The Organs of the Priory Church

In this description of the organs of the Priory Church from the earliest extant records to the present, the specifications of the organs we have had are all listed in the same way: the name of each stop in the instrument is followed by a number giving the length – expressed in feet – of the lowest note for that stop. This is the standard way of describing organ pipes. A rank described as being 8' will have a pipe of roughly 8 foot in length for its bottom-C, and the middle-C on the keyboard will then correspond in pitch to middle-C on a piano. A rank of pipes described as being 4' sound an octave above an 8' rank when pressing down the same note, and 2' pipes sound an octave above that. The pipes with fractional lengths such as 2 2/3' produce notes that are offset in pitch from the basic pitch of a note, which may sound odd when listened to separately, but which actually reinforces specific harmonics produced by organ pipes, giving a particular colour to the sound of a 'chorus' of pipes when played together. For reed pipes, the sound is produced by metal or other reeds at the bottom of the pipe, and the pitch is not determined by its length in the same way – the long part of such pipes acts primarily as a resonator that just affects the quality of the sound rather than the pitch. However, the pitch of reed pipes is still expressed in feet using the equivalent length of an ordinary 'flue' pipe with the same pitch. 'Mixture' stops are made up of more than one rank of pipes, usually high up in pitch, which add a glitter and sharpness to the sound. The convention is to show the number of ranks used to make up a mixture stop written as Roman numerals. So a mixture described as 'IV' is made up of four ranks of pipes. Also in the descriptions below, you will find references to couplers, pistons, combination pedals, and so on. Rather than give a detailed description of each, these are broadly speaking all mechanisms for controlling the sound of the organ easily, for example by selecting groups of stops conveniently, or by linking together different parts of the instrument so that they are played simultaneously.

The Knoppell Organ 1715 – 1730

Organs and their cases should be taken away and utterly defaced and none hereafter set up in their places. So ordered Cromwell's Lords and Commons in 1644; whether St. Bartholomew the Great had an organ at the time, we do not know, but it is not until 1715, in solid royalist days, that we read of an organ being built in the church. However, at the election of Prior Robert Fuller on 28th June 1532, a Te Deum was performed with the organ sounding. It would appear that the church had an organ before the destruction order of 1644, but it was probably not the one played in 1532. The organ builder in 1715 was Johan Knoppell (this is his own spelling; in other sources it appears as 'Conoble', 'Kanople', 'Canoble', 'Knoppal'). He appeared first in 1698 when he gave evidence in a dispute between Bernard Smith and Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. Nicholas Thistlethwaite in The Organ of St. James Garlickhythe (Oxford: Positif Press, 2007), suggests that he was probably an immigrant, and was probably a member of Smith's workshop in Whitehall. He was described as being of St Martin in the Fields, which would have been convenient for Whitehall. He later set up on his own and from 1713–1741 was associated with Canterbury Cathedral, worked at various churches in and around the City, as well as Durham Cathedral in 1738). He died either in 1745 or 1746. This organ, the first which the church had since the Restoration of the Monarchy, was erected on the west gallery which had been rebuilt in 1624. This gallery, unlike the present one, extended round across the South Transept, as can be seen from a print of 1740. In fact, there were pews in the gallery, and in 1777 the vestry ordered that the north side of the gallery be granted for the use of the charity school of the parish.

The Bridge Organ 1731 – c.1855–1864

The Knoppell organ was apparently found insufficient for the church because in 1730 it was ordered that the organ be enlarged and some other stops added to it, Or that the whole organ be exchanged for one more large and compleat. The latter course was eventually chosen and a new organ was built in 1731 by Richard Bridge of Woods Close, Clerkenwell. The specification has fortunately been preserved because of the keen interest taken in such matters by Henry Leffler, who compiled note about organs and organ builders over the years 1800 to 1810:

Great Swell Choir
Open Diapason8 Open Diapason8 Stopped Diapason
(from Great)
8
Stopped Diapason8 Stopped Diapason8 Principal4
Principal4 Principal4 Flute8
Twelfth2 2/3 CornetIII Cremona8
Fifteenth2 Hautboy8
Tierce1 3/5 Trumpet8
SesquialteraIV
Trumpet8

As was typical of English organs of the time, there were no pedals, but the Great and Choir extended down to G below the C two octaves below Middle C, which is the usual lowest key today. Again typically, the Swell was of short compass, extending down only to violin G. The upper range for all three manuals was to D above top C. The keys were black and the sharps had a strip of white inserted in them.

