The Organ in the 1930s
Here is the famed Rotunda (The Willis house magazine) article by Henry Willis III.
© Henry Willis & Sons, Ltd.
THE ROTUNDA Vol.3 No.2 March 1930
BEFORE dealing with the recently completed rebuild of this great instrument, a few historical notes are necessary.
Following the tremendous success of the Royal Albert Hall organ my grandfather was commissioned to build an instrument, upon very similar lines, for the old Alexandra Palace Company in the Great Hall. Sir Michael Costa was called into consultation with "Father" Willis, but, as at the Albert Hall, there can be no doubt that my grandfather was left to have his own way, the specification and general design being entirely his.
This first organ was completed and ready for the opening of the Palace in May, 1873. A bare three weeks had elapsed after the opening when the Palace and the organ were completely destroyed by fire. My grandfather was in the Palace at the time and, in his eagerness to save some of the pipework, very narrowly escaped serious injury from the crashing falls of red-hot glass. No time was lost and the story goes that the order for a replica instrument was placed "before the molten pipe metal was cold."
The specification of this first 1873 instrument is here given in the original published form:
[ see the link here ]
To enable the performer to command these stops and accessories, there are six pneumatic combining pistons to each clavier, which arrange in fixed selections the stops of each organ by the mere pressure of the finger.
The wind is derived (as in the Liverpool organ) from bellows placed in the basement; two of these are blown by a steam engine of 12 horse power, and supply ordinary pressure of air. Another bellows is of prodigious strength and blown in connection with a vacuum apparatus by a second engine of eight horse-power.
From the bellows in the basement the wind passes into 24 reservoirs placed in the localities of the various sections of each organ. Each manual is furnished with a pneumatic lever of the most approved construction, as an intermediary power, between the keys and the valves of the organ ; and the pedale has two pneumatic levers interposed for the same purpose. Everything has, therefore, been done to secure the greatest precision in all the movements, and that noiselessly.
The whole draw stop movement is upon an entirely new principle, each stop being drawn and withdrawn by a pneumatic lever of peculiar construction, in connection with a reciprocating apparatus commanded by the ordinary draw stop rod, the moteur being highly compressed air for the one and highly attenuated air for the other. By this means the ordinary draw stop movements, such as levers, shafts or iron rods, centres, etc., are entirely got rid of. For this invention, and for some other contrivances in connection with the wind the builder has obtained patent rights.
It should be noted that the second instrument was built to practically the same specification, the only improvements and additions being the extension of the manual compass to C making 61 notes, of the pedal compass to G, 32 notes, the addition of two more pistons to each department. Also, the two
Mixtures on Swell and Great of 3 and 5 ranks, became, in the second instrument, three Mixtures of 2, 3 and 5 ranks respectively.
This great work was completed in May, 1875, and the first recital was given by Fred Archer on the first of that month. On another page I give Archer's programme followed by that of Mr. Cunningham at the reopening on Saturday, 7th December, 1929. A comparison is interesting.
The 1875 organ was a glorious effort. It is said, and truly according to family tradition, that my grandfather looked upon his Alexandra Palace instrument as his finest concert organ, excelling even the famous ones in the Royal Albert Hall and St. George's Hall, Liverpool.
In my early voicing days I spent an entire week noting the scales and voicing of the organ-an experience which impressed itself upon me indelibly.
At the time the instrument was being built there was a very real fear that it might suffer the fate of its predecessor, not in the Palace but in the factory itself! My father, Henry II, with an assistant, slept at the old "Rotunda" works for months during its manufacture, armed with revolvers and other lethal weapons. During this period several attempts were made to break into the works; but whether arson was the object or an attempt to steal pipe metal it is impossible to say!
For its time the instrument must have been an "eye-opener" to the organ enthusiasts of the day: the boldness of the tonal treatment, the lavish use of high pressures, the remarkable perfection of the mechanism and the (for 1875), abundant provision of "controls" must have created a sensation indeed.
The most interesting features of the organ in the matter of mechanism were:
Drawstop action. This was tubular pneumatic on a double system, pressure and exhaust. The drawstop knob operated a two-way cock, which admitted air at high pressure to the pneumatic which moved the slider "on," or placed the pneumatic under the control of high suction (27in.) which sucked the slide "off."
