Towards the Holistic Organ?
Home Up Other Publications Contact Me About the Author About this Website Prog Organ - a VPO Sitemap What they say



Towards the Holistic Organ?


by Colin Pykett


Written:  October 1999

Presented by invitation to the Salisbury & District Organists' Association at Salisbury Cathedral on 12 February 2000

Posted here: December 2007

Last revised: 17 July 2011

Copyright © C E Pykett



This article is a transcript of an invited address given to the Salisbury and District Organists' Association at its Annual General Meeting at Salisbury Cathedral on 12 February 2000.  The title indicated two of its principal themes, namely the desirability of having a holistic organ in the sense of one which has a unity and integrity of design, and whether or not we are moving towards that goal today.  It pointed out that a holistic instrument is not necessarily one which would always meet with favour.  For example those by Robert Hope-Jones had far more of a unified sense of style than many, yet they would scarcely be the sort of organs we would wish to build now.  So if a holistic approach is not always sufficient in itself, we need to ask what sort of styles should we be aiming for, and are we actually progressing in these directions?  Among the conclusions of the lecture were some unpalatable facts relating to some of the largest,  most expensive and decidedly un-holistic organs built in this country in recent years, facts which in some cases seem to have been swept under the carpet.  


The article has not been edited here in a chronological sense, therefore phrases such as "last year" remain relative to the time the talk was given (2000).  




This address touches on several subjects connected with the holistic character of organs, and asks whether that is a good thing or whether one can have too much of it.


“Holistic” is one of those words that tend to get over-used nowadays in new-speak.  But the dictionary definition relates to the whole being more than the sum of its parts, so it is a good word to use today.  What I am going to talk about is an organ which is not only a unified entity of itself – I was tempted to say in tune with itself – but which also adds value to and draws value from its surroundings and the uses to which it is put.  A possible sub-title for this talk would be “Ancient and Modern”, because it starts with some old organs from a holistic point of view, and then looks at those being built today to see if we have moved on or not in a holistic sense.  Another sub-title might be “actions speak louder than words” because of the importance of the action of an organ to its holistic character.  Also the talk draws out the dangers of trying to be too holistic in organ design, when it becomes an end in itself.  Hence the question mark in the title.  And finally I will look at how far holistic principles should be applied to organ conservation or restoration.


Starting with some old organs, let us look first at the North European organ which Bach and Buxtehude enjoyed.  Not much really needs to be said about this because its fame goes before it.  It was characterised by a tonal structure, action and other features such as wind-raising gear that enabled huge four manual monsters to be built, filling the towering spaces in the churches of the day.  



Werkprinzip arrangement


The height often available in these buildings led to the Werkprinzip arrangement, where the various departments were distributed above each other in a shallow case.  This in turn led to responsive tracker actions because the need for long horizontal tracker runs with lots of levers, squares and backfalls was not necessary.  Vertical tracker runs are much better from an engineering viewpoint.  Also each department was tonally complete within itself, so there was no need for the plethora of couplers we have today.  Nor did the music demand them. Again, this helped to keep the action of each department responsive.


Was it holistic?  It was certainly a unified whole, representing an evolutionary culmination of all that had gone before over several centuries.  It perfectly matched the building and the liturgy.  Recently I received a letter from a well known organ consultant.  In it he said that it is not possible to build purely mechanical organs with more than about 35 stops, an argument he used to justify electrically assisted mechanical actions.  It’s a good thing nobody told that to Silbermann, Schnitger and the rest of the builders of that era!


Now let us look at a slightly less well known example, the classical French school, that style of organ that was built during a remarkably stable epoch for the 150 years before the Revolution, well before Cavaillé-Coll happened along.  This was the type of organ which composers like Couperin wrote for, and which builders like Clicquot built.  How holistic was this style?  We are fortunate that it has been described in great detail by Dom Bédos, and in his monumental treatise called The Art of Organ Building we have as complete an account of the instrument as it would be possible to want. 


I spoke of actions a moment ago.  On the basis of the scanty evidence from surviving instruments or fragments of instruments, the touch was probably wonderful.  Perhaps that is why French ornamentation of that period was so ornate, capitalising on the expressive possibilities of a really responsive mechanical action.   



