The Evolution of the English Organ Through History

Byvu lita

Aug 30, 2023

The pomp and ceremony of a royal occasion or the Last Night of the Proms? Or maybe just background muzak to a church service or civic event: sometimes saccharine, sometimes bombastic? The English organ has fulfilled all of these functions and more, but it has its own musical significance, too. At its best, it is the medium of some of the finest national music ever written, and its story is also a fascinating if quirky mirror of our musical and social history.

The history of the organ in England

Although the earliest known reference to an English organ dates from the tenth century, when St Dunstan gave an organ to Malmesbury Abbey, nothing exists of an instrument in unaltered form until the 1680s or so. But with a bit of digging around, we can work out what some of these earlier organs sounded like. And so our musical story begins in the 1520s.

Our knowledge of the sort of organs played by Byrd and Tallis and the so-called ‘English virginalists’ was, until recently, limited to the odd surviving stop-list and much conjecture. Why do no organs survive from this era? Sadly, wanton destruction and changing tastes are to blame.

The 16th-century English Reformation under Henry VIII saw the destruction or terminal decline of many English organs. Unlike some of the impressive and relatively large organs found in mainland Europe’s churches and cathedrals at this time, English Tudor organs were modest in size and expectation. A handful of stops were all that was required to accompany or play alongside the choir. It could simply be that they were not perceived as impressive enough to be saved from zealous Reformers.

Wetheringsett’ organ

In 1977, a man renovating his farmhouse in Wetheringsett, Suffolk, was intrigued by a piece of timber that had served as a door in centuries gone by. Why did it have rows of grooves and holes? Eventually it was identified as an organ soundboard (on which stood the pipes) dating from around 1525, which enabled organ builders Goetze and Gwynn to recreate a Tudor organ in 2001. They were able to do this because the soundboard of an organ tells you how many pipes and stops the organ had, and therefore allows for a complete reconstruction.

The resulting ‘Wetheringsett’ organ reveals some fascinating aspects about organ playing of the time. The very high pitch has implications as to how we perform solo pieces of Byrd et al on more recent instruments, suggesting that any piece using the whole tessitura of the organ would have sounded nearly a fifth higher than notated. With that in mind, there’s no doubt that Tudor organists would as a matter of course have had to transpose accompaniments to match the choir’s pitch.

And what did these instruments sound like? It turns out that English organs had a sound similar to southern European ones, with a thin, overtone-heavy tone akin to a stringed instrument – nothing like the grand tone of those found in Germany and the Netherlands.

What happened after the Reformation?

More destruction followed of those organs that had survived the Reformation, due to the next significant upheaval: the English Civil War. As Cromwellian puritanical zeal swept through the country, organs were once again under pressure (although the hypocrisy of Cromwell installing an organ in the Great Hall at Hampton Court, for his own enjoyment and edification, is telling). Distressing and reckless though these times were, they did herald a new style of music – and a new style of organ to match.

Organ builders such as Robert Dallam, who had been working in exile in northern France, returned to construct organs for English institutions.

The new organs built by Dallam and his contemporaries were fitted with extra gallic sounds: colourful trumpets, cremonas, vox humanas, cornets, and mixture stops to extend the harmonic series upwards. An extra manual (creating the new ‘double organ’) began to be more commonplace, and grew to be part of the soundworld of Blow, Purcell and Locke: Englishness influenced by the French fashions of court life. Inevitably perhaps, with different musical expectations, pitch standards and the like, earlier 16th-century organs were neglected and replaced with something more fashionable.

The 18th century saw a move to a more refined and understated tone, along with an extra dynamic flexibility in small ‘swell’ divisions, but essentially the English organ did not notably change in its conception and basic elements until the 1840s. Hints of what were to come can be found in the fine 1829 Bishop organ of St James’s, Bermondsey, London (then the largest church organ in England): there are some aids to changing the stops while playing, a broadening of the tonal palette and a slight loudening of the sound. And its pedals – viewed with either disinterest or suspicion by many of the English organ fraternity of the time – were duplicated by an extra manual at the side, allowing for a second player to perform the pedal line.

The development of the organ’s pedals

But why? The discovery of JS Bach’s organ works was quickly changing English organ culture as his music required a full pedal division. As early as 1809, composer Samuel Wesley had collaborated with Charles Frederick Horn in editing and publishing Bach’s six organ trio sonatas (the first time all six had been published anywhere, albeit for piano duet/three hands).

