A talk by Ian Bell on the recent refurbishment of the Grand Temple's organ

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Regular Convocation

10 November 2014
A talk by Ian Bell, Professional Organ Adviser, the Association of Independent Organ Advisers

Most Excellent Pro First Grand Principal and companions, good morning.

My name is Ian Bell, and I have been privileged to act as consultant to the great work that has been going on, and is nearing completion, in the restoration and enhancement of the Grand Temple organ.

This organ was built in 1933, installed as part of the fitting out of this wonderful room, and – unusually for an organ – is specifically mentioned in its official listing by English Heritage. It was made by the firm of Henry Willis and Sons and is, by a margin, the largest of three pipe organs that the Willis company installed in rooms in this building.

The Willis family did rather fancy themselves, successive generations – each called Henry – giving themselves regnal numbering, after the manner of royalty. It was Henry Willis the third that was involved here, and though still quite a young man he was well-qualified for the job. He came here hot-foot from having overseen the installation of the new Willis organ in Westminster Cathedral, and immediately before that, the largest organ in the country, both then and now, at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. 

The organist at Liverpool was one Reginald Goss Custard – I have no idea whether, like Mr Farage, he took upon himself the affectation of adjusting his vowels to become Custaard – but we do know that at the time he carried the title of Grand Organist of England, and as such not only presided over the organ at the opening ceremonies of the Grand Temple in July 1933, but had also been responsible for approving the designs that Willis had put forward.

For the best part of a century, the Willis name had been at the forefront of English organ building.

The founder of the Willis firm, the first Henry Willis, who was later respectfully known as Father Willis, had played a major role in the process whereby, during the latter half of the 19th century, organs – and consequently the self-esteem of those who played them – grew exponentially in size, and in complexity. 

Willis had hit the headlines with the largest and most ambitious of several organs that were on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, in Hyde Park.  This led directly to a very large contract for a new organ in the magnificent St George’s Hall, in Liverpool; and then in 1871, went on to build what was then the largest organ in the world, for the newly constructed Royal Albert Hall, for the splendid sum of £8,000 – not including engines. The engines in question were steam engines required to pump air into the main bellows – needing an organist to give a day’s notice whenever he might want to play the thing – and they were an indicator of the point to which the scale of these organs had grown, over the course of a mere twenty or thirty years.  

These enormous instruments were now not only too large for the bellows to be pumped by hand, but also much too hard work for the organists to be able to push the keys down by finger power alone. Various ways were devised to provide servo-assistance, as it were – first employing pneumatic means, using wind-pressure; and soon, as the 19th century drew to a close, using low-voltage electricity and batteries.

The die was now cast – no longer limited by the wind-pressure that human muscle-power, lubricated by copious amounts of beer, could generate, organs could now be as loud and as large as funds and space allowed, distributed on multiple sites around a building, connected simply by electric cables, and with the organist detached on the end of another cable, at a suitably safe distance from the considerable noise that he was now able to make. 

The only limiting factor was now that of good taste – something which, in my experience, can no more be relied upon with organists than it can with organ builders.

One further spin-off in all of this remote control of organs, and one which especially appealed to architects, who generally make it very clear that they have a deep distaste of organs as being an intrusion in their otherwise fine buildings, was that they no longer needed be actually on view in the space where they were meant to be heard, but could be tucked away in odd and forgotten corners, often behind a grille – or even completely invisible above the ceiling, or hidden under the stage as usually became the case in the cinema. Simply blow the pipes harder and they would still be heard, and all would be well, went the theory.

The installation of this organ fell right into that period. It is packed in very tightly, and when it is all assembled, the impression  to someone standing very uncomfortably inside is that the brief to Mr Willis must have been something like ‘Here are two odd left-over spaces – pack as much organ into them as you can.’  As with all of this building money did not seem to have been in short supply, but– for the organ – space certainly was. 

Although it was at least given the concession of visible pipes, and pipes which actually work and announce ‘See – this room has an organ’, they were as usual only a fraction of the entire picture – just 60-odd pipes out of the total of 2,200 that the organ contains. Most of those were pushed very much into the background, packed into two very crowded spaces, each triangular in floor area and tapering from the widest end next to the balconies, down to virtually nothing at the eastern end where the opening into the Temple actually is. So although the pipes are shouting very loudly in there, they are shouting in the wrong direction away from the listeners and their output is being squeezed down until the point where, like toothpaste from a tube, it can eventually escape sideways into the room. To the organist against the far wall, and indeed to the great and good privileged to qualify for seats on the dais underneath it, it is clear that the organ is bellowing at the top of its voice. To those out in the body of the Temple it becomes instead a somewhat muted roar.