Leffler remarked that it was a very good organ all through. The opening was advertised in the Daily Journal of October 30th , 1731:

On Sunday next [Oct.31] the curious New Organ, made by Richard Bridge, Organ Maker, in St. John's Clerkenwell, and lately erected in the Parish church of St. Bartholomew the Great, near Smithfield, will be opened with an anthem in the morning. The said organ has been play'd on by several of the greatest Masters in town [did this include Handel?], and by them allowed to be a very fine Instrument. And Mr. Bridge likewise invites all other gentlemen and Masters of Music to hear or touch the same and he will give his attendance in the said church, from Two o'clock in the afternoon till Five. N.B. The said Mr. Richard Bridge makes Harpsichords and Spinets.

The Russell/South Organ 1855–1864 – 1868

The fate of the Bridge organ is unknown, but it seems to have been replaced sometime between 1855 and 1864 with a second-hand instrument by Russell, reconstructed by R. H. South of Gray's Inn Road. There followed an extraordinary sequence of events culminating in the Russell organ being, literally, lost. During the first great restoration of the church from 1864 to 1868, the organ was sent to South for what was intended to safe keeping. However, South died during the period and the organ was sold as part of his effects. When once again required by the church, the organ could not be traced.

The Gray & Davison Organ 1868 – 1886

A small organ by Gray & Davison was therefore bought in 1868. Contemporary photographs show it placed in the arch opposite Rahere's tomb. This instrument, however, was quite inadequate for the building and it was sold again in 1886.

The England Organ in St Stephen's Walbrook from 1765 – 1886

St Stehen's, Walbrook contained an organ built by George England in 1765. In 1886, it was sold to St Bartholomew the Great and installed in the church. It then formed the basis of the instrument that was used until, in its final form, it was de-commissioned in 2010 in preparation for a new instrument. However, first we should look at how the England organ developed before it ever left St Stephen's. The original specification was another of those recorded by Henry Leffler:

Great Swell Choir
Compass: G (no GG#) to e''' Compass: g to e''' Compass: G (no GG#) to e'''
Open Diapason8 Open Diapason8 Stopped Diapason8
Stopped Diapason8 Stopped Diapason8 Dulciana (G)8
Principal4 Principal4 Flute4
Nason4 German Flute4 Fifteenth2
Twelfth2 2/3 CornetIII Vox Humana8
Fifteenth2 Hautboy8 French Horn8
SesquialteraIV Trumpet8
MixtureII Clarion4
Cornet (c')V
Trumpet8
Clarion4

Henry Leffler considered this also a very good organ. It had an interesting link with the Richard Bridge organ of 1731, for George England was trained by Bridge in the art of organ building and married his daughter.

In 1825 the Great Cornet was replaced with a second Open Diapason, and an octave and a half of pedals was added with open pipes to the lower octave and a Great to Pedal coupler. This work was undertaken by John Gray who later went into partnership as Gray & Davison, the builders of the 1868 organ mentioned above.

