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The Neoclassical Organ and the Great Aristide Cavaillé-Coll Organ of Saint-Sulpice, Paris

Exeter Cathedral says au revoir to historic pipe organ

21 January 2013

Restoration: Organ of Exeter Cathedral
Restoration: Organ of Exeter CathedralGraeme Kay

Harrison & Harrison of Durham have begun work to restore the 17th-century organ of Exeter Cathedral.

During the period of the Commonwealth (1646-1660), church music was suppressed and many church organs, including the previous instrument in Exeter Cathedral, were vandalized or destroyed. Devon organ builder John Loosemore, whose brothers were appointed to organist posts at King’s College and Trinity College, Cambridge – was put in charge of the organ after the Restoration. He was tasked first of all with repairing the old one – the earliest mention of an organ in Exeter is in the Fabric Roll of 1286 when a payment was made for casing the organ; in 1513 £165. 5s. 7½d was spent on a new organ to be placed on the screen. Loosemore went on to complete the building of a new organ in 1665; it underwent several changes during the next two centuries, but the magnificent case has survived to this day, having been enlarged at the time of a radical rebuild by Henry Willis in 1891.

Harrisons rebuilt the organ and modernised the action in 1931. The organ was renovated in 1965, with some tonal changes, including the addition of a Trompette in the Minstrels' Gallery. The organ was cleaned in 1985 and in 2001, essential work was undertaken on the organ, which consisted of console renovation and localised repairs, together with renewal of the coupler and piston systems, and the addition of four stops; in 2003, a new section of the organ was installed in the Minstrels' Gallery.

The Cathedral's director of music, Andrew Millington, said the restoration was overdue, as all organs needed a complete clean and overhaul every 25 years: 'This intricate and time-consuming operation involves the dismantling of the instrument, including well over 4000 pipes which have to be individually cleaned and repaired where necessary.

'The Exeter organ has evolved over the centuries, and the original case now houses about four times the number of pipes than it did in the 17th century. The interior of the organ is extremely cramped, and some sections are virtually inaccessible for maintenance. The inside layout of the organ is to be completely re-designed with new soundboards and a better projection of sound into the building. Certain intricate moving parts such as delicate leatherwork will be replaced, and wind leaks rectified. The aim is to restore this historic and renowned instrument to perfect working order for future generations.'

While the pipe organ is out of action, there will be replacement digital instruments for the quire and nave; the historic organ case will remain in the Cathedral throughout the restoration project.

Work on the organ has been funded thanks to generous donors of the Cathedral's Third Millennium Campaign, money raised from last year's Majesty Flower Festival and the Grand Nave dinner and from the Friends. A large grant has been awarded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company and supporters continue to come forward to 'sponsor a pipe'through the 'Leave a note' appeal to raise money for the project. Fundraising to complete the £1m project through to completion will carry on throughout this year and next year.

The pipework will return to the Cathedral for voicing in 2014. Canon Carl Turner, who is managing the restoration project, said: 'The iconic nature of the Exeter Cathedral organ means that we are entrusted with an historical instrument of international significance. But it is far from being a museum piece, it is a working instrument, used day in and day out in the way it was intended to by its creator, John Loosemore, in 1665, and we need to ensure it stays that way.'

The organ has been documented and demonstrated in its current condition in a recent combined DVD and CD publication  –  The Grand Organ of Exeter Cathedral – by Priory Records.

Graeme Kay


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