Between September and December (2019) there took place…
·· a flurry of correspondence about details of the organ design;
·· visits by the Director of Music and project consultant to Manders’ works, to Manders’ latest work at King’s College, London, and to a specialist organ parts firm in Suffolk to talk about organ keyboards;
·· some in-depth discussions by the organ committee and District Church Council leading to approval for additional expenditure and an addendum to the organ builder’s contract;
·· a visit to the Abbey by our architect and a structural engineer, to confirm that the front of the gallery will support the new and heavier front.
The first of the nice surprises was the organ builders’ realisation, after mapping out the new organ layout in detail, that there would after all be space in the gallery for a dozen large pipes which, by extension of the existing Pedal Trombone rank, would form a 32’ Contra Trombone stop. This had been a desired feature of the project but long discounted as unachievable within the available space. Manders’ Tonal Director Michael Blighton has pointed out that our organ will be the first and only one in Essex to have pipes sounding in the bottom octave of the 32’ range, corresponding to the lowest three notes on a piano and another nine below that. (The few existing instruments in the county that do have these notes produce them electronically.) With the addition of this new stop, the number of speaking stops on the rebuilt organ is rounded up to 50.
Michael Blighton also made a splendid discovery during inspection of the (existing) pipes. The 4’ flute stop on the choir division is an extremely lovely Chimney Flute, which Waltham Abbey tradition holds to be the work of George Pike England (1765-1815) but which, though clearly older than the rest of the organ, does not appear to the expert eye quite like (or quite old enough to be) what it supposedly is. What Michael spotted was the wording “Exeter Hall” stamped on one of the pipes. The most likely explanation seems to be that these pipes formed the equivalent stop on the 1840 Exeter Hall organ by Joseph Walker, founding father of the Walker firm who had been apprenticed to G. P. England and who is known to have carried on making old-fashioned Chimney Flutes. When in 1885 the firm put a new organ into Exeter Hall, they might well have had first refusal on the materials of the old one. Exeter Hall stood in the Strand in London, and was the venue of the first performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1848, at which the organ would surely have been used. (Also present at that performance was the young William Hayman Cummings, a future organist of Waltham Abbey who would also conceive the pairing of the ‘big tune’ from Mendelssohn’s Festgesang with the Wesley text Hark! the herald-angels sing.)
More on the technical side
The purpose of the visit to Manders’ extremely fine work at King’s College, London (also on the Strand) was to use their latest work as a starting point for discussions of certain tonal details of the Abbey organ. The outcome of these discussions is detailed in the footnotes to the New Specification page of this blog.
The increased number of stops and the desire to increase the provision of ‘pistons’ (the white buttons between the keyboards and the brass toe studs, by which the player can manipulate stops whilst playing) presented a challenge to the designer in simply fitting everything in! However, following several drafts and re-drafts, discussions between designers, organist and consultant, multiple mock-ups using paper cut-outs and Blu-Tack, and the realisation that some conventions of organ console design don’t matter all that much, we have a design which we feel is logical and practical. Particular care has been taken to avoid hazardous piston placings, such as placing of piston X in a ‘conveniently accessible’ location where it will be mistaken for piston Y that normally goes there, or placing pairs of pistons A and B such that it is too easy to hit the wrong one.
Gallery strength calculations
Mercifully, the architect and engineer pronounced the gallery fit to support the new organ design with larger and heavier pipes in the front than hitherto.
Keyboards & buttons
The final organ-related activity of the year was a visit by Jonathan Lilley to Pennells & Sharp Organ Supplies in rural Suffolk, the original manufacturers of the organ keyboards to whom these had been sent back for refurbishment combined with a certain amount of rebuilding to accommodate the new piston layout. The purpose of the trip was to address some reservations that Jonathan had about the weight and feel of the keys under the fingers. But it was a short and sweet visit, because it quickly became apparent that when refurbished and set up as per the manufacturer’s recommendation, there’s nothing wrong with them! However it was also an interesting visit, to see how the new stop and pistons for the Abbey were engraved with print that matches the existing material perfectly, and to learn that P & S turn their hands to all sorts of crafts, from salt and pepper mills to soundproof doors for the Royal College of Music.