have access to the details of the new organ.
This would have enabled him to write the work with some knowledge of what
could be expected when the organ was complete.
So which instrument was Elgar's intended target for the work?
The question has by no means so obvious an answer as some authors insist.
The question has by no means so obvious an answer as some authors insist.
Other thoughts also spring to mind. Was Elgar actively involved with the plans for the new organ? Did he and Hope-Jones know each other? Did he even promote Hope-Jones’s work in the area? These issues are not particularly relevant to the story, although they have their own fascination. Elgar certainly had been interested in the organs at Worcester for a long time because at the age of sixteen or seventeen he would sit listening to the Earl of Dudley’s newly installed organ in 1874. So it might not be surprising if he had immersed himself in the background to the new project with characteristic vigour. Although I have yet to find evidence to support these conjectures, this does not mean the evidence does not exist.
Did Elgar agree with the Hope-Jones style of tonal design? Evidence pointing to the esteem with which he regarded his composition is incontrovertible, for example he described it as “big” in a letter to Jaeger (Nimrod of the Enigma variations) in 1897 5. So it would be unlikely that he could deliver such a masterpiece if he positively disliked the proposals for this organ, realising at the same time that the two Hill instruments were about to be lost. It seems likely that he did like the new organ, for in 1897 he wrote to Dora Penny (Dorabella of the Variations) suggesting that “some day if you are not rushing away I might arrange to show you over the Cathedral organ” 10. Elgar loved new technology and gadgets (he caused an explosion in his garden while experimenting with chemistry, and he retained to the end of his life a keen interest in the rapidly evolving gramophone), so the sheer novelties on Hope-Jones’s electric organs may have fascinated him at a time when the instruments of other builders contained nothing comparable.
The work was published in 1896 by the Liepzig house of
Breitkopf and Hartel and it was dedicated to Charles Swinnerton Heap, not to
Hugh Blair. Dr Heap was one of the
best known provincial choral conductors of the day to whom Elgar subsequently
recorded a debt of gratitude when he had become internationally famous 11.
Does the music itself contain clues as to how the questions we have
already posed might be answered? Certainly
it illustrates the need not only for an orchestral instrument, but one which has
elaborate playing aids.
published score is meticulously replete with indications for
phrasing, tempi, dynamics, accentuation, etc. but not, curiously, for
registration. There are only two
instances where particular stops are suggested (“Clar” in the first movement
and “Tuba” in the last). Footage
indications such as "8 + 4" are somewhat more frequent, but even these
appear rarely for so large scale a work. This
is tantalising although it offers limitless opportunities to fit the work to the
organ we happen to have available. However
it is reasonably clear on the face of it as to which manuals are to be used.
The notation I, II
and III is used to indicate great,
swell and choir respectively, thus it is even more removed from Worcester which
of course had the advantage of a fourth keyboard both in the large Hill organ
and in that of Hope-Jones which replaced it. Those who have attempted the work will
know that it is not easy, and even the most technically accessible third
movement nevertheless attracted Associated Board Grade 8 status in the 1999
syllabus. The additional
dimension of the registration uncertainties makes it even more demanding.
Because the Grade 8 syllabus also recommended the Breitkopf edition, it is of
topical interest to explore some of the uncertainties further.
One feature is the indication Solo occurring at several points throughout the work, for example at
the start of the fine Elgarian theme in the third movement. The marking appears
repeatedly, and Elgar corrected the printer’s proof by explicitly adding the
word in the third movement 6 so that the score reads I
Solo. This probably does not mean simply that the great should be
uncoupled for these passages because the German word allein is used elsewhere when this is intended.
The obvious interpretation is that the passage is to be solo-ed on the
Great Organ, but if this is correct why bother to write in the word Solo
at all in a situation where a solo is so obviously intended? And why on the great? Even
on the Hope-Jones organ the number of characteristic solo stops on that
department was somewhat limited, and this would be writ large with any other
instrument. The only stop with
anything like a distinctive solo voice was the Viol d’Amour, and if the
Worcester example was anything like the reticent one which still exists at
Pilton 4 (at least when I played it in 1992 - the organ has had
attention from various builders since) it would be almost inaudible in so vast a building.
Another reason for querying the use of the great is the appearance of crescendi
and diminuendi, implying the use of an
enclosed department. Nevertheless, taking the indications at face value, one can do little more on most
organs than solo the melody on a quiet diapason and that is what is often done.
Given the sort of highly coloured music Elgar wrote this interpretation
seems perhaps unenterprising, and an alternative reading is more interesting if
we allow ourselves to think that perhaps Solo
actually means the Solo Organ on a four manual instrument, with the symbol I
being a misleading editorial intrusion. Or perhaps we should allow a third
interpretation that Solo simply means
“play this as a solo with an interesting tone colour”.
The above gives a flavour of the sort of questions that arise when registering this work. Unfortunately there seems to be no definitive answer to them, because Kent demonstrates that some of the stop indications which occurred in the manuscript have not surfaced in the Breitkopf edition. Taking again the example used already, the appearance of “Trumpet” in the manuscript sways the argument away from the Hope-Jones organ which had no such stop name, but then neither did the Hills, both large and small.
This essay began by mentioning the article of folklore
which says that Elgar wrote his Sonata
for the opening of the Hope-Jones organ at Worcester. This is without doubt untrue because historical sources date
the first performance to July 1895 whereas the organ was not complete until a
year later. But was it intended for
a particular instrument, and exactly what instrument was used by Blair for the
As to the target instrument, the music is a challenge if
only because of its demands for continuous, rapid and subtle changes of
registration to enable the organ to be used in an orchestral manner.