No other alterations appear to have been made to the instrument until 1872, when a major rebuild and enlargement were conducted by Hill & Son to the following specification:

Great Swell Choir
Open Diapason 18 Bourdon16 Keraulophon8
Open Diapason 28 Open Diapason8 Dulciana (c)8
Stopped Diapason8 Stopped Diapason8 Stopped Diapason8
Principal8 German Flute (c)8 Principal4
Nason/ Waldflöte4 Principal4 Stopped Flute4
Twelfth2 2/3 Twelfth2 2/3 Fifteenth2
Fifteenth2 Fifteenth2 Vox Humana8
MixtureIV MixtureIV Clarinet8
FurnitureIII Double Trumpet16 French Horn8
Trumpet8 Trumpet8
Clarion4 Oboe8 Pedal
Clarion4 Open Diapason16
Bourdon16
Trombone16

Couplers:
Swell to Choir
Swell to Great
Swell to Pedal
Choir to Pedal
Great to Pedal

Accessories:
3 composition pedals to Great
2 composition pedals to Swell

Compass:
Manuals, C to g'''
Pedal, C to f'

The Swell German Flute was grooved to the Open Diapason in the bass octave
as was the Dulciana to the Keraulophon on the Choir.

This was quite a significant re-working of the instrument, so it is perhaps quite surprising to find that it was dismantled from the church and moved to St Bartholomew the Great only 14 years later, but that is what happened.

The England/Hill Organ in St Bartholomew the Great 1886 – 1931

At the time of the great restoration of St. Bartholomew the Great, the architect, Sir Aston Webb, designed a new gallery to receive the organ, the previous gallery having been removed in 1864. The restoration fund did not meet the cost of the organ gallery and repairs; the debt was defrayed from a performance of Parry's new oratorio Judith in 1889. The new organ case, also designed by Sir Aston Webb, was, however, not completed until 1893; in the interim there was probably a facade of pipes set in a front row of holes, visible from inside the organ today, connected to the Great chest. The organ's original case of 1765 was left at St. Stephen's.

At some stage after the installation of the organ in St. Bartholomew's, some alterations were made to the Swell and Choir departments. On the Swell, the Stopped Diapason gave place to a Vox Angelica 8' and the Twelfth and Fifteenth were divided. On the Choir, the Stopped Diapason also disappeared together with the Principal and Stopped Flute, to be replaced by a Hohl Flute 8', Suabe Flute 4', and Gamba 4'.

C. W. Pearce played upon the organ in 1905 and wrote an account which sheds some light on the tastes of the time. He wrote as follows: I found the tone very smooth, even, and church-like in character. The difference of quality between the tone of the two Great Diapasons is not marked, but they blend well. Gray's No. 2 Diapason is a charming stop. Contrary to my expectation, the Vox Humana on the Choir Organ proved to be a very pleasant sounding stop in so large and resonant a building. I had never before played upon a Vox Humana stop placed outside a swell-box, but the effect was certainly good.

The Organ rebuilt by Speechly 1931 – 1982

During the First World War the organ was allowed to fall into disrepair, and in 1919 it was reported that the organ was in so bad a state that no less a sum than £5,000 was required to make it fit for the musical services of the church. However, no work seems to have been done until 1931 when the firm of Henry Speechly & Sons was commissioned to rebuild the organ. Speechly replaced most of the flue pipes in the trebles with new pipes of heavy metal; new reeds were made and voiced on heavy wind pressure by Alfred Palmer, a London trade pipemaker and voicer, and a new Speechly pneumatic action installed. The specification was as follows:

Great Swell
Double Open Diapason16 Bourdon16
Open Diapason No. 18 Open Diapason8
Open Diapason No. 28 Hohl Flute8
Clarabella8 Echo Gamba8
Principal4 Voix Celeste8
Harmonic Flute4 Principal4
Fifteenth2 Fifteenth2
MixtureIII MixtureIV
Tromba (from Choir)8 Double Trumpet16
Octave Tromba (from Choir)4 Trumpet8
Oboe8
Clarion4

Swell to Great
Tremulant
Octave
SubOctave
Unison Off

Choir Pedal
Lieblich Gedeckt8 Double Open Diapason32(last 7 notes acoustic)
Dulciana8 Open Diapason16
Viole d'Orchestre8 Violone16
Gemshorn4 Bourdon16
Concert Flute4 Octave8
Vox Humana8 Bass Flute8
Clarinet8 Trombone16
Tromba8

Swell to Choir
Great to Pedal
Swell to Pedal
Choir to Pedal
Tremulant
Octave
Sub Octave
Great and Pedal pistons coupled

5 thumb pistons to each manual
5 toe pistons to Pedal
5 toe pistons duplicating Swell pistons

The opening recital was give by Newell Wallbank, organist of Wakefield Cathedral and father of a later rector of St. Bartholomew the Great.