To add to the difficulties, the acoustics were extensively treated with absorbent material, so as to minimise reverberation, and clarify speech. This was the absolute opposite of the organ builder’s ideal dream of the sound of the pipes speaking without restriction or obstruction, into a flattering and reverberant cathedral acoustic, however inappropriate such an acoustic might have been here.  Henry Willis’s very evident pride, as a freemason himself, at being offered the chance to make his mark here, in the heart of the Peace Memorial Building, was therefore unavoidably tempered by the hazards thrown into his path. Writing in his house magazine in September 1933 he says:

'I was clearly given to understand from the very start that the acoustical properties of the Temple would be such that the requirements of speech would be considered first, last, and all of the time; and that it would not be possible to modify this requirement to suit the needs of the organ in any way.  It was under these onerous conditions of restricted space and an almost non-existent reverberation period that I had to make my plans.'

One can sense a heavy heart going about the making of those plans.  But whatever his misgivings Willis succeeded in very largely overcoming, or at any rate minimising, the difficulties with which he was faced. By the end of the same article he cannot resist quoting a letter of congratulation from Mr Goss Custard:–

'Everyone is more than delighted with the Temple organ and I must say that personally I consider it one of the most beautiful that you have ever made. Considering the difficulties that you have had to overcome with the site, the effect is nothing short of marvellous.'

A happy client – what we all wish for.... 

And, not unusually it has to be admitted, Willis felt moved to pat himself on the back too:–

'If I may say so, a noble organ in a noble edifice. Only the best has been good enough for the Masonic Peace Memorial in every part of its structure and furnishing. The Temple organ is worthy, in every way, of its superb setting.'

What he did not then know was that this was to be the last completely new instrument on such a scale that he was to oversee, and that his firm was to build. The 1930s were tough for everyone, and when times were hard, organs would not be at the top of anyone’s priorities. His competitors got by on the brief but vigorous vogue for the theatre organ, to go with the frenzy of cinema building, but Willis declined to lower himself to that, and saw his order book dwindle drastically, up until the point that war arrived, and with it the turning over of the factory to supplying very different materials, for a very different cause. 

After the war the period of patching and repairing of damage kept people busy for a while, but by the time things settled down Willis found that the market had moved on, and that major work – when it picked up – was going elsewhere. This was partly a shift in organ building fashion to which, in his autocratic way he had refused to bend; and partly, simply, that same autocratic attitude that he could not, or would not, shake off. Clients were no longer happy to be told 'You may think that you know what you want, but if you want an organ from us you will have what we are prepared to give you.'

Willis III died in 1963 a disappointed and, one suspects, rather bitter man, and his son, inevitably Willis IV, was what one might pigeon-hole as something of a Boris Johnson of organ building – a self-designed larger-than-life eccentric, to whom there was certainly more than met the eye – but with whom what met the eye could sometimes appear as a bit of a buffoon, which the staid world of churches and cathedrals rarely found reassuring.  

Henry IV did father a Henry V, who never inherited the crown. Henry IV himself retired to India where I am recently told that in his mid-80s he spends his time pottering with the organ of the local lodge.  The Willis firm continues in name under new management.

So for the organ historian, what Willis III provided here as his last major creation has extra significance above and beyond its characterful qualities as a musical instrument, and as a sophisticated piece of machinery.  

And sophisticated it was.

In the mid-1920s Willis had visited America for two or three extended trips. He spoke of these, both in public and in private correspondence, as rather being his generously sharing his special insight into organ building with the lesser mortals of our former colonies. The spin-off for him, less openly talked about, was his coming home armed with a number of designs for up-to-date mechanisms developed by the Americans, and with the generous granting of permission to use them. 