 The essentials of suspended tracker action


Whenever possible they used suspended tracker action – that simplest form of action in which the movement runs via a tracker upwards from the key, suspending it, across a roller board [not shown above] to the pallet box.  The builders went to great pains to incorporate suspended action.  Sometimes the pallet boxes were inverted at the soundboards so that the need for an extra lever or backfall was removed.  So it really meant something to them.  And the sound must have been quite singular.  Here we cannot be quite as sure of our ground, but the mutations were undoubtedly fluty and unforced so that combinations with Nazards and Tierces had a quite different flavour to anything we could reproduce today.  It would probably be quite difficult to persuade most pipemakers today to make a rank with the necessary wide scales.  The upshot was an instrument that enjoyed a stability over a time span scarcely comprehensible today.  We have moved from Hill to Willis, through Hope-Jones and back to neo-Baroque organs in a time during which the classical French organ hardly changed.  What conclusions can we draw from this?  One conclusion is that the classical French organ was well liked by every stakeholder – forgive the new-speak again – composers, listeners, the clergy, the aristocracy.  Also, it must have been reliable otherwise it would have changed more often.


A century later we in Britain did indeed have William Hill. He was unfortunate to have pioneered huge and largely unsuccessful organs, with high pressure Tubas and the like, just before reliable pneumatic and then electro-pneumatic actions swept in.  Therefore the first of his largest instruments, such as those at York Minster and Birmingham Town Hall in the mid-nineteenth century, were virtually unplayable.  Mendelssohn was just one who declined to give recitals on them.  But then the young upstart Henry Willis produced his famous demonstration organ at the Great Exhibition of 1851 with things like thumb pistons, never seen before.  He used the new pneumatic action technology to build large divided organs, such as the one here at Salisbury, with detached consoles. By that time he had embraced German tonal influences as well, which were so much more successful than the Insular English era during which Hill worked.  His reed work, harmonic ranks, and his pipe scales all led to the 'Willis Sound'.  It, too, became a relative constant for a while, though not for so long a period as the classical French organ.


At the same time there was Cavaillé-Coll in France doing similar things, but because he used Barker lever action he did not have the same flexibility in layout as Willis.  Thus he usually put all of his instruments in the one case, and beautiful ones at that.  Willis sometimes did not bother with casework at all - go into the cathedral on your way out and see what I mean!


But technology continued to leap onwards in the Victorian age.  Along came electricity and with it, Robert Hope-Jones.  Let us stop and look at him for a while, as it is vitally important not to become subjective and emotive about his work.  Even some of the best-known scholars have done this, and some continue to demonstrate their ignorance by doing so today. 



Robert Hope-Jones


Hope-Jones was not originally an organ builder but a telephone engineer, and a gifted one at that.  He was certainly not a charlatan as some have claimed.  It is unfair to hang this label on someone who was elected a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers at a youngish age.  He looked at the early electric actions that had been developed up until then, saw their defects and largely solved them.  His first company made parts for his entirely novel system which various organ builders used, and he made money from the patent licenses.  These have now long since expired of course.  He invented the action magnet for electro-pneumatic actions that combined an armature with an exhaust for the primary pneumatic motor:



Hope-Jones's original electro-pneumatic action magnet c. 1890 (redrawn from one of his patents)


These have been used in their countless thousands since, many by organ builders who simultaneously decried his work.  He borrowed the relay technology being developed for telephony, which was beginning to get complicated as automatic dialling was then being researched.  Thereby he pioneered the use of relays with multiple contacts for couplers, and interesting little gadgets like this followed from his thinking:



Electro-mechanical reverser mechanism


This is a reverser unit, the thing that makes the great to pedal drawstop pop in and out when you press the reversible piston. A century on,  I bought this item from a supplier of organ parts – and few people today would think to trace devices like this back to Hope-Jones.  One of  the two magnets just follows the position of the stop – on or off.  The other magnet is the clever bit – it clamps the mechanism while you are actually pressing the  piston.  Without this, the stop would oscillate in and out as long as you held the piston in.  What seems obvious today was actually the highest of technology then, and builders of lesser ability resented Hope-Jones for it.  Among organ builders at that time it was only he who was adept at devising electric logic circuits, rather like those in today’s computers, except that the logic elements were relays rather than transistors.  Look at the circuit diagram for the reversible piston:




