Not just organ cases but a case for organs
Historic organs are sometimes placed at risk because relatively few architects or conservation professionals have the specialist knowledge to assess their value.
Victorian additions to medieval churches? Absolutely not. The organ goes back to classical antiquity in its invention. Research indicates that there were several thousand organs in pre-Reformation English churches. Thanks to the iconoclasts, almost nothing remains, nor did much survive the depredations of Cromwell’s troops. This makes the historic organs that we do have particularly valuable, even though they may be younger than the buildings in which they stand.
Historic organs are sometimes placed at risk because relatively few architects or conservation professionals have the specialist knowledge to assess their value. Encouraged by the DCMS, the British Institute of Organ Studies (BIOS) has instituted a graded Historic Organ Certificate scheme. Although the listings are publicly available on the internet, it will be some time before all the important historic instruments are covered. The BIOS is the amenity society for organs, with the objectives of promoting scholarly research into the history of the organ, conserving sources and materials, and working for the preservation of historic organs.
Old organs, like old buildings, are often not homogenous, so their historic value may lie in particular features. Sometimes the visible case is older than the contents. Historic value may also subsist in mechanical or musical features. On one recent occasion an organ with historic musical features was destroyed, unrecognised, because it was housed in an undistinguished modern case. There is much more to an organ than just the visible case.
The sorts of issues that must be addressed to assess the historic significance of an organ are: Date Any organ or part of an organ which is pre-1800 has major historic value, as have many but not all organs from the 19th century. As in architecture, one has to be progressively more selective with instruments of the 20th century, although values will change with time.
Organbuilder What is the significance of his work, musically, mechanically and architecturally? Musical quality Organs by the leading 19th-century organbuilders (of whom the best known are Henry Willis and William Hill) are of particular importance if not seriously altered, especially if their original pitch and tuning method survive. Many instruments by lesser builders may also be important in their particular context.
Rarity How many surviving organs by a particular organbuilder exist?
Completeness Unaltered examples of a maker’s work are especially important. Innovation Is the instrument an early or a significant
St Lawrence Whitchurch, Little Stanmore, Middlesex. Gerard Smith, 1717. The restoration of the case was grant-aided by English Heritage. (Photo: Goetze and Gwynn/Malcolm Crowthers)
St John the Baptist, Thaxted, Essex. Henry Lincoln, 1821. The instrument is virtually unaltered. (Photo: John Norman)
CONTEXT 105 : JULY 2008
Left: St Bartholomew, Armley, Leeds. Edmund Schulze/Walker and Athron, 1879. The restoration was grant-aided by English Heritage. (Photo: John Norman)
Right St George’s Hall,
Liverpool. Henry Willis/
CR Cockerell, 1855. This
instrument is not protected
by the ecclesiastical
exemption. (Photo: John
St Peter-le-Moors, Bolton.
Thomas Hill, 1882. Note
the Victorian stencilled
pipe decoration. (Photo:
John Norman)
Some of the components of an organ which may have particular historic value are:
Console The console gets more physical wear than any other part of the instrument, so few survive from before 1860. Those that do are correspondingly important. Most consoles have real ivory stop-knobs and key surfaces which should be preserved. The fitting of electrical accessories and associated wiring should be discouraged, as should playing controls of anachronistic design.
Soundboards The so-called soundboards of an organ are actually boxes that contain the valves controlling the wind supply to each pipe. As the compass of English organs changed after 1840, pre-1840 soundboards are particularly rare. Modern heating can lead to low winter humidity which causes old soundboards to split.
Pipes Even distinguished architects have sometimes failed to realise that there are many more pipes than those visible in the case. A modest instrument may well have over a thousand pipes. Interior pipes do not easily corrode, so historic pipes often turn up inside much later instruments. Few pipes are unrepairable even if seriously damaged. Late 19th century innovations have given some pipes of this period a special importance. Relocation If an historic organ is in a redundant building or at risk in its present location, it is essential to find a new home before dismantling. No one will buy an organ that cannot be seen and heard. Second-hand organs are usually advertised on the IBO website (
Basic information on
individual instruments is
available on the National
Pipe Organ Register Accredited
professional advisers
can be contacted via the
Association of Independent
Organ Advisers (www.
John Norman is chairman
of the British Institute of
Organ Studies.
example of a particular style, whether musically, in
mechanism or in case design?
Case Perhaps the easiest feature to assess, given
awareness of historical styles. Almost any case before
1850 is of historic value.
Acoustics Organs are initially voiced for a specific
acoustic environment. Changes in location within the
building, or in building acoustics (by carpeting, for
example) may have a detrimental effect on the sound
of the instrument.
CONTEXT 105 : JULY 2008