Because, as the 20th century dawned, the miracle of central heating slowly became less of a rarity here, and radiators began to find their way even into churches. The design of the central aspect of organ mechanisms, the soundboards on which all the pipes sit, had not been changed since the 15th or 16th century – there had been no need to – but it now turned out that organs and efficient heating were very uncomfortable bedfellows. Things stuck fast when they should be free; pipes whistled when they should be silent, or refused to speak when asked.  For the Americans, whose grandest churches and public buildings were made well into the time when heating was taken for granted, these problems had already been very successfully addressed.

So Willis returned with technical drawings of mechanisms guaranteed to withstand the extremes of heating found in our climate – itself much less rigorous than the extremes found in the USA – and thereafter his organs in modern buildings, such as this one, became problem-free. His soundboards ensured that the required pipes would deliver the anticipated sounds only when they should, and right around the year, decade after decade.  Needless to say, typically, this never caught on with the stubborn majority of his suspicious British competitors, who rightly found this foreign new kit extremely costly and complicated to make, and wrongly assumed that this would also make it tricky to keep in good order. 

Whereas in truth, like the Duracell bunny, once set up on its legs it just keeps on going – in this instance for 80 years, at the end of which it was becoming worn but still doing pretty well, and it was the low-voltage switchgear connecting all the bits together and operating the console gadgetry – the 12-volt model railway stuff, if you like – that forgivably was starting to show its age. With an impeccable sense of good housekeeping, your masters and mine decided that it was better to pre-empt the time when the slow deterioration began to become more obvious to those out in the room, and to address the question of complete and meticulous restoration.

This work is being undertaken by the largest present-day firm of British organ builders, Harrison & Harrison of Durham, a highly-respected team who have their nameplate on a long list of prestigious instruments including in the London area Westminster Abbey, the Royal Festival Hall, Westminster Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral, the Temple Church and many more.

The entire organ apart from a handful of the largest pipes and the decorative casework, was in January of this year dismantled for the first time since 1933, and taken away to Durham for a comprehensive programme of attention to all of its diverse components.

The sound of an organ is obviously central to its purpose, and depends upon its pipes. Fortunately the pipes here generally remained in pretty good order, though the soft metal of which they are made – predominantly lead –is susceptible to slowly subsiding under its own weight, and to need coaxing back into shape – which was needed to a certain degree here.

But most of the cost, and the estimated 14,000 man-hours that the work is likely to have taken at completion, has gone into restoring the mechanism. This does not imply any original failing in its design or manufacture, but it does contain perishable materials – only very slowly perishable, but perishable nevertheless – which intermittently need renewing.

Principal amongst these here is leather, specifically sheepskin of a type known as splitskin, because having been removed from the sheep it is carefully split in its thickness to form very thin, supple and quite delicate leather similar to that used for bookbinding or making ladies’ gloves – sadly in themselves an endangered item. This will be found in some quantity in most organs of this period, and this particular ingenious mechanism uses a great deal, of only the finest quality. A whole flock of top-quality sheep will have been turned into lamb chops, legs and shoulders to supply the need for the thousands of individual leather components here, and their sacrifice has not been without value, since their skins have lasted remarkably well – as indeed we can confidently expect the replacement leather to do. Incidentally sporadic efforts to find a synthetic replacement for this purpose have failed, sometimes disastrously, and been set aside. 

All of this must now be restored, each of the 2,220 pipes requiring its own, individually sized and shaped mechanism. The bellows or reservoirs which store and regulate the numerous different wind-pressures on which the pipes speak, similarly use sheepskin which again has lasted well, but will also now be replaced by fresh, new leather. 

Though the sound itself is entirely generated by organ pipes, in time-honoured fashion, the linkage between the organ console and the pipes, and the complex mechanism within the console itself, all operates on low-voltage electricity and incorporates many hundreds of delicate electro-magnets which must operate instantly when electric contacts attached to the three keyboards, the pedal keys, and all of the stops, are activated. Over time, the iron armatures of these electro-magnets gradually themselves become permanently magnetised – what is called residual magnetism – and so all of these will be replaced, as will the 1933 cabling connecting it all together, cables containing hundreds of strands, each of which remains insulated by cotton, soaked in paraffin wax. It sounds fairly combustible doesn’t it? Does it catch light? – very rarely. Do we want to take that risk? Emphatically not. 

