A ‘Royal’ occasion

by Derek Childs

You could tell they were organists. They seemed to have that overall dowdiness about their anoraks and raincoats. But then they had been warned by none other than the Institute of Organ Building that best suits should definitely not be worn. “Those attending should be firmly aware that the organ is long overdue for attention and is not in the condition that either its builders, its maintainers, or the Hall authorities would wish”

The Hall in question is the Royal Albert, and as we arrived, well before 10 a.m. on Saturday 17th November, the queue of sartorial inelegance curved for some 100 yards around this wonderful edifice, eagerly awaiting entry to hear and study at close quarters the 146stop, 4-manual Henry Willis monster before its dismantling for refurbishment.

The organizers must have been surprised but wellpleased to see just how many enthusiasts turned up for this unique opportunity — well over 200 sat in the giant arena like children on a school outing. It had been explained that our schedule had to meet the requirements of setting up for the next show, a Classical Spectacular. So the view of the organ was somewhat compromised by a festoon of gantries supporting all manner of lighting equipment, whilst high above us in the dome hundreds of balloons were being noisily inflated, and occasionally bursting.

Nevertheless we could admire the vast casework and daring arrangement of giant pipes. Ian Bell, the consultant gave us a splendid account of the history of the organ and the work needed whilst William McVicker illustrated its capabilities, finishing with William Walton’s resounding Crown Imperial, showing what a superb concert instrument this had been.

When built in 1871 the cost was £7500 — hardly enough to buy one stop in today’s money. Some £1.4 million is needed to completely refurbish the organ, though at the moment funds will allow only part of the work to be done. At its debut the organ was considered to be the largest in the world, such that its wind pressure was raised by steam engines. It was overhauled and further enlarged by Harrisons in the early 1930s since when there has been only stopgap restoration, so that about one third of the stops are out of use and the remainder compromised in varying degrees by the decaying leatherwork of the wind system and electropneumatic action. It is a credit to the skill of William McVicker that its deficiencies were not too evident — a task that many Kent organists are no doubt familiar with as they weekly coax organs well past their “best before” date!

After an hour we came to the really challenging bit. Manders, the current maintainers, and contractors for the rebuild, had thoughtfully added temporary gang-planks and handrails to facilitate a real organ crawl. The construction stands about as high as a fivestorey house, and the only way around is by near vertical ladders and narrow walkways. On entering the organ we were confronted by a seemingly impenetrable forest of metal tubes and cylinders ranging from an inch to sixty-four feet in length, it was difficult to imagine one was inside a musical instrument and these were its pipes. The glimpses of the arena, scores of feet below, were dramatic — not a place for vertigo sufferers. “Forty years since it was last cleaned”, they said. How sensibly do organists dress !

The console seemed almost inconsequential by contrast and one felt quite selfcontained and strangely unaware of being the focal point of some 5,200 pairs of eyes.

Finally the organizers (pardoning the pun) provided a generous buffet during which we could trade our comments on this thrilling morning. We shall now have to wait until 2003 to hear Britain’s biggest organ again, but it can’t be more exciting than the unique experience of Saturday 17th November 2001.

Click to return to Contents page