Pedal action. A highly ingenious tubular pneumatic system was introduced of a then novel type. The player operated a pneumatic primary on a chest, which, by means of governing sliders, played the various sections of the Pedal. It is interesting to note that a logical system of Pedal extension was used-the 32 ft. wood being an extension downwards of the small Open (named Contra Basso) and the 32 ft. Bourdon an extension of the 16 ft.
A most interesting feature was the two couplers "Pedale in Octaves"-which effect I have retained and will refer to later.
Pistons. The provision of no fewer than eight pistons to each manual department was a notable one for the period, and indicated a standard of control far in advance of other organs of its day.
As is known, the old Alexandra Palace Company had a chequered career. The Palace itself was closed for many years from 1889 to 1898, and was a scene of desolation. The Great Hall was almost open to the weather, and the organ got into a deplorable condition as may be expected. In 1898 the Palace was opened again, and the sum of £144 14s. 9d. was spent upon the organ to restore it to playing condition. Following this, from 1898 to 1899 attendances for casual tuning and repairs cost £65 10s. 10d., which sum was never paid, and the ominous words "Bad Debt" appear in our old sales ledger!
In 1900 the whole area occupied by the Palace and grounds came into the open market, and it appeared inevitable that this superb open space would be built over and lost as a "lung" to North London. Such a lamentable occurrence was prevented by the individual, energetic and public-spirited action of Mr. Henry Burt, J.P. Mr. Burt, then a member of the Middlesex County Council and the Hornsey Council, was determined to save it for the public and he "nipped in the bud" negotiations that were upon the point of settlement with a speculative building syndicate and, at twenty-four hours' notice, found a deposit of £5,000 and signed an agreement to purchase.
Following Mr. Burt's splendid action the Alexandra Palace and Park were purchased by the surrounding local authorities who appointed trustees, so ensuring the preservation of the Palace and Park for public use. This was early in 1900. All the same, the Palace had to pay its way - a difficult proposition with such an enormous and rambling building. A young and comparatively unknown man, Mr. G. D. Cunningham, was appointed organist, and at once commenced that remarkable series of Sunday afternoon recitals, which revived the old musical glories of the past and immediately placed Mr. Cunningham in the position of a recitalist of the highest rank. I remember these recitals well-as a young man I was frequently detailed to keep an eye on the instrument and often tuned there and made small repairs. As a youngster I well remember also being sent to the organ to repair a tongue of one of the notes of the 20in. Swell Cornopean, as it was then termed : the tongue had been "buckled" and I realised that a new tongue was essential. Returning to the works I made, curved, and fitted the new tongue, complete with brass weight but no 20in, pressure was available to test it. On going to the Palace the following day (after giving the usual. twenty-four hours' notice to enable the steam pressure to be raised for the engines!) I found no wind available as one of the cylinders of the engine, I forget which, was being packed. Having no wind I replaced the reed, carefully adjusted the tuning wire and left it. I well remember on the next visit being delighted to find the note speaking perfectly and in tune - a good piece of work for a lad of seventeen, or was it luck?
In those days the organ was just "carrying on," its mechanism particularly the leather work, was in a sad state - only such attendance and repair as was essential could be afforded. On one occasion the steam, in the absence of the engineer, blew off from a safety valve, filled the blowing chamber, and was blown right into the organ which had to be opened up to "dry out.". Mr. Cunningham must have been uneasy in those days, and yet the old organ remained useable and very seldom let him down during a recital.
Then came 1914 and the war, and the use of the Palace as an internment camp. The recitals ceased and the organ was only used two or three times in 1915 then silence.
After the war, in 1919, I was called in with Mr. Cunningham to inspect the organ and report upon its condition, the object being a claim in connection with the occupation of the Palace by the military authorities. It was an appalling sight - I had not before seen an instrument in such a shocking condition. The internees had been allowed to use oil stoves in the hall; and the deposit of oil fumes combined with the fluff from
blankets and ordinary dust had left the organ in a state well-nigh indescribable. Still, it was basically sound - no actual damage having been sustained.
Mr. Cunningham and I drew up a report which was used by the Palace authorities in connection with their appeal to the Government, the Palace still being in the occupation of the military authorities. Then came the
blow! Early in 1922 those who should have been protectors became assailants. Frenzied fools broke into the organ, seized pipes and used them as flails to smash others : an orgy of wanton destruction took place : pipes were thrown out into the hall, jumped on, taken as "souvenirs." The departing vandals left by train, and the railway line from the Palace to King's Cross was later found to be strewn with organ parts and pipes!
