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pulling out all the stops

Thursday, 15 March 2012

While organ music has become part of the rich fabric of masonic meetings around the country, Naunton Liles wonders whether lodges should seek to preserve these historic but expensive instruments

Look at any masonic music books in use today and you’ll find that the music you sing in your lodge would be familiar to your grandfather and those before him. Many lodges have a reluctant organist who has been persuaded to play a little and is unlikely to introduce fresh ideas while the senior grandees keep reminding everyone ‘that’s not how we used to do it’. So we sing music that is well known and well proven – we all enjoy singing familiar tunes.

Outside Freemasonry, the organ has been constrained in its development by cost. No church council or town hall likes spending money on organs when other priorities seem more worthy. It is the same within Freemasonry. If a masonic hall committee has to choose between a stairlift and a new organ, mandatory legislation and similar pressures push the organ aside.

So why do we continue to have music in masonic ceremonies? Most people agree music enhances the occasion and a private lodge meeting without music can be a bit dull. Our annual assemblies of Grand Lodge and of Provincial Grand Lodge and in all masonic orders need to be occasions of great dignity and splendour, and to give pleasure to those present.

Usually a venue is chosen with an organ suitable for playing processional music, fanfares for the high spots and background music to maintain a suitable atmosphere. For our big showcase events in London, the Grand Temples at Freemasons’ Hall and Mark Masons Hall are best. The history and costs of the instruments found in these buildings demonstrate two very different approaches to organ music.

In 1933, organ builder Henry Willis & Sons was commissioned to construct an instrument fitting for the new art deco building in Covent Garden. It was agreed the instrument would be heard but not seen, so it was placed behind grills. This concentrates the sound at one end and when accompanying 1,500 people, it can be a bit deafening for those occupying the tiered seats in the east of the temple. Another feature was to conceal the console so the organist was not higher than the Grand Master. There is many a non-conformist chapel where the organ occupies a prominent place and a flamboyant organist can outshine the preacher. Not so in Freemasonry.

The downside at the Grand Temple in Freemasons’ Hall is that the organist has no line of sight. Forty years later, CCTV was installed, with one camera and one screen. The organists could then see the assembled brethren, but not much of the west door where processions enter, so you will always see a second organist alongside advising the player what is going on. The 1970s equipment has been replaced by a flatscreen colour monitor, but still there is only one camera. By contrast, cathedrals have a split-screen system whereby the organist can see four views as the ceremony unfolds – but this costs money.

In 1933, organ builders were much exercised by the demands of the cinema, theatre and town hall clients. The thinking of the time was that you could produce a huge sound with fewer pipes by doubling up their use in an ingenious manner. The proposal for Freemasons’ Hall included this kind of scheme and the organ has a lot of sound in a compact space.

digital alternative

We live in a time when many people think any object worthy of its period – Willis’s design is an excellent example of mid-1930s workmanship – should not be altered or improved. Indeed, grant funds usually insist this is so. But few would disagree that a change that enabled the pipework to speak out more clearly, and enabled some additional resources, would be sensible if we are to serve the next generations well.

The Grand Temple is quite different at Mark Masons Hall. A long auditorium that seats four hundred, it has a relatively low ceiling, lots of carpet and a propensity to attract men in heavy suits. The acoustic is dead by comparison with any church. As a Grade II-listed building of great beauty, we are not permitted to alter the appearance by installing a pipe organ. An electronic organ was in use for around twenty-five years and in February this year it was replaced by the very latest digital organ.

Good digital technology has now been with us for a decade or more and a market has emerged far removed from the disco and home organ. It is said you can blindfold the experts in the back of a church, play them a pipe organ and a new digital organ, and they’d be hard-pressed to pick the imposter.

The process of acquiring a new organ for Mark Masons Hall was lengthy. Many orders, Provinces, lodges and individual brethren gave generously to raise the necessary funds. Three leading makers then submitted proposals for a digital organ and the contract was awarded to Wyvern, which builds its organs in the UK using mainly British components.

Digital organs now use a sampling technique. For this they record each individual note from the pipework of an organ of merit. During installation and commissioning much time was spent at night, when the surroundings were quiet, to voice each stop. It is this that makes the organ so much better than a standard one. Care was also taken to position the speakers to best effect.

Not every masonic temple can afford a custom-built organ and the story so far has described those used for important Grand Lodge ceremonies. Back at home, you may find a more modest instrument, but even these can be entirely suitable for our purposes. So, should we preserve and repair the old pipe organ or buy an electronic one? My guess is there are but a dozen pipe organs in masonic premises that are worth the cost of rebuilding, especially now that such good results can be achieved with digital equipment.

Within Freemasonry there is a shortage of funds, so it is prudent to go for the best sound per pound, and there is a compelling argument in favour of digital instruments for masonic purposes.

Independent advice is available at no cost from Naunton Liles at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

blow by blow: HISTORY OF THE PIPES

The origins of the organ can be traced back to the third century BC, when an octave of pipes was first strung together and attached to some fireside bellows. However, it took until the twelfth century AD to refine the organ into something workable that would become the ‘must-have’ accessory for every monastery. By the seventeenth century complex instruments were in use that would be broadly familiar to us today. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a religious revival and increased wealth led to the building of new churches. At the same time, Freemasonry expanded rapidly and organs were installed in every temple that was built.

By the end of the century there were many lodges and plenty of organists. Many people had a piano at home and a generation of Freemasons was born who were not bashful about singing. Small pipe organs appeared everywhere and survived because of their relative simplicity, and several masonic temples continue to use them a hundred years later.

Letters to the Editor - FreemasonryToday No.18 - SUMMER 2012


I was interested to read Naunton Liles’ article on the Grand Temple organ and the new one in Mark Masons’ Hall. I am an organist based in the London area and play at both these venues and others. Most of the readers of Freemasonry Today will not know the history of the Grand Temple organ, but Henry Willis was probably the builder of the organ equivalent of a Rolls-Royce. It is of historical significance, as the author says, but would be extremely expensive to restore.


To the great majority of brethren, the difference in the tone of a pipe organ and the modern digital ones would certainly be unnoticeable, and for myself I look forward to being able to use the new one at Mark Masons’ Hall.


Anthony Perch
Fortitude Lodge No. 6503
Kenton, Middlesex


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