One immediately inclines towards the Hope-Jones hypothesis: what other
instrument of the day had so many playing aids or so many highly differentiated
tone colours available? In an
interesting analysis from a professional viewpoint, a reviewer of this article
has suggested specific points at which he would find features such as double
touch indispensable to make the work come to life 9.
In places he finds the work unplayable without such aids if the printed
markings are taken literally, and considers that even today’s gadgets such as
sequencers would not be sufficiently fast or flexible enough.
Yet to counter this we have Kent’s assertion 6
that the work was undoubtedly intended for the large Hill organ, which in 1895
was about to become extinct however. Would
Elgar have written the work for a new instrument that did not yet exist even
though he may have had full details of its specification?
But to maintain that the large Hill organ was the target for the work
also has its problems, including the fact that its end was nigh and that the
manuscript conveys registration indications that are foreign to it. We can however be certain the three manual Hill was not
intended because the manual compass was too small.
So perhaps the only conclusion we can reach is that the Sonata
was simply written for organ, rather than an
organ. The absence of a strong
Worcesterian connection in the dedication of the work to Dr Heap (rather than to
Dr Blair) might also argue in favour of this.
As to which instrument was used for the inauspicious premiere, the first performance was given in the Cathedral according to Rosa Burley, but at a time when Hope-Jones’s work must have been well underway. This must mean that the large Hill was still playable even though it would have been in pieces shortly afterwards, and that the Sonata was performed on it.
I am indebted to those who reviewed the manuscript of this article and offered the benefit of their scholarship and experience in suggesting amendments and additional routes into the literature. The assistance of Roger Fisher, John Wycliffe-Jones, Relf Clark and Donald Bennett was particularly welcome.
“The Organs of Worcester Cathedral”, Colin Beswick, June 1969,
“Copies of letters already received (Oct 30 ’96) by The Electric
Organ Co Ltd relating to the new Hope-Jones Electric Organ in Worcester
Cathedral”. (Kindly provided by Relf Clark, 1993).
“The Hope-Jones Organ at St Paul’s, Burton upon Trent”, Organists'
March 1991, Relf Clark
4. “The Hope-Jones Organ in Pilton Parish Church”, Organists' Review, November 1993, Colin Pykett. Also currently on this website (read).
5. “Elgar”, Simon Mundy (Omnibus Press), 1984.
6. “Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G (Op. 28): A study of the manuscript sources and original interpretation", Christopher Kent, p. 103, The BIOS Journal, volume 2.
7. Pointed out by Relf Clark, private communication, 1993
8. “The British Organ”, p. 107, Cecil Clutton and Austin Niland (Batsford) 1963.
9. Private communication, J E Wycliffe-Jones, 1999
10. “Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation”, p.16, Mrs Richard Powell (Scolar Press) 1994.
11. “An Elgar Companion”, p. 121 (Redwood Sequoia Publishing) 1982.
12. “A Brief Description of the Hope-Jones Electric Organ now being erected in Worcester Cathedral by the Electric Organ Co. Ltd, London and Birkenhead”, April 1896.
Sleeve notes to the compact disc "Organ Imperial" by Carlo
Curley, ARGO 433 450-2, 1991.
14. "The Life of Elgar", Michael Kennedy, p. 46, (Cambridge University Press) 2004.
15. The large four manual Hope-Jones organ formerly at St Paul's church, Burton on Trent, has some historical importance because it was one of the first to be built entirely by the Hope-Jones Electric Organ Company Ltd, and some parts of it are now fascinatingly and gratifyingly preserved in the Hope-Jones museum of the Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust in Manchester. A detailed discussion, including some photographs, of the electro-pneumatic key, stop and coupler actions that Hope-Jones developed for this and the slightly later one at Worcester cathedral are in another article on this website ("Hope-Jones and the Dry Cell", C E Pykett, 2003).
16. "Hope-Jones's Quintadenas", C E Pykett, 2009, currently on this website (read).
An interim account of his work in the British Isles”, Relf Clark,
doctoral dissertation, The
University of Reading, February 1993 (unpublished).
1. These unison couplers are associated either with the words “double touch” or “second touch” in Hope-Jones’s pamphlet issued while the instrument was still being built 12 . It is usually assumed today that the two mean the same thing. However the fact that two distinct descriptions exist in the same small pamphlet suggests strongly that they in fact refer to distinct functions involving the functionality of both the coupler stop keys and the playing keys. It is most likely that "double touch" meant that the coupled notes would only sound when the keys on the associated manual were depressed deeper against a stronger spring. In the case of "second touch", the coupled notes would probably sound on the first (shallower) key touch when the coupler stop key was pressed once. However when pressed for a second time, the coupled notes would then be switched over to the double (deeper) manual touch. It is the case that Hope-Jones frequently used second touch stop keys for various purposes, such as for the Violes Celestes stop on the swell organ (see Note 2 below).
2. The Violes Celestes comprised three ranks tuned sharp, unison and flat. The sharp and unison ranks spoke on the first touch of the stop key (i.e. when it was pressed only once), whereas the flat rank was added on the second touch of the stop key when it was pressed for a second time.
An 8 foot Diaphonic Horn at 100" wind pressure sited over the Canons'
stalls was originally intended on the Solo organ, but this probably