I was called in shortly afterwards and nearly wept when I saw the scene of destruction. I trust that I shall never again see such a sight.
Following this, and much disputation, the Government made compensation for the occupation of the Palace covering everything, but so meagre was the "compensation" that the trustees had to devote the monies to the most urgent reparations, and the organ could not be restored.
In 1925 "a band of enthusiastic organ lovers" formed the Alexandra Palace Restoration Fund, invited subscriptions, organised concerts, whist drives, organ recitals, anything and everything to raise funds-an unprecedented enterprise in connection with the restoration of an organ. At that time the works which were contemplated were as follow :
Complete restoration, enclosure of Solo light pressure soundboard, addition of Viole and Celestes, also a Carillon of 20 notes. Revoicing Bourdons, adding Geigen 16 ft. to Pedals, inserting Choir Cor Anglais 8 ft. (prepared for but never inserted) revoicing 32 ft. Reed with full length tubes in bass (only full-length to GGG before), fitting electric blowing apparatus.
The cost of this was to be £6,445, and it was this sum that the Restoration Fund was designed to raise at first.
At a meeting of the committee on 29th December, 1925, I offered to electrify the action throughout for an additional £1,500 - making £7,945 all told - and made a strong plea that it should be included in the scheme so that it would then be one of true restoration and modernisation. My advice was accepted and the committee revised their appeal so that it became one for £8,000. The question of lowering the high pitch of the organ to C. 517 modern standard was considered, but dropped as it would have cost another £1,000.
The fund was raised slowly if surely, when it was decided to hold an "Olde Englysshe Fayre" at the Palace as a final effort. This was held May 5-12, 1928. It was great fun! I exhibited the complete console of the Brisbane City Hall organ in full working order and, helped by a choice body of enthusiasts, took parties of visitors over the organ at 6d. per head and to the blowing chamber at 3d., sold postcards of the organ and console, some autographed by me and sold to bewildered "clients" at 6d. A grand and formal "opening" of the Fayre took place daily. All sorts of eminent gentlemen came and spoke in the interest of the fund, including the Rt. Hon. J. I-I. Thomas, Rt. Hon. L. S. Amery, Sir Landon Ronald, Dr. W. G. Alcock, and many others.
Following this great effort a sum approximating to £4,000 was available towards the restoration. The committee were somewhat disheartened by this, and there was talk of returning the monies and winding the affair up. So I "took the bull by the horns" and offered to go on with the work, to accept such sums as were available by its completion and to leave the question of the balance in the "lap of the gods." The committee of the Restoration Fund appreciated this offer, which made it possible for the trustees of the Palace to be approached.
This was done and as the result of the energetic representations of Mr. G. H. Bower, chairman of the Restoration
Fund Committee, who gave an extraordinary amount of time to the matter from its inception, and was indefatigable in every way, I signed the contract on the 31st January, 1929.
Meanwhile, Mr. G. D. Cunningham, retained as expert by the Palace trustees, had proceeded on tour in America. I wrote to him there suggesting various further improvements which I was willing to carry out at my own expense (I had already promised to enclose the Choir Organ-which covered revoicing the whole department-without extra charge). Mr. Cunningham replied from New York agreeing with my suggestions and so I carried on.
I had previously offered to provide a detached console on the platform, without extra expense, but the space it would have taken up was objected to. I suggested placing it upon a hand-operated lift so that it could sink through the platform out of the way when not wanted, but as this would have cost another £40 odd it was turned down.
When it was known that the contract was settled I was deluged by letters from enthusiasts making the most comprehensive suggestions for the further improvement of the instrument, most of which were quite out of the question on the score of expense.
The work proceeded at the factory here, but the arctic weather of February last year resulted in such terribly cold conditions in the unheated Great Hall that I hadn't the heart to set my men to work on the organ itself until warmer weather arrived.
A description of the improvements which, in addition to those named in the contract, I carried through with Mr. Cunningham's approval is appended.
Great Organ. The old Viola da Gamba 8 ft. and Piccolo 2 ft. both redundant, were removed and in their place I fitted a second Principal (Octave 2, 4 ft.) to form a suitable "octave" to the 8 ft. Diapason Nos. 2 and 3, and a
Seventeenth 1 3/5ft. to add a shimmer to
the minor Diapason chorus. The old Flute Traversiere 4ft. I converted into a
Flute Couverte, and the result is a stopped metal Flute of the most beautiful liquid quality conceivable.
