by Colin Jilks

 “With  seventeenths and flat twenty-firsts in their mixtures, Australians preserve their  heritage”

 Queen Victoria was just eighteen years of age on her Accession to the Throne following the death of William 1v in 1837. Contrary to popular perception, she was a particularly gifted young woman with a lively and warm disposition. She married her Prince Albert in 1840, had nine children and a life much fulfilled until Albert’s untimely death from typhoid in 1861, at the age of just forty-two; thereafter, deeply depressed, Victoria dressed only in black for the remainder of her reign.

However, the Royal Albert Hall, with its accompanying Albert Memorial just opposite in Kensington Gardens, was built and opened in 1871 in his memory. Naturally, an appropriate organ was required for this prestigious new hall and Henry Willis was to provide a fine four-manual and pedal instrument of 111 stops, its actions featuring the new Willis Barker-lever pneumatically assisted mechanical action and a tonal quality perhaps only now fully revealed following its recent major restoration.

The artistic and engineering triumphs of this Victorian age were mirrored throughout the Empire. As the new Royal Albert Hall Willis was being unveiled in London, a new four-manual and pedal organ, with sixty-six speaking stops, was being installed by William Hill & Sons in Australia at the new Melbourne Town Hall and was completed and opened in 1872.

This was undoubtedly a fine Hill organ, but with the turn of the century and new innovations in organ transmissions pioneered by Hope Jones, it was rebuilt in 1905 with an electro-pneumatic action by Ingram and Company. This was undoubtedly cutting edge technology and although the new action brought a new lightness of touch, in the fullness of time it proved disastrous. In February 1925 the organ’s electrical relays — primitive by today’s standards — sparked a raging fire and the William Hill & Sons organ and much of the main hall were destroyed, the Town Hall roof collapsing in the ensuing inferno.

However, the undaunted Australian pioneering spirit ensured that within a few months the City Council had resolved to rebuild Melbourne’s Main Town Hall and install a new, even finer organ. A comprehensive specification was drawn up and by April 1926 tenders were invited. Organ builders from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom were considered and, quite rightly, a tender from William Hill & Son and Norman & Beard Ltd. of London was accepted. Three years later the opening recital on the new Grand Organ was given on 3rd July 1929 by the City Organist W. G. Price. This was a concert organ of refined quality and mechanical design displaying an infinite variety of tonal colour with its 6,024 pipes playable from four manuals and pedals using the latest electro-pneumatic actions. The console and casework, made of rich-grained Queensland maple with bronze grilles set high at the back of the stage, provided a visual display to match its tonal abilities.

Solo new and original pipes with door to next chamber

The bellows

This organ proved to be built to a high standard. Indeed, some fifty years later, on 11th September 1972, a Grand Organ Music Concert was held to celebrate a century of organ music concerts at the Town Hall; the organ being described as “one of the finest Late English Romantic Concert Organs ever built”. The organ stood as one of the most significant features of the Town Hall and became a listed instrument by the Heritage Society of Victoria.

It is regrettable, in common with many organs in Britain, that by the 1990s the  organ had fallen into disrepair, a victim of the central heating and neglect. In fact, by 1997 the organ was almost unplayable, certainly for recitals. Fortunately, the significance of the organ and its long association with the cultural life of Melbourne prompted a desire to see the organ restored to its former glory once more.

Love him or hate him, the driving force behind this restoration project was Carlo Curly, setting up a committee in 1996 which agreed to a plan of complete refurbishment and possible enhancement, bringing the organ up to modern recital standards.

Original 1929 HN&B console, with rosewood bushings on the new stops

Conservationists stipulated two key requirements: the case fašade should not be changed and the organ should be able to speak with its original voice from, and retaining, the original console.

Possibly on the recommendation of Carlo Curly, this major contract, a prestigious undertaking, went to the Schantz Organ Company of Orville, Ohio, USA. Founded in 1873 it is the oldest and largest American pipe organ building company still under the management of its founding family and employs some seventy full-time craftsmen organ builders.   

The scheme involved the major rebuilding of the organ, with the discarding of all the old 1929 soundboards to be replaced with new Schantz Pitman chests which have individual pallets for each pipe. These chests not only provide a responsive action, but also are “whisper” quiet in operation. The full organ piston can be pressed with hardly a sound of stop movements emanating from the organ. The organ’s fašade remains as it was but has now been beautifully cleaned and restored.

New tonal additions to the organ are fully managed by a new transmission and electrical system, that also allows the use of a new four manual mobile console, which can be wheeled out from behind the stage for recitals. The original console remains beautifully restored, but with new pistons and additional stops being fully accessible. All of the new stops are distinguishable by their rosewood drawstop bushings, while the originals still retain their ivory ones, making the 1929 organ available at a glance; the new Schantz pipework consists of forty-six new ranks, bringing the organ to a total of 150 ranks in six divisions.

The organ’s chambers are laid out extending the full width of the stage on two floors with inter-connecting doors to provide access for tuning and maintenance. They create a labyrinth more complicated than the Hampton Court Maze and I was grateful for the guidance of Robert Heatley, of Australian Pipe Organs as he gave me a closer look inside this fascinating organ. It must be said that the restoration of the 1929 Hill Norman & Beard pipework has been beautifully undertaken, many of these pipes are now almost indistinguishable from the new Schantz pipework. New tonal colours have been provided which no way stand apart from the original work, but enhance and extend the organ’s abilities.


One example of this sympathetic approach of restoration and addition, rather than change, is evident in the Great Organ mixture ranks, where a new Quint Chorus Mixture v ranks has been added. This complements the original Grand Fourniture v1-v11 mixture, with its seventeenths and flat twenty-firsts. A flat twenty-first is a colourful harmonic: if a mixture note is played by its self, holding a note of C natural sounds a note of B flat within the mixture chorus. However, when added to the full Great chorus these harmonics add their own distinctive charm and colour.

This fine Melbourne organ may not be quite as large as other Australian concert organs, such as Sydney Town Hall, but its quality of sound is a kaleidoscope of tonal delight, never forced in speech, but beautifully voiced and balanced for the Hall.

It is possible for visitors to walk though some of the organ chambers on a series of gantries set at three separate levels, where much of the organ can be viewed through glass screens, making the organ easily and safely accessible to the public during supervised visits. Also, it is the only organ I know which has its own toilet built into a special chamber at the back of the organ. With 6 Divisions and 150 Ranks to tune I expect the organ tuner finds it useful.


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