This new appetite for Bach was ignited further by Mendelssohn’s long visits to Britain, starting in 1829. The lawyer-musician Henry John Gauntlett, along with the organ builder William Hill, spearheaded a revolution to provide new organs with the ‘German’ compass (ie a full pedal division and an abandonment of the old English extended low notes on the manuals).

Despite the arrival of such instruments, English organists were still reticent to use the pedals. It was only in the latter decades of the century (thanks to the likes of WT Best and Sir John Stainer) that pedalling was widely regarded as an essential part of organ technique.

The stage was set for the emergence of an organ builder who moulded the English style into something bolder, louder and more distinctive: the great craftsman and engineer Henry Willis. After his impressive debut at the Great Exhibition of 1851, resulting in an important contract at St George’s Hall, Liverpool, Willis built significant organs in major English cathedrals, concert rooms and town halls.

The Victorian organist entertained large audiences with orchestral transcriptions, extracts of Bach and the occasional original piece of Mendelssohn, Smart or Parry, while towns and cities saw the commissioning of a large, new organ as a matter of civic pride. The English organ was reaching the public in ways not seen since Handel’s organ concertos mesmerised London theatre goers and Vauxhall promenaders a century earlier.

The 20th century

It was perhaps inevitable that this orchestral bent was to drive the English organ to its next stage, of ever-closer imitation of orchestral colours, an expanding dynamic range and flexibility, and a refining of tonal blend for a greater range of registrational options. The man who first developed such ideas with a zeal and an engineering confidence was Robert Hope-Jones.

Hope-Jones emigrated to the US in 1903 to seek his fortune where, despite the tragedy of his suicide in 1914, his ideas formed the basis of Wurlitzer’s cinema organs. This same ethos informed early 20th-century English organ culture, where organs by Harrison & Harrison, Hill, Norman & Beard, John Compton and others often took refinement and blend to a new level – and occasionally at the expense of character. This is the soundworld associated with Howells, Whitlock, Harris and others (even though many prominent organists of that generation presided over organs of a more Victorian pedigree).

Meanwhile, while English organists and their audiences basked in smooth sounds and orchestral effects, the winds of change were blowing in Germany. The early music revival was taking root in the 1920s: the so-called ‘Praetorius’ organ built by Walcker in 1921 at the University of Freiburg signalled a new way ahead, despite its electro-pneumatic key actions.

England, however, seemed uninterested or unaware of these tonal trends. The 1937 Eule organ commissioned by Lady Susi Jeans for her private Surrey residence (with the mechanical action made by Hill, Norman & Beard) was to remain an isolated instance of a new, classically inspired organ. Jeans tutored and mentored a significant number of the next generation, though, which encouraged the gradual move post-WWII towards instruments built for an earlier repertoire.

It was not until 1954 with the then controversial Royal Festival Hall organ and its smaller cousin in Brompton Oratory, and later still in 1965 with an imported mechanical-action Danish (Frobenius) organ at The Queen’s College, Oxford, that the culture started to change significantly. The ‘authentic’ realisation of JS Bach and earlier repertoire, already firmly established in mainland Europe, became the cornerstone of this new English world.

Today we’re still living with some of the fruits of this movement, both in terms of organs and musical thought, but the pendulum has swung again. Current new English organs are often eclectic in nature – they are often in places where choral accompaniment of the likes of Stanford and Howells is a big part of the diet – although fine copies have been made of earlier (usually English) styles from the Tudor to the Victorian.

So what’s the future for the English organ?

Both the strength and weakness of the English organ has been its strong link with liturgical choral accompaniment, despite the popularity of the town hall solo tradition and a secular presence over the centuries. In places where that choral tradition has collapsed, too many English institutions have installed a substitute fake organ, or none at all.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Russia, Japan and South Korea attract large audiences for organ concerts, as they do not associate the instrument with churches, liturgies and choirs. The English organ will doubtless continue to live alongside our choirs, but we also need to learn to appreciate the solo repertoire and associated instruments for their own sakes, and to encourage the musical enjoyment of this fine corpus of music. If we can succeed in this, the English organ should be set to flourish for a very long time.

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