Smell Organ. The Flute Harmonique 8 ft. was revoiced as a Flute Ouverte, the Flute Octaviante 4 ft. removed and the old Choir (unenclosed) Vox Angelica put in its place. The Contra Fagotto was revoiced as a Waldhorn.
Choir Organ. Being now enclosed this division was entirely reconstructed and revoiced. The old Contra Gamba 16 ft. was removed for use elsewhere and replaced by a true Contra Viola. The Flute Harmonique 8 was replaced by the old Great Gamba as Viola Celestes to CC. The old Great Piccolo was placed where the Vox Angelica had stood. The old Flute Octaviante was cut down, stoppered, and revoiced as a Nazard. The old Flageolet revoiced as a Tierce; the Lieblich Flute, revoiced with greater tonal development as a Nason Flute.
Solo Organ. "Light" pressure soundboard moved and enclosed. All revoiced on 10in. wind. Claribel became Tibia 8, the 'Cello and Viola 4 were revoiced on colossal lines, the biggest strings I have ever done. The Concert Flute revoiced as a Solo Nazard-a strikingly effective stop in combination.
Pedal. This department had, in the past, been lacking in soft effects and in power somewhat, not backing up the manuals adequately. All stops were revoiced. The changes and additions were: the old so-called Contra Basso 16, given its proper name, Open Bass 2, for it had no string tone. The old Violone 16 ft. was revoiced as a big pungent string, Contra Bass, on heavy wind-a striking stop invaluable in binding the unison flue work together. Flutes 8 and 4 were provided, the pipes being those of the old Choir Flute Harmonic 8 on a new chest. Violas 16, 8 and 4 were provided, the pipes being those of the old Choir Contra Gamba : these provided the soft variety hitherto lacking. The Ophicleide 16 and Clarion 8, formerly on 10in were revoiced on 15in., while the Bombarde 32 and Trombone 16, formerly on 15in. were revoiced on 30in., the Bombarde being equipped with full
length tubes, starters, etc. These two reeds are the biggest Pedal reeds I have done.
The Bombarde CCCC tube is 14 1/2in. diameter at the top-2 1/2in. bigger than those at Liverpool and Westminster Cathedrals. The Pedal department is now, I dare to say, adequate and balances the manuals to perfection. I would like to mention the great improvement of the Bourdons 32 and 16. They are now pure, beautiful and clear notes down to the 32 ft. CCCC.
Apart from the stops named above no alteration was made either in scales, pressure-nothing. The beautiful Great Diapason structure, the superb Swell, the perfect chorus reeds throughout the organ, the glorious Tubas were restored only, no deviation from the original in pressure or anything else being made. I would like to lay great stress upon this point. When I rebuild an organ, whether by my grandfather or any other builder, I do not alter that which is right.
I have the original records of the 1875 organ available here and can verify the fact that except where named above, I have retained everything exactly as it was before.
As regards the mechanism, readers may be interested to know how it was converted to the electro-pneumatic system.
In the 1875 instrument every manual department was played through the intermediary of a Barket-Willis pneumatic lever. I could have readily converted the old pneumatic lever by an immediate electrical application, but as this would have left the tracker connections of great length and considerable weight to the pull-downs of the soundboards, I preferred to place a new electropneumatic converter at the departments themselves.
For the Pedal two systems are employed. The chests for main Pedal stops are in the lower part of the organ; so for them the old tubular "primary" was converted to the electro-pneumatic system direct. The Pedal soundboards which carry the stops included in the "Pedal Chorus" are on the same level as the Great and Choir Organs. These chests have their own electro-pneumatic conversion machines ; and their primary electric actions are all-electric, the immediate precursor of the 1930 system now in standard use.
The new Pedal soundboards, or chests, are, of course, of the new sliderless type. For the drawstop action to the old slider soundboards, the old actuating membranes were remade with non-porous material, the electro-pneumatic machines to supply them being charged with 30in. wind. The old, but most effective "closed circuit" electric system is used, with magnets of high resistance for the "on" ; for the "off" movement the sliders are operated by powerful springs.