Circuit diagram for reversible stops


I am showing this, not from any desire to blind you with science, but because even today it takes a while for an expert to figure out how it works – over a hundred years ago it made other organ builders quake.  This is why the young John Compton beat a path to Hope-Jones's door around 1900, though subsequently he gave him no credit for the assistance he had received.  


Hope-Jones’s actions had a reputation for unreliability which was not always deserved.  For example, it is possible though not provable that some of his actions were sabotaged by those with interests in other directions.  It is strange why his Worcester Cathedral organ survived uneventfully for 25-odd years, then quite suddenly became totally useless.  Mind you, I have an alternative theory, which is that the Cathedral may have been struck by lightning around 1920.  The state of the electrics at the time the organ was examined by Harrison's prior to their rebuild chimes with this – the wiring had been badly burnt.  I intend to look into the records to see if this theory holds promise.


What has all this to do with the holistic organ?  Because he, like Willis and the others, built to a complete strategic system.  His organs were examples of unified thought, stylistically and technically all of a piece.  They were, of course, very different to anything that had gone before, largely because of the rather bizarre tonal structure.  



The Hope-Jones organ at Worcester cathedral, 1896


His monstrous four manual Worcester organ of 1896 was a giant octopod with 54 speaking stops of which only three were at 2 foot pitch.  We might not like what he did today, but there is no doubt at all that these organs were well liked at the time.  The Worcester organ was a matter for civic pride, not an embarrassment at all.  Elgar liked it, and offered to show one of his many lady friends around it in 1897  - she was Dora Penny of Enigma Variations fame (reminiscences of Bach and his cousin in the organ loft!).  This was not long after he had married Alice either.  He also spent many hours at the Worcester console with Ivor Atkins, the cathedral organist, to help him register various Elgar works on the organ.  So if we follow the frothing rhetoric of people like Cecil Clutton, to name but one, who said that no real organ music could be performed on the instrument, we surely have to disagree.  Otherwise we have to be able to explain why the likes of Elgar thought otherwise – why we think we know better than Elgar.  So before forming an opinion on Hope-Jones’s organs, we need to think rather carefully.  It is also helpful to play them, though few of those who express such forthright opinions seem to have done this.  



The (modified) Hope-Jones organ at Pilton, 1898


Unfortunately they are now exceedingly rare, but there is still a little one at Pilton near Barnstaple.  I agree they are engaging to play, to quote Relf Clark who did his PhD on Hope-Jones, though definitely idiosyncratic. But they did a good job in supporting a lusty congregation, and as a vehicle for the Romantic repertory.


The main conclusion about Hope-Jones is a useful one for the purposes of this talk.  His work demonstrates that although an organ might be holistic, we might not like the result.  Despite what I have just said in drawing out some of the positive results of his work, not many people today would want to build such things.  Therefore the conclusion is that striving for holism in itself will not necessarily produce an acceptable result, and this is important for those involved in organ consultancy.  I will come back to this theme later.


After Hope-Jones we come to the Harrison era.  Their organs in the first part of the twentieth century owed something to Hope-Jones if truth be told.  The large Harrison at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, has a layout and other features made possible by an action of the Hope-Jones type although the stop list is more conventional of course.  But it has other Hope-Jones style features such as dual swell shutters with separate swell pedals – all echoes of a style of organ building that was still secretly admired perhaps.  Also the Redcliffe concept of a distributed organ where the sound seems to come from nowhere in particular harks back to the Worcester organ with its three well-separated cases.  Other builders such as Hill, Norman and Beard and Compton also continued to propagate Hope-Jones influences until well into the middle of the century.  These instruments were still all of a piece – holistic within a certain framework.  They could not have been built without using electric action throughout the instrument, and they used it unashamedly.


