News Archive: August 2008
The decision to incorporate a Guildhall into Southampton's new suite of civic buildings was taken in 1934 and the order was placed with Compton for an organ suitable for a whole range of tasks. On the one hand it was required to be of sufficient size and magnitude to accompany the vast civil ceremonies planned and to lend voice beside the top choirs of the day, but on the other hand to have available the most modern refinements of the theatre organ such as pipework and tremulants suitable for the playing of popular and light music as well as the customary tuned and non-tuned percussions. The organ that was devised met these criteria and met them well - indeed John Compton was undoubtedly the ideal builder for the required instrument, having produced many great theatre organs by this time, but also having been responsible for numerous fine church and classical instruments. However the Guildhall organ was not simply a case of bolting a few 'theatre' ranks of pipes to a classical instrument, or vice versa, but was the creation of a stunning and tonally balanced dual purpose organ.
The physical appearance of the instrument in its setting within the Guildhall is fairly minimal. Apart from the two majestic four manual walnut-veneered consoles which control the forty units of pipes, the instrument is totally enclosed above the proscenium arch high up near the auditorium ceiling. The 'classical' console, with its illuminated push button stops, is situated stage left while the 'theatre' console (or 'variety' console as it was originally called) sits stage right. Its stops are arranged in a horseshoe around the manuals, typical of such instruments installed in cinemas and theatres in the 1930s. It is believed that the Southampton Guildhall organ is the only true dual purpose classical and theatre style organ with two distinctly different consoles for the two purposes which share most of the same body of pipes, although some are only accessible from one or other console.
There are 40 units of pipes, amounting to about 50 ranks. The extension principle is carefully applied throughout in order to keep the physical size of the instrument down, as well as the costs of course, but even so there are some 3500 pipes in total. The classical console has about 140 speaking stops and controls all but the tibia rank.
While traditional care was lavished on the manufacture of the pipes, the most modern of technologies was employed in a number of areas: The relay system, which occupies a space the size of the average living room, the 32' Polytone Bourdon which uses valves to add additional resonance chambers to a single pipe, and the Melotone, an early analogue electronic system for generating sound waves. Other notable facets include the two large open 32' stops – the Diaphone and Posaune, the splendid Diapason chorus, the many fine reed stops including a rare Cor Anglais, a fine French horn and high pressure trumpet, and numerous mixtures.
In recent years the organ had largely been taken out of use due to declining condition and had become totally unreliable, due to a lack of maintenance and infrequent playing. The management decided in 2007 to have it restored and whilst not able to fund a full refurbishment, such as complete re-leathering etc., they are committed to having the organ back on good form and to using and maintaining it. HWS Associates won the contract and since May work has proceeded in returning the Compton to good operational order. The work has involved a great deal of cleaning, adjusting, freeing of moving parts, some rewiring, some re-leathering and general maintenance, together with the refurbishment of both consoles, revival of the Melotone, making tremulants more 'theatrical', tuning throughout and generally getting all aspects of the organ up and running properly.
One of the major issues with the instrument was the pneumatic motors underneath each pipe that open and close the pallet valves to let air into the pipes. These were recovered sometime during the 60s or 70s but instead of using the usual fine pneumatic skiver leather, rubberised cloth was used. Comptons actually did use such cloth on a great many of their projects, although the material they employed was finer than that used to recondition the Guildhall organ 30 years ago. The result is that the cloth has stiffened over the years which has led to pipe valves refusing to open or becoming very sluggish. By the time we undertook our survey of the organ in August 2007 some 20 or more chests-worth of pallet motors were almost completely seized and those ranks simply didn't play. The correct remedy would of course be to releather the entire organ again but funds for this expensive work were not available. We therefore proposed that all affected motors be exercised by hand in order to free them and that the organ was then kept maintained and played as often as possible. The signs so far have been that this procedure has been successful and we expect the motors to last for a few more years yet. Hopefully the management will be able to fund a program of staged releathering over forthcoming years.
Another technical issue concerned the classical console with its 'reverser' system. This console features Compton's luminous stop heads – push once to turn the stop on, push again to turn it off. The stop head lights up to indicate the stop is on and all stops can be controlled via the piston action system. This in itself is a work of genius – an early memory system which memorises the stops selected by depressing the 'setter' and recalls them at the touch of a thumb or toe piston. The stop lights simply change like a Christmas tree and no noise or movement occurs at all. This system together with the associated reversers was rather dirty and out of adjustment with the result that stops or pistons often failed to work. All these mechanisms have now been cleaned and adjusted so that all stops work properly.
The beautiful wood-finished consoles have also been refurbished, and whilst not completely stripped and reveneered which would be desirable, they now look considerably better than they did. One of the main problems for the Guildhall organ is that the venue is also used for rock and pop concerts. Large PA and lighting stacks are rigged very close to the consoles which hitherto have been totally unprotected. I am please however to report that a part of these works includes very strong lids and padded vinyl sides for each console. This should protect them well.
A full and detailed tuning is currently underway, with a retune planned for late September or early October. With each rank that is bought back to life and tune the organ progressively takes on the stature of the formidable instrument it once was. It has enormous power when needed but also a multitude of delicate and subtle sounds, many of which have been unheard for years.
A special re-opening concert will be held on Sunday 19th October at 3.30pm with international star Carlo Curley and top theatre organist Richard Hills, plus other guests. This will be the first time in many years that the instrument will be shown to its full potential and is a concert not to be missed!
Tickets are £12.50 & £10.00 (with concessions) and are available from the Guildhall box office (02380 632601) or website www.guildhall-compton.org.uk
For further information visit a new website dedicated to the organ at:www.guildhall-compton.org.uk
This open day is a part of the appeal to raise money to pay for the restoration of this beautiful instrument, which relies heavily upon donations.
The RCO St Giles Summer Course for Organists ran from August 4th to August 9th, and was hosted by three organisations: The Royal College of Organists; St Giles International Organ School; and Oundle for Organists. The week-long event featured a mix of master classes, informal learning groups, concerts, workshops, visits and daily services – 89 separate group events in all, plus individual lessons and daily access to practice organs. By providing seven study levels, the event was aimed at a wide range of organists, whether amateur or professional; beginner or advanced; parish organist or recitalist. The event reached its conclusion on Saturday 9th August at St Giles Cripplegate Church, with some of the advanced students playing in the daily service and the final student concert, before the distribution of reports and certificates.
Gerben Mourik studied organ with Ben van Oosten and improvisation with Ansgar Wallenhorst and Naji Hakim. He won the National Improvisation Competition in Zwolle in 2003 and was a finalist at the International Improvisation Competition in Haarlem in 2004. In 2005 he won the Improvisation Competition in St Albans (UK). He is organist in Oudewater and performs regularly as both soloist and accompanist. Amongst the ten participants of the competition this year five Dutch candidates participated. In the past years interest for organ improvisations in the Netherlands appeared to be diminishing, but the high level of current contestants and the winner proves otherwise - a new generation of organ improvisers is on its way!
Dr. Williams is represented by PVA Management in the UK and Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists in the USA.