The console is entirely new and contains every improvement that I had introduced up to the time of its design and manufacture. The keyboards are of the standard "Willis" inclined pattern. The usual 'logical complement of couplers controlled by "Willis" tilting tablets placed over the top manual is included, and in addition, a "Solo Tenor Solo to Pedals" (a coupler which I inserted at Liverpool Cathedral). A "Doubles off" device also finds a place, operated by tilting tablet : this cuts off in a flash all manual 16's and pedal 32's, and as quickly brings them into action again. A similar device is provided for "Pedal stops off" a device suggested to me by my dear friend the late Dr. Chas. Macpherson, and inserted in the new St. Paul's console in 1925. The "general crescendo" is fitted with a moving "light" indicator ppp to ff, this being a suggestion by Mr. Reginald Goss Custard, who knows all there is to know about the use of this device.
The standard "Full Organ" device is provided, controlled by toe piston.
There are eight pistons to each department-also an individual department "cancel" (0), "general pistons" (0-8), affecting the entire instrument, all these being, of course, instantly adjustable at the keyboards. The swell-pedals are numbered 1-3 and, by means of a switchplate, the Swell, Solo and Choir shutters can be connected to any pedal
desired in a twinkling; and last, but not least, there is the invaluable "general cancel" by both thumb and toe piston which "clears the board" by withdrawing every stop and coupler. A further fitting which is a very real necessity at an organ console such as this is an adjustable organ bench. A noble console, if I may say so, and an exceptionally "ready" one to use! Everything is immediately accessible; and in the number of now essential "controls" it makes even one such as the Apse console at Westminster Cathedral (1926) seem a "back-number."
The blowing apparatus is an exceptionally beautiful equipment. There is a main blower for pressures up to 12in, and a "booster" to raise the heavier pressures up to 30in., all driven by a 15 h.p. motor started and stopped by push buttons at the console itself, as well as by a duplicate set in the blowing chamber.
As 1929 passed I gave a definite date in saying that the organ would be ready for re-opening at the end of November, and suggested that before the official opening a private "Demonstration Recital" might be arranged to serve the dual purpose of "trying out" the instrument, under recital conditions, and giving the workers of the Restoration Fund a private recital in recognition of their wonderful efforts. It was agreed that Mr. Reginald Goss Custard, chairman of the Music Committee of the Restoration Fund, and who had put in fine work in connection therewith, should give this "Demonstration Recital" on the 23rd November. All seemed to be going well when, in October, something happened, as usual, to cause delay. An exhibition was held in the hall, with the result that no noise could be made either by night or day! This was followed by another one causing similar restrictions. Anyhow, after these causes of delay, the work of "finishing" was pushed forward with the utmost despatch, work being carried on day and night for the final five weeks. Then, in November the most appalling weather blessed this country: squalls of rain beat upon the Palace and forced its way through the joints of the glass roof; pools of water formed on the
floor of the main hall. The dampness was appalling. The woodwork became swollen, causing considerable derangement. Meanwhile Mr. R. Goss Custard was doing magnificent work by playing upon the instrument as much as possible to aid the "settling down" process. Then, three days before the 23rd November, the date of the "Demonstration Recital," the heat was put full on, the temperature rose from 40 to 58 degrees, and so did clouds of steam from the joints of the heating pipes! Result-condensation of moisture all over the hall; and for the poor organ, more trouble! The night before the "Demonstration Recital" I was up at the organ with Mr. Goss Custard. It was raining heavily, with pools of water on the floor of the hall and the organ mechanisms (chiefly the sliders of the old soundboards) sticking all over the place. However, unusual conditions call for unusual efforts, and the "Demonstration Recital" on Saturday, 23rd November, passed off wonderfully, Mr. Goss Custard quite staggering his audience whose surprise and delight were unbounded.
From the 23rd November to the 7th December, i.e., the day of the formal opening, the time was devoted, chiefly to taking every possible step to mitigate the prevailing dampness. Electric radiators had been installed in the base of the instrument but, naturally, only a gentle heat was permissible. As a matter of fact, the radiators did little beyond preventing the effects of dampness spreading. So the 7th December arrived with the organ complete in every way, even to the polishing of the last fixing. The opening ceremony was performed by the Lord Mayor of London, Ald. Sir W. A. Waterlow, K.B.E., attended by his Sheriffs, and this was followed by Mr. Cunningham's recital. For the earlier part of the proceedings I had a seat on the platform, but immediately before the recital commenced I slipped away and went to the end of the hall-practically under the great clock where the instrument is heard most perfectly. The glory of that recital will be with me always. Mr. Cunningham, obviously inspired by
the occasion, excelled himself. To say that I was thrilled to the core is not sufficient, and I can do no better than to refer to the article by that distinguished composer Mr. Kaikhosru Sorabji, which appeared in The New Age of 26th Dec., 1929; this is given later with. Mr. Cunningham's "Impression," which form a very generous appreciation of my efforts.
