|In 2002 we celebrated a notable anniversary of the completion of Henry ("Father") Willis's instrument - the basis of the present organ - surely a good enough reason to recall some detail of events 125 years ago. Of course, there is some way to go before this organ can rival the longevity of the instrument it replaced, for the Father Smith organ on the screen was completed in 1686, and disposed of from its final ignominy on the floor (on the north side where Bishop Lightfoot's tomb is today) in 1873, when the quire of the cathedral was closed off for two years for Sir George Gilbert Scott's building refurbishment.|
In the course of the work Scott advised the Chapter on the "best position" for a new organ, "in the second bay…within the arches to North and South" behind the choir stalls. A former Precentor [until 1862], Revd.Dr.J.B.Dykes, and the Cathedral Organist, Dr.Philip Armes were then consulted as to the choice of an organ builder. Willis visited "to take measurements" early in June 1874, and his Specification and Plan were approved by Chapter a mere five weeks later. Willis later claimed in a letter that the terms of his Contract (£1000 at 12 months - paid in August 1875, the same when the organ was erected and completed at Durham - paid in January 1877 before the organ was fully finished, and the balance 12 months after - actually paid in summer 1877) were "oppressive", having been agreed to by himself "out of reverence…in order to enable the Dean & Chapter to purchase this fine organ" ! The contemporary Willis records are lost, but the total cost of the Durham organ is given in another source as £3150, and we know that the Chapter sold stock to the value of £3000 to meet the costs of Cathedral improvements including the organ. It is interesting, by way of comparison, to learn that the Organist's annual salary at the time was £300, and Dean Lake's at least £3000 (the amount designated in the Cathedrals Act 1840).
The organ was available for use in part from the Quire re-opening ceremony on St.Luke's Day 1876, though final completion was not achieved until early 1877. Much of the lengthy report in the Durham Advertiser newspaper of 20th October 1876 appears to have been based on what would now be called a press release:
"....lastly and by no means least, a magnificent organ....The organ, which is entirely new and has been built by Mr.H.Willis of London is placed under the second arches on both sides of the choir, the two halves being connected by a tunnel under the floor. The two cases are of richly carved oak [by Mr.J.Roddis of Birmingham], each forming a cove arching over the canopies of the stalls and carried below on oak piers and arches. Above and around those projecting coves are very richly and beautifully carved cornices, the design being composed of intersecting foliage, with birds and grotesque animals in the different openings of the twining branches. On these cornices stand the front pipes of the organ, magnificent tubes of metal of great size, all richly decorated [by Messrs Clayton & Bell of London] in black and red on a gold ground, while the larger pipes have angels on them, represented as playing different instruments. These pipes are held in position by a band of ornamental ironwork. The cases - at present plain - will afterwards be decorated in keeping with the pipes. The organ is a magnificent instrument…The fact that only a small proportion of the organ has been placed accounted for the comparatively feeble volume of sound which it sent forth; and the description of the organ which has been given must be accepted as what it will be and not what it is at present."
|T.H.Collinson, an apprentice to the organist, recollected the opening of the Willis organ in later life (when he was organist at St.Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh) in an article: "Great was the joy and excitement in Cathedral circles when the new Willis organ of 1876 was on its way. As usual it was late - only six months! - and on the grand reopening day of the Cathedral…Father Willis had supplied nine stops on the Great organ and a Great to Pedal coupler with no Pedal pipes. He screwed on the nine knobs ten minutes before the first choral service. These stops, without reeds or Mixtures, were so magnificent, and Dr.Armes's use of them so masterly - that a series of some six festival services with a union of Cathedral choirs singing elaborate music, was in the highest degree efficient."|
|Nevertheless Armes seems to have aired some doubts about
the organ in its unfinished state, and Willis had to
reassure him: "Do not be anxious there is nothing to
fear. It will all come out beautifully. I hope
you have not been alarming the good people of Durham by
anticipating failure. That is a word we never hear or
understand. I have been using all the means in my power to
quite finish your organ before the end of the year…I have
completely built the organ but have not been able to get
it all in action. The great bulk however is there
and its foundation of tone you have heard… The men
return…tomorrow night. I wish to do the whole work
myself but I cannot get done to finish till Monday 5th
Jan. [but you have] my assurance that by the end of the
2nd week in Jan. all shall be absolutely complete and
When exactly it was fully finished we are left to speculate, but already by April, the Organist was complaining about inadequate winding, the hydraulic blowers receiving insufficient water to function properly.
Of 55 speaking stops on five divisions - the new organ was thoroughly up-to-date, a first class creation of a singularly successful Victorian organ-builder. It is uncertain whether the stopnames below, from Hopkins & Rimbault (3rd Edition: 1877), are the exact original nomenclature.
The wind pressures given are those of the contemporary Salisbury Cathedral organ.