But then what happened?  There was a reversion back to mechanical actions, neo-Baroque concepts and a style of organ that was thought to be like the one Bach would have known.  Like on most other occasions, when the pendulum swings, it overshoots and we have an over-reaction.  In my view we have not yet settled down.  To illustrate this let us take some more case studies.  And although I shall say things that might seem critical, this is not the intention.  Most of the recent instruments I shall now name are splendid.  But are they holistic in the sense that every organ or style of organ mentioned so far has been holistic?  And should they be so?


Mechanical actions are today’s in-thing.  Let us look at the Kenneth Jones organ in St Peter’s, Eaton Square in London.  



St Peter's, Eaton Square, London, Jones 1992


It was widely billed as the largest fully tracker action organ in Britain when it was installed in the early 90's, with its four manuals and  75  stops.  All of the key, pedal and coupling action was advertised as mechanical, on the face of it a tremendous feat of engineering, particularly as you can play full organ coupled up without excessive effort.  The advertisements used phrases like “tracker key and coupling action”; “and, yes, even the tuba on 12 inches of wind is on mechanical action”.  No hint of anything other than trackers.


In fact things are not quite what they were said to be.  The action is in fact electric for the first 32 notes on each department.  There is a direct electric action which comes into action as soon as a small pallet, operated by tracker action, starts to open.  Then a large electromagnet opens a large pallet.  Therefore you could argue that over half the instrument is in fact electric.  None of this had been widely advertised until a few weeks ago.  Those of you who read Organists’ Review might have seen my minor crusade to get the matter into the open!  It resulted in an angry letter from a well known organ consultant which ended by saying “don’t meddle with the professionals sonny”.  But I like to think it might also have resulted in the article by Kenneth Jones in the November issue last year when he described the action in detail - many years after his misleading advertisements first appeared.


I can’t quite understand the situation.  Why not be open to Joe Public about the true nature of organ actions? Is the Eaton Square organ holistic?  Not in the sense of every other organ discussed so far – it is the first one I have mentioned that has a mixed action.  Does it matter?  There seems to be a hint of embarrassment about it among the organ building/adviser fraternity.  Actually I think it does matter.  I dislike mixed actions in pipe organs, and to explain why we need to digress again.


Mixed actions usually mean that part of the action is electric.  Moreover, when direct electric or electro-pneumatic action is used today, even for just part of the action, it nearly always involves electronics as well.  Instead of the relay technology already described, pioneered by Hope-Jones, we find circuit boards like this one inside the organ:




Typical printed circuit board as used in organs


Electronics are used for lots of purposes in organ building, and it now entirely supplants relays as well as cutting down on the amount of wiring by using multiplexed transmissions. Why? Because it is cheap, if not downright cheapjack.  Why do I dislike it?  Firstly I have to admit to a personal aesthetic.  It simply does not look or feel right to find bare circuit boards like the one we see here screwed in random places to the building frame of what might be quite an old organ.  If you are going to use electric action, it is holistic to use the technology that enabled it to come into being a century ago, and that means lots of wiring and relays.  Otherwise you are moving rapidly away from a holistic approach.


But if you don’t accept that as valid, there are more concrete objections.  More to the point, it is simply a fact that by using electronics, organ builders are mixing technologies of quite different characteristics.  A pipe organ has to have a very long life – a century is a reasonable goal - it has to be easily repairable, and essential parts must not become obsolete.  One organ builder must be able to take on the work of another.  None of these apply to electronics, which is one of the most complex, fast-moving  and ephemeral technologies yet developed by mankind, particularly when computers are involved, as they are in organs, regrettably.  Mixing these fundamentally incompatible technologies can only lead to tears in the long run. I believe that time will prove this.  


Screen organ, from the Quire


Southwell Minster, Nicholson, 1996


Now let us look at the four manual Nicholson at Southwell Minster, also billed as mechanical.  Things are not quite so secretive here, and most people know that it does in fact have electronic 32 foot stops by Copeman Hart because there was not enough space for the real thing.  Yet what people seem not to know is there was not even enough space to do the electronic job properly.  Copeman Hart wanted to install a huge horn loudspeaker, but they had to make do with smaller bass reflex cabinets.  Incidentally, this illustrates what I always tell people about electronic organs – that the size of a loudspeaker needed to radiate a given frequency is about the same size as pipes would be.  This is an inescapable law of physics.  So if you don’t have space for 32 foot basses, you might well not have space for loudspeakers either.