Space is limited but I must give readers my impressions of the organ as it now stands :-
I do want to impress upon all the fact that the organ is not a new one. Basically it is my grandfather's. There are some points in the tonal design which are not exactly as I would plan for to-day. To analyse the tonal design and effect as it now stands:
Great Organ. We find a perfectly gorgeous Diapason structure that few will cavil at: the presence of an 8 ft. chorus reed, the Posaune, on the flue work pressure, is unusual to-day on the score of expense, but it is very useful, amplifying the flue chorus without causing blare. The fact that the 16 and one 8 ft. reed are on 6in./10in. and one 8 ft. and the 4 ft. on 10in/15in.-is, again, not in accord with modern practice; for to-day the family of chorus reeds, 16, 8 and 4 would be on the 15 in. treated as semi-Trombas with additional 8 ft. a Trompette-harmonique, on the same pressure, of great freedom of tone. The old practice of dividing the pressures, treble and bass, is not a necessary expedient, as suitable voicing enables equal and perfect results to be obtained. It will, however, be agreed by all that the effect of the Great reeds is one of perfect balance and blend : it would be a bold person who suggested alteration.
I consider the whole Great division to be a perfect example of my grandfather's work of the '70's, my own modifications having been of a very minor character.
Swell Organ. Here again my observations regarding the Great Organ can be repeated. It is an undoubted luxury to have two 8 ft. Diapasons and to-day the smaller of the two would be a Geigen. No question of converting the smaller Open into a Geigen crossed my mind : both, though rather similar in tone, being of great beauty.
The chorus reeds and their pressures seem strange : for although the Contra Posaune and Trumpet stand on 15 in./ 20in. the Clarion is on the flue pressure of 6 in. only. Nevertheless, the magnificent effect of the Swell chorus fully justifies the apparent anomaly. The superb position of the Swell is one of the secrets of its extraordinary effectiveness, combined with the factor of a box which is no less than 4 in. thick.
Choir Organ. For all practical purposes this can be considered as a new division, every stop except the Mixture, Trumpet and Clarion having been re-modelled and revoiced completely. I have already drawn attention to the family of Violas, 16, 8 (8 Celestes) and 4, and it will be agreed that their shimmering beauty is one of the most charming effects of the organ. The presence of three 4 ft. of varying tonality is a great asset, while the Mutations are in accord with the best modern practice. I would draw attention to the new Cor Anglais, which provides a tonality of great delicacy and interest.
The value of the Choir Organ cannot be assessed properly at the console as its tones pass over the player's head and appear somewhat weak and out of balance with the rest of the instrument judged from the body of the hall the perspective is correct.
Solo Organ. Here again the light pressure division now on 10 in. wind can be regarded as a new one. The two old revoiced strings, 'Cello and Octave'Cello combined with the new Viole and Celestes, provide a "string" effect of a nature not obtained hitherto. The lack of a 16 ft. Violon is to be regretted, but alas, funds indicated a limit somewhere!
The Tibia is the old Claribel revoiced, and is now very similar to that on the Great at Liverpool Cathedral but, of
course, enclosed. The Harmonic Flutes 8, 4 and 2 come into the picture excellently, while the orchestral reeds are wholly delightful. Personally, I derive great pleasure from hearing the Solo Nazard: when used in combination it adds piquancy and freshness. The Tubular Bells present a useful feature when used in moderation; being in the Solo box their value is enhanced to a very high degree. The Solo light pressure soundboard is placed in a large swell box to the bass of the organ upon the top level, that of the Swell and Tubas. The shutters are placed along the entire top of the box, with a gauze screen underneath to prevent dust falling on to the interior of the box, and arc arranged to "shoot" the tone towards the ceiling above the organ which, being a perfect parabolic reflector, projects the tones into the hall in a remarkable manner.
