Fundamental Frequencies
by Brian Wigglesworth

As you know, everything has a fundamental frequency, be it a door, a window, or a complete building, although that frequency is always “low”.

Just after the war, various stories appeared, giving the impression that all buildings were “at risk from low frequencies” and with the arrival of “High Fidelity”, “fundamental frequencies” suddenly became news.

One of the most frequent silly questions that we heard was “Have you removed the rogue pipe?”The what “Well everybody knows that there is one note on every organ that can bring the roof down!”

So we then patiently explained that there was no truth whatever in such theories and that even the biggest organ would not have enough power to significantly damage any properly constructed building.

But after the War, during the repairs to Canterbury Cathedral (which had been damaged by enemy action) some Press reports appeared to reinforce these theories.

Due to this damage, the Pedal Reeds shook “dust” out of cracks in some of the walls, so the Reeds were disconnected for the duration, to be reinstated (with due ceremony) when the work was complete. Nothing wrong with the Cathedral, but no Cathedral is bomb proof!

Then there was “that little Church in Hertfordshire” (where I occasionally played an Amen) which acquired (by public subscription) a huge memorial, lancet-arched, stained glass window, behind the Altar.

This window, 40 foot high by 25 foot wide, named everyone from the village who had been lost during the Great War.But they ran out of money before it was complete, so no glazing bars could be fitted!

The first thing the Organist told me when I arrived was “Whatever you do, nevergo anywhere near low ‘F’ on the Pedal Bourdon”.His demonstration on ‘G’, made the whole window shake like a trampoline!

They thought they could solve the problem by pushing a postcard between the pipe and the windchest, but the Tuner removed it.Then they removed the pipe, but the Tuner replaced it, so they wedged a sock in the pipe mouth, but somebody pinched it. You can’t blame an organ builder for that sort of problem!

Before the War, a (privately owned) Cinema was built on the crossroads in Swanley.But the Owner ran out of money before the building was complete and had no choice but to “Open” (or go out of business).So he completed the back wall with corrugated iron.

All went well for a while, but one dark and stormy night, midway through the Show, as the (electronic) organ let rip, the whole of that corrugated structure collapsed, the Screen fell down, the Curtains waved in the breeze and the audience panicked.End of privately owned Cinema.That organ was back in the factory within 48 hours (he never did pay for it) and eventually found its way into one of Billy Butlin’s Holiday camps.

One of the things that I discovered while touring with Reginald Dixon was the difference between “new” theatres (late 1930’s) and “old” theatres (of about 1890).With his syncopated music (and a hefty bass line) in the new theatres, you could feel the whole of the Circle move beneath you.

When I mentioned this feature to one of my senior colleagues back in the factory, he reminded me of the (then) London County Council Safety Regulation which required every new theatre to be tested for safety, before they would grant a Licence for Public Entertainment.

This test required the Owners to fill every seat in the Circle with volunteers, while the Organist (if possible) played syncopated music.As far as he knew, no theatre ever actually failed this test, but, having seen the theatre under construction, he personally had no desire to volunteer and, apparently, some of the volunteers (tempted by the free show) did not look too happy afterwards either.

Which all goes to show that no matter what building, no matter what size, no matter what sound level (think of a disco), provided the building is properly constructed, and maintained, it is most unlikely that the roof will fall down, although the resonance (echo) may “defeat the music”.

If in doubt, remember the comment of an eminent organist who, at the turn of the last century, was asked what possible use there could be for a 64ft pedal reed and replied, “Musically speaking, it has only limited use, but it does your bowels a power of good”.

So if anyone talks about “rogue” pipes, either they know more about pipe voicing than you expected, or they actually believe the wild theories that are sometimes promulgated in certain newspapers!

On the other hand, do not stand inside a large pipe organ while it is on “full song”, the resultant headache is highly unpleasant.

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