What are we to think about the Southwell organ?  I have to admit to a certain unease about organs like this, and it is not the only one.  It certainly can’t be called holistic, with a mixture of pipes and electronics to actually produce the sound.  It seems one step worse than having electronics just to assist the action.   



Lancing College chapel (west end organ), Walker, 1986


And what about the large Walker in Lancing College chapel?  This is a recent four manual tracker instrument built around the remains of a 1911 Edwardian Walker.  But it has pneumatic assistance to the manual bass notes, full blown tubular pneumatic action elsewhere, electro-pneumatic for part of the pedal organ and electric couplers. Stephen Bicknell pronounces it “full of promise, but its uneasy tonal compromises, eccentric layout and peculiar mix of actions suggest an uncertain sense of style” [1]. 


Thus it is definitely not holistic, not all of a piece. Its action is all bits and pieces, and to make Edwardian pipework speak via a mechanical action seems loopy. Our Association visited it a few years ago, and I was not the only one who found the small two manual Frobenius at the other end of the Chapel definitely preferable.  My reactions are of no importance, but for what it is worth, I played half a piece on the Walker before giving up to have a cup of tea, after having been turfed off the Frobenius to let someone else have a go!  As I said, I was not the only one to feel like this.  




Christchurch Priory, Nicholson, 1998


Christchurch Priory has a new Nicholson organ after years of making do with an electronic makeshift.  It has a most un-aristocratic collection of pipework, if not illegitimate then definitely mongrel, including a Diaphone on the pedals (the Hope-Jones influence again).  This is disguised by being called a Contrabass, but fortunately one can voice Diaphones in various ways – they don’t always have to sound like foghorns.  Andrew Post convinced me that this renamed Diaphone is quite useful for Bach, and it is.  It has a quiet grip and definition that is most useful.  The action is basically electro-pneumatic but there is a second console with full tracker action to three manuals and electric to the fourth.  This is a real curiosity.  Its position makes it almost useless other than for teaching and practice.  You can’t see anything from it, and you can’t hear the congregation or half of the organ from it.  It is so buried that the Tuba is inaudible above more than a few other stops to the player.  So why was this done?  To get money from the Arts Council, pure and simple.  They insisted on an organ with mechanical action, but either they didn't know there was electric action as well, or they didn't care.  Electric timers have been installed showing the length of time each of the consoles has been played (not many people know that!).  When you next visit Christchurch, ask if you can read the dials.  I assure you it will be instructive!


Even neglecting the tracker console, is the Christchurch organ holistic?  No it isn’t, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.  It had no particular pedigree to start with, and the old pipes have been re-used.  Anything else would have been scandalously wasteful.  They wanted a moveable console in the Nave, and multiplexed electric action was the only way to do it.  It sounds fine and does what they want.  The only disappointment is the obvious difference between the tracker and electric touches, and the use of electronics.  Also there is a feeling that the electronic organ had been there so long that they wanted to have a version of it in pipes, an organ that could be routinely moved around so that the console is in full view for recitals but hidden for services.  But maybe that is unfair.  


Bridgewater Hall - organ


Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Marcussen, 1996


The Marcussen at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, is a large four manual mechanical organ (but with electric assistance - of course!), and with a second moveable all-electric console.  It has to be considered a near-failure if the things that have been said about it are true.  The multiplexed link between the moveable console and the organ failed during a TV broadcast, which I saw, embarrassing poor Wayne Marshall.  And many reports say it does not have enough power.  In a seemingly desperate attempt to remedy this, the builders have duplicated some of the treble pipes.  This is incredible – the simplest physics shows that if the pipes are out of phase their sounds will cancel, not add.  This technique was found wanting hundreds of years ago with the disappearance of the medieval Blockwerk – or so I thought.  The Insular Movement in the 19th century sought to resurrect it, with similar disasters.


