Sesquialtera
by Colin Jilks

Organ building during the late Victorian period was a prolific and frantic business. Organ builders abounded, many are sadly now forgotten, but the few who were at the pinnacle of their craft remain with us in perpetuity through their work. They were bestowed with that extra genius, which made them craftsmen and innovators par excellence, and they stood head and shoulders above the rest.

    

Strangely their genius and unbounded confidence, although producing remarkable work, was on occasion their undoing. When rebuilds and modifications to instruments were requested, an earlier organ builder’s work could be ruthlessly changed in ways which today would unquestionably raise eyebrows.

     

Of course, we can all be guilty, maybe not directly, but countless British organs have succumbed to organists’ whims and fancies. Human nature — that inner self-belief of knowing we are right — is always at work. For example, as an organ builder, I spend almost as much time travelling as I do in organs and it’s fascinating to observe how human nature manifests itself as the average motorist, with unerring self-confidence, takes to the road.

      

If you see anyone who is obeying the law — apart from the odd motorised rickshaw — it would be unusual. The national speed limit is, de facto, 99 mph, because everyone knows that you lose your licence at 100 mph. Oh, we can sometimes make a passing stab at legality. If there’s a police car on the road, we all slow down to a theatrical 70 mph, and cluster round the cops like guilty sheep around a sheepdog; and for an interval we will keep pace, dawdling politely along, until we feel the proprieties have been observed, and when we have nosed a couple of hundred yards ahead, we give it some “welly” and show the law a clean pair of heels. Yes, it’s that human quality of knowing we know best.

     

I confess I am as guilty as the next man, whether on the road or working on organs. Over the years I have been associated with some interesting organs. Southwark Cathedral and Reading Town Hall were two I encountered during my early “Willis” days. I have proudly told stories of these past glories, but now we know Henry Willis 111 was not always pursuing the best course. (His driving was also renowned for being “hairy”; in fact, his car keys were eventually confiscated).

     

But the Southwark cathedral Lewis has now, thankfully, been restored to its original magnificence by Harrison & Harrison reversing the wind pressure and voicing changes made by Willis 111 in the 1950s. Reading Town Hall’s Father Willis was another instrument, which suffered at Henry’s hand. This was the dramatic lowering of the instrument’s pitch in 1947. A change of pitch may not seem radical, but with the change from c = 540 to c = 523 cycles major surgical changes were made to the pipework to accommodate a difference of over a quarter of a tone.

     

A number of flue stops were transposed by one note and their pipes trimmed in order to achieve the required length, causing an inevitably change in their scale. Even more significantly, the tapered reed stops had been lengthened with tuning slides, resulting in a major change to the resonators which affected the quality and stability of the tone: the covered reeds, like the flue stops, had been transposed, resulting in res­onators of an incorrect speaking length. Consequently, while the general musical effect of the organ may have seemed acceptable, the performance of the pipework had departed from its original. The pipework scales had been increased making the pipes, in effect, fatter. As we know, a larger scale produces a fatter tone, which would have altered the overall tonality of the Father Willis instrument, a serious and reprehensible undertaking.

     

Organ builders have their own distinctive tonal designs, which involve the scaling and construction of their pipes. A Forster & Andrews Diapason was invariably much larger and fatter than a Father Willis Diapason, creating the individual tonal designs we associate with different organ builders.

     

Undoubtedly, something had to be done to rectify this tonal situation at Reading. After much thought and anxious discussion with Harrison & Harrison the decision was taken to restore the original pitch. The transpositions were reversed, and the pipe lengths corrected; a process made easier, in the case of the tapered reeds, by the fact that the pipes reverted to their natural lengths as soon as the tuning slides were removed. New, matching pipes had to be made for the missing top notes of the transposed stops, and much care was taken correcting the lengths of the covered reeds. As our Association members who heard the organ last year will testify, the splendidly musical results speak for themselves. Although not of direct tonal effect, the balanced swell pedal of 1964 was also returned to lever operation copying the original design.

 

Sadly, there are still organ schemes put forward from time to time, which would, if implemented, destroy an original builder’s work. Here in Kent, an 1864 Walker organ, at Linton Parish Church, was fully restored last year to its maker’s specification. All the pipework, tracker actions, keys and pedals were retained and restored keeping faith with the original. The organist at the time wanted a full electrification of the actions with a possible detached console, a course that would have totally destroyed the instrument’s integrity. Happily, now the organ has been returned to good working order, he does now seem to appreciate what Walker had provided. The Van Peteghem organ of 1778 in the village church at Haringe, Belgium, which we heard on our visit last year, thankfully remains as its builder intended. It produces sounds, which would beguile even the most ardent sceptic, even though today its console resembles a piece of old farm machinery.

 

Although organ builders and churches do sometimes have good reason to complain when Diocesan offices seem to drag their feet, it is invariably in a good cause, helping to preserve our dwindling heritage and keeping those whims and fancies under close scrutiny. Strangely, it’s much the same on our roads with the proliferation of speed cameras — yes I know, I really should drive more carefully.

Click here to return to the contents page