So whilst outwardly the 1933 organ and its console will remain entirely unaltered, all of this electrical equipment has been discreetly modernised, as have the switching and control systems that direct the organist’s commands to this or that section of the organ. And as a spin-off, this will allow the organ to play all on its own at the touch of a button, to add a little something extra to guided tours, or more usefully allow players to record their intentions, and then walk down into the building and hear in advance the real effect of what they are planning to inflict upon the assembled gatherings.

In all of this we were conscious on the one hand of our conservationist obligations, and on the other of the need to try and do something to overcome the indirectness and woolliness of sound that had frustrated Mr Willis, and more recently had also been a matter of concern to the organ committee of distinguished Masonic organists, presided over by Charles Grace whose diplomacy, patience and seemingly tireless energy has steered this project so admirably, and to whom I personally am hugely grateful for his guiding me through just enough of the mysteries of freemasonry as I needed to know in order to understand the uses of what we were discussing, and to be able to work in this place without undue surprises.

One answer, which had already been considered when I became involved here, was that of adding a small but bold new chorus of pipes, positioned centrally against the east wall where it would speak clearly along the main axis of the building, thereby allowing us to leave the Willis organ sounding and performing exactly as when built, but with this supercharger in reserve. This would mean altering the appearance of the building and I was not sure whether this would be acceptable first to the powers-that-be here, and then to English Heritage and the local authority. 

After a lifetime of working with the various manifestations of the church, where everyone these days avoids making any decisions at all for fear of upsetting somebody, it was hugely refreshing here to find that not only did people have firm views, but they had no hesitation in backing them up with actions. That the major work which has taken place should be marked by a clear and visible alteration was seen as not only acceptable, but desirable. Recognising that such a change should, and would, be done in such a fashion as to appear as if it had always been here, English Heritage were equally accommodating.  So we had a plan. The organ will retain all of its imperial grandeur, but gain in clarity when accompanying and encouraging the building full of people; and for occasional, and one hopes tasteful, use there will be some fiery icing on the cake in the form of a commanding fanfare trumpet.

The new decorative casework – being assembled behind the curtain behind me – will match exactly that of the two original cases, both in its shape and in the style and extent of its carving; and the similarity between the three will be further drawn together by the fact that the decorative finish of real gold leaf which has been renewed on the existing casework and pipes, will be applied also to the new.  For this work we have been very fortunate to secure the talents of an internationally respected specialist in this decorative work, Robert Woodland, who as Excellent Companion Woodland is I believe here today.

Finally a less glamorous but very important aspect has been the equally thorough restoration and rebuilding of the powerful original blowing plant, buried just below the back corner of the dais, and which is now augmented by two compact new electric blowers for the new section – one for the chorus, and a small but muscular one solely for the fiery icing on the cake.

This great project, which has had to be timetabled around the use of the Temple and the installation of the separate engineering work needed to provide discreet but sturdy support for the additions, should be finished by early April. 

All of this technical skill and artistry costs money.  Restoration work on what is essentially industrial archeology is always tricky, extremely labour-intensive, and therefore costly, and with both the obligation and the wish to balance respect for the original work with the sensible updating of the unseen technology, requires considerable time and care. You will probably be aware that in round terms, the cost is expected to finish at about a million pounds, or around £840,000 pounds before the taxman has added his cut. Of this £840,000, just over £400,000 has been spent on the restoration of the original organ and its casework. The organ builders’ work on the new section adds a further £125,000, plus a little over £200,000 for its casework, embellishment and decoration, and the necessary engineering works to hold it invisibly to the wall.

The final slice of £80,000 for sundries includes the hire of the temporary imitation organ, a new CCTV system to allow the organist to see not just what is happening in here but what is approaching in the corridor and vestibule outside, a contingency provision for unknowns, and finally a very modest amount for fees for those of us who are just barnacles clinging to the hull.

I should add that we have no grounds to doubt that the life-expectancy of what has been achieved will be any less than that of the eighty years of the original installation. Divided over that period this present outlay amounts to £10,000 per annum, which is markedly less than many will spend on keeping themselves kitted out with a reasonably decent car.

The philosophy behind the making of this building, with respect both to its long-term purpose and to its immediate dedication to peace and remembering the fallen, whilst looking forward rather than back, was that the main criterion should be that of the best quality, with the cost being an inevitable consequence to be managed, not side-stepped. As an admiring and appreciative visitor, it has been impressive for me to see that approach and responsibility so unhesitatingly upheld in this further work, itself looking forward to serve the future.

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