Enough of this.  We have looked at several schools of organ building and several organs, all of them large and famous.  What does this have to do with the smaller instruments most of us are concerned with?  Well, several lessons can be learnt.  The main one is that making an organ holistic is not enough in itself, otherwise there would be an argument in principle for re-creating a Hope-Jones organ, or disallowing what has been done at Christchurch.  But there does seem to be a case for saying that we have yet to regain a sense of unified style in British organ building that was lost 40 or 50 years ago.  Therefore when deciding what to do with our smaller instruments, what to do with those that were generally built when we did have a better sense of style, we have to be cautious.  If you can maintain or restore an instrument’s former integrity without letting other things suffer, that can only be good.  But taking this too far means that one can end up with a beautiful little chamber organ that twitters uselessly away in a corner.  So besides being holistic, the organ has to be useful in the context of the music that will be played, and the liturgy it has to support.


One can’t be too purist about advising on organs.  There are some perfectly good electric action organs around, built from the 1930’s onwards, which only need a good action overhaul to become serviceable again.  Many of these will have no particular pedigree, particularly as far as the pipework is concerned.  But quite often they sound well in the building, and they have reasonable stop lists.  Broadly my advice in such cases would be to spend as little as possible to give the action a new lease of life, and to resist attempts to do anything too trendy.  Usually there are many other things competing for attention in churches when it comes to money, and this approach enables other people to get their hands on it as well as the organ nuts.  But I am very keen not to let the basic architecture of an electric action to be interfered with, particularly by replacing relays with electronic modules.  This is for holistic reasons, but also practical ones concerned with incompatible technologies.  



present organ


All Saints, Denmead, Hampshire, Porritt, 1892 (re-erected 1999)


There are even more small Victorian tracker instruments around which need work doing on them.  What does one do here?  There is an original Sweetland near Weymouth and a transplanted Porritt near Portsmouth [pictured above] where virtually identical work has been carried out.  The ivories were badly spooned, so the keys were re-covered.  The trigger swell pedal was replaced by a central balanced swell pedal.  And in the case of the Sweetland a new pedalboard was provided.  The displaced parts have been boxed up and placed inside the organ in case anyone in the future wants to see what the original instrument was like.


Are such changes legitimate?  Clearly one should not expect organists to play on the wood showing through worn ivories, though I know some organ advisers who do expect just that.  (Can they be living in the real world?)  If real ivory can be obtained it ought to be used, or bone perhaps.  But preferably not plastic.  Also it might be possible to get replacement keyboards made by the same builder.  Should one replace a trigger swell pedal?  The one at Weymouth was a monster, mainly because the trigger catch had worn.  But it would have been simple to repair it.  I played that organ every week for some years, and discovered it is actually not very important to have a swell box at all in a small village church, so in the end I forgot it was there.


And a new pedalboard?  Again, the old one at Weymouth had worn so much it was difficult to play single notes at a time.  Also Sweetland made pedalboards with the disarming feature of radiating the wrong way.  But I would have thought it would have been better to have renovated the existing board, or found a less worn one from a redundant organ.  Hopefully the old one was stored for posterity, so that all these modifications could be reversed, or at least, so that a historical thread is not broken for succeeding generations.


That brings me to another main point – to consider extremely carefully doing anything that will not be reversible in the future.


I am getting towards the end of this monologue now, but it is interesting to explore quite how one decides whether the pipework in an organ is all original or whether it has been interfered with, or whether it all matches up within itself.  It is particularly important to do this if the organ does not sound right in some way, for example if the stops do not combine properly in chorus.  The measurement of the pipe scales can be revealing – scale is the ratio of pipe width to length, and the way the scale varies across a rank is most important.  If the scales of related ranks, such as the ranks of a diapason chorus, are plotted on a scaling chart, you should get curves that look something like this:  