Very little of the original 1765 pipework survived; in the mixtures there were some lower pipes marked Sesq., which were almost certainly from the 1765 Great Sesquialtera, while a few pipes marked Cor. probably originated in the Swell Cornet from which the Hill Twelfth and Fifteenth were derived.

Over the years, the Speechly pneumatic action deteriorated and became more and more noisy. Paul Steinitz found the organ suitable for Whitsuntide because of the sound of a rushing mighty wind which seemed to be directed at the player! An overhaul and some re-voicing of the reeds was carried out in 1957 by Noel Mander. More fundamental work was badly needed, however, and the combination pistons eventually became quite unusable.

The Organ rebuilt by Peter Wells 1982 – 2010

The long-awaited rebuild was at last begun on 1st March 1982 by Peter Wells (Organ Builders) Ltd., to a scheme drawn up in consultation with Brian Brockless, the then Director of Music, and was completed in the following year. The Choir organ was recast along brighter, more classical lines, with five new stops of high quality spotted metal. All the reeds were re-voiced, those of the Choir and Pedal now being on lower wind pressure, and the mixtures were re-pitched with new trebles. The Pedal organ received its own complete choruses, while the Great was given a new Block Flöte 2' and a re-voicing of several stops. Peter Wells installed a new electro-pneumatic action, solid state transmission and a 5-channel memory piston capture system.

Great
Compass: C–c''' (61 notes)
Double Open Diapason16
Open Diapason8
Stopped Flute8(Reconstructed)
Principal4
Open Flute4
Twelfth2 2/3(S/H Addition)
Fifteenth2
Block Flöte2(New Addition)
MixtureIII(New Trebles – re-pitched)
Trompette8(from Choir)
Clairon4(from Choir)

Swell to Great
Choir to Great

Swell
Compass: C–c''' (61 notes)
Lieblich Bourdon16
Open Diapason8
Hohl Flute8
Echo Gamba8
Voix Celeste8
Principal4
Fifteenth2
MixtureIV(New trebles)
Oboe8(Re-voiced)
Basson16(New)
Trumpet8(Revoiced)
Clairon4(Revoiced)

Swell Reeds off
Swell Reeds on Pedal
Tremulant
Sub Octave
Unison Off
Octave

Choir
Compass: C–c''' (61 notes)
Lieblich Gedeckt8
Dulciana8
Nason Flute4(New)
Nasard2 2/3(New)
Gemshorn2(New)
Tierce1 3/5(New)
Krumhorn8(New)
Trompette8(Fresh Shallots)
Clairon4(Extension)

Tremulant
Sub Octave
Octave
Swell to Choir

Pedal
Compass: C–f (30 notes)
Double Open Metal32
Open Wood16
Open Metal16
Bourdon16
Lieblich Bourdon16(from Swell)
Octave Wood8(from Open Wood 16)
Octave Metal8(from Open Metal 16)
Bass Flute8(from Bourdon 16)
Lieblich Flute8(from Swell)
Choral Bass4(from Open Metal 16)
Octave Flute4(from Swell)
MixtureIII(S/H Addition)
Bombarde16(Revoiced)
Trompette8(Revoiced)
Clairon4(Revoiced)

Great to Pedal
Swell to Pedal
Choir to Pedal
Great and Pedal pistons coupled

Accessories
Reversible thumb piston Great to Pedal
Reversible thumb piston Swell to Pedal
Reversible thumb piston Choir to Great
Reversible thumb piston Swell to Great
Reversible thumb piston Choir to Pedal
Reversible thumb piston Swell to Choir
Reversible toe piston Great to Pedal
Reversible toe piston Swell to Pedal

6 adjustable thumb pistons to Swell
6 adjustable thumb pistons to Great
6 adjustable thumb pistons to Choir
6 adjustable toe pistons to Pedal
6 adjustable General pistons
Full Organ piston (settable)
General Cancel piston