The Solo Tubas are, perhaps, the outstanding feature of this organ; for their perfect position right in front of the organ, at the top on the level of the Swell, is one that ensures their dominating in no uncertain manner. Here the arrangement is 16 and an 8 (Trombas) on 15 in, and the other 8 and the 4 (Tubas) on 20/25in.: that which I would adopt to-day would be a family of 16, 8 and 4 on 15in., enclosed in the Solo box, with a Tuba Magna, unenclosed, on 30in. However, their effect as they stand to-day,
which is exactly as they stood in 1875, restoration only having been carried out, is completely satisfactory, giving a total reserve of power that need seldom be drawn upon.
I have already described the improvements to the Pedal Organ and there is no need to repeat myself. I would, however, draw attention to the old division, which I have retained, of the Pedal Chorus into sections 1 and 2, with their octave couplers. Pedal Chorus in Octaves (1)-comprises the Principal 8, Super Octave 4, Bombarde 32 and Trombone 16. Pedal Chorus in Octaves (2) -comprises the Sesquialtera, Mixture, Ophicleide i6 and Clarion 3.
Every one of these stops has the compass extended to 44 notes and each drawstop bears, below the name of the stop, the figure (1) or (2) to indicate which Pedal Chorus group it belongs to. Colossal augmentation to the full Pedal is given by these couplers, which can be brought on by the Pedal pistons or not as desired.
Following the opening came the long desired revival of the Sunday afternoon recitals, which have been given by various distinguished gentlemen - a difficult task, by the way, for many recitalists have only been able to devote a few hours to rehearsal before their recital, which is quite inadequate for the mastery of the instrument and the exploring of its full possibilities. My own opinion, which I do not hesitate to express, is that the recitals should be given, in the main at least, by an eminent organist who would hold the definite appointment. Mr. Cunningham it is true is no longer available, but the authorities would not have to go far to find the right man. It will be obvious that for an instrument of the size, complexity and resources of this one only a really eminent organist who is intimately acquainted with, not only the effect of every stop, but every detail and "gadget" of the elaborate console mechanism, will be able to obtain the maximum degree of effect from the "old giant."
And now a personal note.
I took my little son, ""Henry IV., " to the Palace to hear his first organ on Sunday, 15th December, 1929, when Mr. Reginald Goss Custard gave one of his admirable recitals. He was then not quite three years old, but listened to two pieces with great interest. Then, as young children will, he became restless and wanted to go home. He was obviously impressed by the size and power of the organ, for in the car on the way home he remarked, "When I'm big I'll build the little organs and you'll build the big ones." Delightful!
There is little more to say. The restoration of this masterpiece of my grandfather's has been to all concerned a labour of love from start to finish. I know that there is no other concert organ in this country that can compare with it in its rejuvenated and modernised form, and doubt if there wilt be for many years to come.
It would be unpardonable indeed to conclude these words without expressing the deep sense of gratitude which I feel towards those who have worked so untiringly for the Restoration Fund and whose efforts have enabled this noble enterprise to be carried out. I would like to thank also the trustees and all those at the Palace who have, throughout, been most helpful and sympathetic ; my friend, Mr. Cunningham, whose cooperation has been quite invaluable, and last but not least, my own staff, who, as usual, have given ungrudgingly of their best.
An "Impression" of the Alexandra Palace Organ as restored, electrified and modernised
kindly written by
MR. G. D. CUNNINGHAM,
formerly Official Organist at the Palace.
In 1901, while yet an R.A.M. student, I was appointed organist at the Alexandra Palace, and from that year until the outbreak of war in 1914 it was my high privilege to have charge of, and to play constantly upon the wonderful "Father Willis" masterpiece there.
To an inexperienced student the instrument was, naturally, a revelation, but, with gradually increasing knowledge of other famous organs, the conviction gradually grew that, for me at any rate, it was probably unequalled, and certainly unsurpassed.
Then, with the war, came twelve years of disuse, neglect and finally, wanton damage, and one's hopes of hearing again that glorious ensemble grew faint almost to extinction, until the magnificent efforts of public-spirited enthusiasts made possible the recent restoration of the organ by the grandson of the original builder.
These few personal reminiscences are, perhaps, excusable as explaining to some extent the anxiety and impatience with which I awaited the time when the organ should again be heard. A very short time at the console was enough to reassure me that all the old majesty was there, as overwhelming as ever, and with additional beauties provided by modern advances in tonal colour and control.