Pipe scales at St Barnabas, Dulwich


These curves show the main principal ranks – Open Diapason, Principal and Fifteenth on the great  - of the Tickell organ at St Barnabas, Dulwich.  The central horizontal line is so-called Normal Scaling, where the pipe diameters halve every sixteenth note.  Deviation up or down from this line shows how many notes a rank departs from this norm.  The fact that the curves are not straight lines shows that the scales at St Barnabas vary non-uniformly across the ranks – they are mixed scales.  But the fact they have the same broad trends, without being identical, is one of the hallmarks of holistic and successful integrated chorus-work.  Broadly speaking, the pipe scales halve more rapidly than the 16th note until the pipes are about one foot in length (treble C on the Diapason), then they begin to halve more slowly. Organs with trends like this have pipework that should not be interfered with lightly – they have been carefully and deliberately designed to have holistic chorus work in conjunction with the reverberant properties of the building.  On the other hand, if the curves are all over the place, then there is reason to look into the matter in more detail.  Ranks that depart from the main scaling trend may have been replaced, or moved up or down an octave.  Or a Fifteenth may have been turned into a Twelfth, or vice versa.   Doing such things without regard to the scaling of the main choruses can seriously throw an organ out of balance.  The scaling chart can help to reveal all these things.


So to conclude, there is evidence that we have lost a sense of direction in organ building in Britain today.  To satisfy the question mark in the title of this talk, no we are not moving towards a holistic British organ in my opinion.  If anything, we seem to be drifting away from it.  Superficially this might not seem to be so - mechanical action is used more and more, and generally I support this.  But sometimes it appears to be employed slavishly and for the wrong reasons – to get Heritage funding, for example, or because the Invitation to Tender stipulates it has to be used, period, as though discussion is heretical.  The result is that we get some rather weird organs being built, at vast expense, and more often than not with mixed actions just to make them playable.  Therefore it is not much good looking to present trends to get a feel for matters of style.  Older organs are much better guides to this, and it seems to me one reason is that the builders did not attempt to create a tracker instrument that would double both as a church organ and a concert organ after Hill’s initial disasters in the 1830’s.


The traditional church organ can be built on relatively conservative lines with mechanical action, even in the largest buildings, provided it is sited properly and does not contain an excessive amount of high pressure Romantic pipework.  On the other side of the coin, the 19th century concert organ with its Tubas and high wind pressures, was not really a success until pneumatic and electric actions became more reliable.  Of course, you can make one instrument serve both purposes if you return to the Willis concept, but you have to accept that trackers are not really part of it.  It’s horses for courses – you have to decide quite carefully what sort of instrument you want – they are quite different.  I suppose today’s builders of organs with dual consoles – tracker and electric – think they have solved the problem, but they haven’t really.  Even the tracker console of a large organ needs hidden electric assistance to make it work.


There are three guiding axioms that I adopt when thinking about what to do for an ailing or unsuitable organ:


The first is to look at the problem holistically, but not exclusively so.  Otherwise there is a danger, in principle, of re-creating something as bizarre as a Hope-Jones organ, or not allowing something as beautiful as the Christchurch one to be rebuilt.  But if there is integrity in an instrument, then try to retain or enhance it, unless by doing so you will produce something that is simply not much use.


The second axiom is only to make such changes as are reversible, if at all possible.


The third is that the result must be useable by the customer and other stakeholders.  It must support the worship of the building and the other music that will be played.


These can be mutually exclusive, of course, and then one might have to start thinking about a new instrument.  But it doesn’t have to be new in the sense of brand new – seeking out a redundant organ from elsewhere is more and more becoming a sensible thing to do.  And time after time, recent experiences show that the total cost of doing this is less than what even the cheapest electronic would cost – in other words well below £10,000 for a gutsy two manual Victorian tracker organ.  And this buys a church an organ that could last for another century or more.  At the end of this century, it is nice to think we are able, in the organ world, to restore something from the end of the last one that will remain until the next.


So, at least one moral of this sermon is to always think second-hand if you want a holistic organ!



1.  Stephen Bicknell's remarks about the Walker organ at Lancing College have come to have added poignancy with the passage of time.  They referred to the work of Andrew Pennells at Walker's, and at the time this address was being compiled both these young men were at the height of their powers.  Today (November 2007) it is a tragedy that both are no longer with us.