A Short History of the Organ

When the nave of the church was constructed in 1887, the architect’s plans for the completed building showed a chapel and sacristy on the south side of the sanctuary, with a large organ chamber above. The building proceeded in stages, ending with the construction of the west front in 1901, and when it was finished the sacristy had ended up on the north side, and the organ – a two-manual instrument by Bishop & Son – had been relegated to a small space above the north aisle of the chancel, from where its impact in the body of the church must have been decidedly muted. The door that led to the console can still be seen, opening now into mid-air.

1901 was a significant year in the history of the church on more than one account: this was the year that Fr John Driscoll SJ arrived at the Sacred Heart. An ambitious and well-qualified choir-trainer, Fr Driscoll was a man with a mission. In 1904 he took over the direction of the choir, and began to establish a cathedral-style programme of music. He appointed a first-class organist, Henry Wardale (who had previously worked with R.R. Terry at Westminster Cathedral), and set up his own Choir School. As the choir approached sixty in number, it rapidly outgrew the space available in the sanctuary, and in 1910 an appeal was launched to raise funds for the construction of a new choir gallery at the west end, with a cathedral-style organ in the empty space behind, above the church vestibule. The original architect, Frederick Walters, was persuaded to give the plan his blessing and design the gallery (though he deeply regretted the loss of the unobstructed view of his west window) and the firm of J.W. Walker and Sons were commissioned to build the new organ.

The reputation of Walkers was then at its height; especially notable among their recent instruments were the organ they had built at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, in 1897 for the greatest English organist of the day, Edwin Lemare (now much altered) and their rebuild of the organ in Bristol Cathedral (1907), which still survives almost unchanged. The proposed site for the Sacred Heart organ, in a spacious chamber with a vaulted roof at the back of the church, was an organ-builder’s dream, and rarely encountered in England, where organs were usually buried in the chancel where they could more easily accompany the choir. Walkers clearly relished the challenge and came up with a lavish design that used every available inch of space. The Westminster and Bristol organs served as models, but here – encouraged no doubt by the rare acoustic potential of the site – they proposed a rare luxury enjoyed by none of their other organs, two full-length 32-foot stops (in addition to a softer quinted ‘acoustic’ 32’ bass). The cost of the organ was £3000. It was blessed and inaugurated on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December 1912, in a performance of Beethoven’s Mass in C, and a recital was given in February 1913 by the current Organist of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, Reginald Goss-Custard (“Large audience. Collection for Organ Fund £24.3s.0d”).

The organ was immediately hailed as another triumph for the builders, in their characteristically grand Edwardian style (“very moving to all except the most ascetic tastes”, as Ian Bell has said). But fashions soon changed, and in 1935 some new stops were added (see specification for the details), in an attempt to modernise it a little and add some more lightness and brightness to its solid Edwardian tone – though the addition of new pipework in two new locations put some strain on the existing mechanism, and caused a few problems through the years. There were further minor repairs in 1953 and 1973, when a new synthetic (and, as it turned out, disastrously short-lived) substitute was used in place of traditional leather. Time was taking its toll and the organ gradually threatened to become unusable, as Bob Rathbone recalls on page 2. For a while it seemed as though this magnificent survivor from another age might be allowed to quietly rot away, but finally a brave decision was taken to repair and restore the most urgently failing parts of the mechanism. Manders carried out the work in 1985 and the organ was triumphantly restored to life.

However, finances were limited; under the surface the rest of the mechanism was quietly wearing out. After twenty more years it was visibly ailing, sometimes sounding wonderful, but sometimes distinctly wheezy and asthmatic. The announcement in autumn 2009 of the imminent closure of the church for major building work precipitated a crisis: we feared that the organ could not survive such conditions, however well covered and protected. Plans for a complete restoration were already under way, but the appeal funds were still far short of the target and time was short. The Heritage Lottery Fund and the dedicated craftsmen of Mander Organs came to the rescue in the nick of time. The glorious result you can hear tonight.

So what makes this organ special? Firstly, the sound. The west-end position, the unusual internal design (Swell box on the left with its shutters a few inches behind the frontage pipes and Great pipework on the right, with the Choir box behind) and the distinction of the voicing, combine to create an effect rarely encountered in England. The sound blossoms under the vault and is then projected straight into the church, where it speaks with absolute clarity to every corner of this lofty building. Every stop has the character and presence of an orchestral instrument and the range of dynamics and tone-colours is extraordinary; even a whispered pianissimo travels clearly down to the chapels behind the high altar, while the tutti is quite overwhelming (even out in the street…).

Secondly, the survival of the original tubular-pneumatic action. This system – which was ideal for operating organs with the large bass pipes and ponderous tones which the Victorians preferred – was only in use for a relatively short time, from about 1870 until 1920, when it was replaced by electrical contacts. Here at Sacred Heart, the blowing plant (originally operated hydraulically in a cellar under the front lawn, but now sited inside the south tower) is powered by electricity, but once the wind reaches the organ, it operates everything – keys, pipes, and pistons – without any other assistance, via an amazing labyrinth of narrow lead tubing and hundreds of pneumatic ‘motors’ – miniature bellows of wood and leather, ranging in size from an inch or two to a foot or more, which inflate and deflate to move the rods and valves that let the wind into the tubes. The electrical supply inside the organ is only required only to power the light-bulbs and the humidifying equipment (which protects the mechanism from the harmful effects of central heating and extreme weather). All of this mechanism, together with the eight large double-rise reservoirs that store the wind, takes up the whole of the lower level of the organ behind the solid wood façade. Formerly invisible and difficult of access in Stygian gloom, it can now be seen in all its pristine and immaculately-restored glory with the aid of a new and comprehensive system of strip-lighting that has been installed throughout this level. Upstairs, the pipework – much of which was formerly filthy and leaning at crazy angles, is now all clean and vertical, with new boots and supports where necessary to keep it upright.

Two new ranks of 61 pipes (Dulciana and Vox Humana) have been made to replace sonorities that were lost in the “modernisation” of 1935. Visibly, their gleaming silver metal betrays their youth, but audibly, they sound as if they have always been there – another tribute to the artistry of the Manders craftsmen. This unusually challenging restoration was scheduled to last for a year, but – for various unforeseen reasons – it ended up extending to 18 months. Their commitment to the project has never wavered, and it is thanks to them that this wonderful musical instrument approaches its centenary reinvigorated and rejuvenated; ready to move, inspire and entertain congregations and audiences for another hundred years. DG