First and foremost, in the work just completed, one must put the reverent way in which the actual restoration of the dilapidated and damaged parts of the organ has been carried out. No attempt has been made to alter the character of the unsurpassable foundation work and chorus reeds. The wonderful blend of the full Great and full Swell, which was the grandest feature of the old organ, has been wonderfully preserved. Where all is so fine it is difficult to single out special features for praise, but the dignity of the Pedal Organ and the thrilling effect of the Solo Tubas must at least be mentioned. The old Solo stops, both reed and flue, were wonderful examples of voicing, but their value was largely lost owing to their not being expressive. The enclosing of the Solo and Choir Organs has been most successfully carried out and the charm of these two departments is vastly increased. Time will not allow of a full discussion of the various stops. It is enough to say here that, tonally the organ is superb, and I can only think of Liverpool Cathedral as a possible rival in this respect.
Before speaking of the new electric action, I must obtrude one more personal note. A year ago I was giving a series of organ recitals in America. I came home feeling that, whatever American organ builders' ideals of tone were, in action and control they were generations ahead of us. But the new Alexandra Palace console provides everything that is really good and helpful in American controls, without their occasional extravagances. The action is instantaneous and stimulating to play upon, and the whole of the console arrangements (adjustable pistons, general pistons etc.) are so far in advance of what we are accustomed to in this country that they may well mark an epoch in English organ building.
Such a combination of tonal beauty and mechanical ingenuity makes the
restored and modernised Alexandra Palace organ unique, and organ lovers everywhere will join in congratulating the Alexandra Palace trustees, the Restoration Committee, and, above all, Messrs. Willis and Sons on the great success achieved.
The following critique of Mr. G. D. Cunningham's opening recital given on December 7th, 1929, from the pen of Mr. Kaikhosru Sorabji, the well-known musician, is reprinted from "The New Age" by kind permission of the editor :
"Knowing, better than most of my fellow musicians, i.e., than that organplaying is to be thought of merely in terms of the village organist or like Mr. Ernest Newman, who thinks that the music is always held up while the organist is changing stops, which is like judging the instrument and players on the achievements of the non-thumb-on-the-blacknote standard in piano-playing, I have twice within the past fortnight undertaken the long and perilous journey to the Northern Heights to hear the restored, renovated, and modernised organ-one of the most notable products of that prince of organ builders, "Father" Henry Willis, when it was first built in 1875. With admirable energy and public spirit a band of local music and organ lovers have succeeded in raising the larger portion of the £8,000 necessary for the work of restoration, while the builder, Mr. Henry Willis, grandson of the original builder, has, we are told, personally accepted the risk of the £3,500 which still remains to be raised. As restored, there is no doubt that the instrument is a marvel of flexibility, completeness of control, and magnificence of tone. The effect of the "full organ" gradually built up by use of the crescendo pedal, is quite overwhelming. Mr. Cunningham, the official organist of Birmingham, is so far the finest English organist I have heard. He obviously revelled in the superb instrument under his hands, and his musicianship, his fine clarity of articulation, fatal trap for ninety-nine out of the hundred organists suffering from the prehistoric organlegato obsession-his springy, flexible, mobile rhythms, his perfect good taste in registration, his quite magnificent control of his instrument cannot be too highly praised, and few people not organists can form any notion of the immense intellectual feat involved in mere mechanical mastery of the intricate and complex maze of a modern console with ,its innumerable thumb and foot pistons, controls, rocking tablets, and other devices. Mr. Cunningham's outstanding performances were the great G minor Fantasia and Fugue of Bach superbly played this-an Air and Variations from a Haydn Symphony, a beautiful study in delicate registration and a delightful piece of "style" in playing, deft, clean, and light in touch, and as a magnificent close to the programme the tremendous Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H of Reger. This was a real tour de force of -playing-the torrential stream of the music, its huge massiveness and power were realised in what can only be called a genuinely great performance. The final pedal point of this work (the theme B-A-C-H thundered out in chromatic harmony against a rapid quaver counterpoint over the held pedal), taken by Mr. Cunningham at a tremendous pace, but with absolute clarity, and with all the resources of the splendid instrument drawn on, is a thing only to be believed when it is heard, the whole a wonderful musical experience."