Pedal (c to f1, 30 notes: south and north sides) Flues: 2", 2 1/2", 33/4", 4" Reeds: 9", 12" 1. Open Diapason 32 wood 2. Open Diapason 16 wood 3. Open Diapason 16 metal [north side case pipes] 4. Violon 16 metal [north side case pipes] 5. Bourdon 16 wood 6. Octave 8 metal 7. Flute 8 wood 8. Mixture IV metal 12:15:19:22? 9. Posaune 16 metal 10. Cornopean 8 metal Great (C to a3, 58 notes [south side]) Flues: 31/2", 37/8" Reeds: 8" 11. Open Diapason 16 metal [case pipes] 12. Open Diapason 8 metal large 13. Open Diapason 8 metal small 14. Gamba 8 metal 15. Stopped Diapason 8 wood 16. Claribel Flute 8 wood; 24 bass notes grooved to No.15 17. Octave 4 metal 18. Harmonic Flute 4 metal 19. Twelfth 22/3 metal 20. Fifteenth 2 metal 21. Piccolo 2 wood 22. Mixture IV metal 15:17:19:22 23. Double Trumpet 16 metal 24. Cornopean 8 metal 25. Clarion 4 metal Swell (C to a3, 58 notes: enclosed: north side) 41/2" throughout 26. Double Diapason 16 metal+wood 27. Open Diapason 8 metal 28. Open Diapason 8 metal small 29. Lieblich Gedact 8 wood 30. Viol d'Amour 8 metal 31. Octave 4 metal 32. Harmonic Flute 4 metal 33. Fifteenth 2 metal 34. Piccolo 2 wood 35. Mixture V metal 12:15:17:19:22 36. Contra Fagotto 16 metal 37. Trumpet 8 metal 38. Oboe 8 metal 39. Vox Humana 8 metal 40. Clarion 4 metal Choir (C to a3, 58 notes: unenclosed: north side) 27/8" throughout 41. Lieblich Gedact 16 metal+wood 42. Lieblich Gedact 8 metal+wood 43. Salicional 8 metal 44. Vox Angelica TC 8 metal 45. Flauto Traverso 8 wood 46. Lieblich Gedact 4 metal 47. Gemshorn 4 metal 48. Flauto Traverso 4 wood 49. Corno di Bassetto 8 metal Solo (C to a3, 58 notes: unenclosed: south side) Flues+ orch.reeds: 4" Tubas: bass 153/8", treble 181/2" 50. Harmonic Flute 8 metal 51. Concert Harmonic Fl. 4 metal 52. Orchestral Oboe 8 metal 53. Corno di Bassetto 8 metal 54. Tuba 8 metal 55. Clarion 4 metal Couplers i) Great to Pedals vi) Swell to Great Octave ii) Swell to Pedals vii) Swell to Great Sub Octave iii) Choir to Pedals viii)Choir to Great iv) Solo to Pedals ix) Solo to Great v) Swell to Great Unison x) Tremulant to Swell 4 composition pedals to Great Reversible Great to Pedals lever 3 composition pedals to Swell Lever Swell Pedal (mechanical link) 3 composition pedals to Pedal Hydraulic blowing (3 engines)
Wind supplied by six large bellows, blown by three hydraulic engines
|Some useful thoughts on how
Willis organ might have sounded were provided in an
essay on the late Stephen Bicknell's website, no longer
available. In "The History of the English Organ" [CUP
1996] however, Bicknell describes the Willis sound as
having "...astonishing boldness and impact", "...with fire
and bravado", of "smooth intensity"; the
Durham organ was noted for "its extreme brilliance,
particularly in the upperwork on the Great". Everything
Willis did created a stir.
The Durham organ was essentially built to the design of a mechanical instrument, including coupling at the console, with the organ in two halves with a tubular pneumatic connection between, first used by Willis at St.Paul's Cathedral in 1872. There is a description of the arrangements used in the exactly contemporary, and in many respects similar - though with sides reversed - Salisbury Cathedral organ [in Rotunda V, 3, 1934/6]:
"[The action] consisted of touch-boxes placed at the base of the [console] side, operated by trackers from the keys, the depression of which opened a pressure-valve and closed an exhaust, so charging a tube of 7/8" diameter with wind at the main pressure of 171/2". These tubes ran under the chancel to the [other] side, where circular membranes were inflated, pulling down and opening the manual pallets by means of long trackers...The Pedal mechanism was on similar lines, generally speaking...but the pneumatic tubes ran direct to the chests."This relatively simple arrangement was able to be improved upon in later installations by use of Vincent Willis's lever system (Patent No.15,182 of 1889). It seems from comments in a letter from Dr.Armes, the Cathedral Organist, to the Dean & Chapter in 1898 that Willis would have liked to up-date the out-moded membrane blocks at Durham.
These aspects of the organ's design and construction, particularly the crude pneumatic actions, integrating separate elements across the Quire, and the hydraulic blowing arrangements, tested the limits of the technology of the time, and were to be the first parts to falter. Gas engines soon replaced the water engines, but then fumes corroded parts of the action and pipes, such that a major overhaul was required by 1903, which is a story for another occasion. Prepare to celebrate the centenary of Harrison & Harrison's first rebuilding of the organ, re-opened in July 1905.
A brief history of the Cathedral organs
Father Willis webpage
This information was placed by Richard Hird, who is co-author with James Lancelot, the Cathedral Organist, of the definitive booklet about the Cathedral organs (available from the Cathedral Bookshop), and is recognised inter alia for his researches into and knowledge of Durham organs past and present. Locally he is Organs Adviser to the Diocese of Durham, and nationally has advised on Heritage Lottery Funding for historic organs, is a member of the Organs Committee of the Council for the Care of Churches, and a Council member and Treasurer of the British Institute of Organ Studies <http://www.bios.org.uk>.
Return to Durham Cathedral organs history page.