5 channel piston memory

The Viscount Electronic Organ 2010 – Present

The organ described above came to the end of its useful and reliable life in 2010. By that stage, the wind leaks and various semi-pitched sounds emanating from the instrument were proving very distracting during the choral parts of the service, not least of all to the choir, who had to maintain their tuning against this acoustic background and a growing series of problems with the instrument were making it harder and harder to use. The solution of turning the organ off and on between the items for which is was needed was unsatisfactory, partly because of the very audible leaking wind, leading to a considerable and distracting contrast between the stillness of the church while it was off and the sound of a small gale when it was turned on. Following a very critical report about the state of the instrument from the Managing Director of the organ builders Harrison & Harrison, the PCC decided to de-commission the pipe organ and replace it for the time being with an electronic instrument by Viscount Organs, which had until recently been the substitute organ at Llandaff Cathedral while a Nicholson pipe organ was being installed there. The speakers of the Viscount instrument were installed at the west end of each Triforium Gallery and at the front of the old organ loft, with a sub-woofer to support the lower frequency sounds in the ambulatory behind the grille. The console is east of the north side of the choir stalls in front of the grille, which allows for a considerably easier line of sight and communication between Director of Music and Organist. The specification is as follows:

Great
Double Diapason16
Open Diapason I 8
Open Diapason II8
Hohl Flute8
Stopped Diapason8
Principal4
Harmonic Flute4
Twelfth2 2/3
Fifteenth2
MixtureIV
Sharp MixtureIII
Double Trumpet16
Trumpet8
Clarion4

Tremulant
Swell to Great coupler
Choir to Great coupler

Swell
Bourdon16
Open Diapason8
Chimney Flute8
Echo Gamba8
Voix Celeste8
Principal4
Wald Flute4
Nazard2 2/3
Fifteenth2
Tierce1 3/5
MixtureIV
Contra Fagotto16
Cornopean8
Oboe8
Vox Humana8
Clarion4

Tremulant

Choir
Open Diapason8
Lieblich Gedackt8
Unda Maris8
Salicional8
Vox Angelica8
Gemshorn4
Suabe Flute4
Flageolet2
Larigot1 1/3
Sesquialtera 12.17. II
MixtureIII
Clarinet8
Tuba8

Tremulant
Swell to Choir coupler

Pedal
Sub Bass32
Open Wood16
Open Metal16
Violone16
Bourdon16
Principal8
Bass Flute8
Choral Bass4
MixtureIV
Contra Bombarde32
Trombone16
Bassoon16
Trumpet8
Clarion4

Great to Pedal coupler
Swell to Pedal coupler
Choir to Pedal coupler

10 channel memory
10 adjustable general pistons
6 adjustable Great pistons
6 adjustable Swell pistons
6 adjustable Choir pistons
6 adjustable Pedal pistons
General pistons duplicated as toe pistons
Pedal pistons duplicated as toe pistons
General crescendo pedal
Transposer
Different tunings available
Great & Pedal pistons coupled
Considerable flexibility in matters such as voicing, individual rank characteristic and volume

The Next Chapter: an American Symphonic Organ by Schoenstein

Meanwhile, the PCC is in the process of obtaining a new pipe organ for the church. This is expected to be supplied by the Californian firm of Schoenstein, and will be an American Symphonic Organ, the first of this type of instrument in England, and arguably anywhere in Europe. It will be a substantial instrument with four manuals together with pedals and a substantial range of additional features, many of which will be introduced to this part of the world for the first time. Currently, it is anticipated that this will be installed in a new gallery that will be constructed in the north transept, leaving the former west gallery empty, but with the window behind the organ and the lancet behind Speechly's bass pipes exposed properly for the first time in many years. It is expected that the new organ will substantially increase interest in the musical life of the Church, providing opportunities for recitals, concerts and recordings, as well as contributing considerably to the church's liturgy.

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Website by Joseph Dudley