Maggie Hamilton

Kings Bench

10:52, 7th March 2017

The organ in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge is known the world over. Project manager Ian Bell sums up the recent work undertaken by Harrison & Harrison.

Photos by: Benjamin Sheen / King’s College, Cambridge

Over-used terms such as ‘iconic’, ‘venerable’ and ‘historic’ are totally inadequate to apply to the glorious and internationally admired chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. The foundation stone was laid by King Henry VI in 1441, and a century later the final touches were paid for by Henry VIII, who even commissioned the organ screen to commemorate his marriage to Anne Boleyn.


The organ case which stands upon Henry’s screen – again, familiar worldwide – is not quite as old as folklore and enthusiastic writers on the subject have often claimed it to be: recent thoughtful research has strongly discouraged the previously accepted idea that this is the case of an organ known to have been built by Thomas Dallam in 1605, and to be one of the few English instruments to have survived the ravages of Oliver Cromwell’s reformers 50 years later. In truth, apart from a few Jacobean carved figures saved from earlier work and applied slightly uneasily to the east and west-facing facades, the style of the woodwork suggests a date of between 1640 and 1680 as more likely and, certainly, we know that the small chaire case on the east side was made in Cambridge around 1661. The main case most probably followed in the 1670s or soon after, either new or as a major reworking of old material.


20160908-DSC_0650Those wishing to learn more of what is a fascinating story should seek out papers published in the BIOS Journal by the eminent organ historian Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite, whose research and consequent persuasive arguments are both impressive and very readable. The opportunity arose to examine the empty cases during the recent work and unearthed nothing to question his provisional conclusions, including the fact that, as we knew, much of the case including the entire sides and their mouldings, and the two trumpeting angels facing west, date from a major reconstruction by William Hill in 1859 – a date to which we can now fast-forward. The whole case was now doubled in depth, the console moved to the north side of the organ, where it has remained, and the Pedal pipes consolidated their claim to space inside the screen, where 30 years later they were joined by a substantial Solo section, as the organ reached four-manual status. By 1889, apart from the case-pipes, no pipework or mechanism earlier than 1859 remained.


In the early 1930s, after a century of association with the Hill firm, the College – guided by director of music Boris Ord – began a similarly enduring relationship with Harrison & Harrison of Durham, commencing with a full reconstruction completed in 1934. The plans that Boris Ord and Arthur Harrison agreed – after a good deal of respectful but firm resistance on Harrison’s part with regard to some of Ord’s more off-beat ideas – were uncompromising. The organ was mechanically entirely new, and the layout became – as it has remained since – Great, Swell and Choir speaking solely towards the east, with the Pedal and Solo, on two levels, inside the south side of the screen. Most of the Hill pipework was retained: of the 59 ranks producing 77 speaking stops, only 14 ranks were entirely new. That said, to gain the effect he required Arthur Harrison rarely hesitated in rescaling and revoicing old material, and this was no exception. Nothing survived unchanged, and the outcome was a purely Harrison sound that thrilled not only Ord, but all who heard it.


One or two quirks insisted upon by Ord slipped through to the completed work: there was not only a second-touch Solo to Great coupler, but the drawstops of the new Harrison console also featured double-draw cancelling, these features being inspired by Ord having recently visited the new Compton organ at Downside Abbey. Both disappeared in subsequent console refurbishment.


The approach that Harrison & Harrison took to the mechanism in 1934 was sufficiently thorough that over the succeeding 80 years their visits to King’s to clean, repair and overhaul involved very little beyond replacement of worn leatherwork, updating of the electrical systems, and inevitably the steady enhancement of the level of console gadgetry – though the console remained very much a 1930s Harrison thoroughbred in appearance and atmosphere, as indeed it does today.


Tonal changes were equally modest, and King’s escaped from this more lightly than most, though the removal in 1968 of foundation stops both from the Great and Pedal, to be replaced by smaller but altogether more vociferous pipework, caused some concern even in those unapologetic and adventurous years. The process, as so often elsewhere, risked loss of original integrity in order to gain very little, but more recent small-scale cleaning sessions have allowed a discreet ironing out of anything too disconcerting – something at which Harrison & Harrison have become particularly skilled.


And so to the present. During his distinguished 35-year incumbency as director of music, Dr Stephen Cleobury has had ample time to form a view upon what this organ does best, and whether any significant intrusion was justifiable. He was reassuringly firm in his opinion, at the first meeting that we held to discuss the options, that while the mechanism of the organ was now beginning to show its age, its tonal characteristics had reached a very comfortable plateau and must be left in peace. A few soothing touches here and there to complete the refinement re-introduced in the preceding 20 years were all that was required. In his discussions with Harrison & Harrison in the months before he asked me to join the project, Dr Cleobury had raised doubts about two small issues. There was a lack of cohesion and clarity in the Pedal upperwork, arising partly from the way its siting had evolved, and aggravated by a lack of body in the 16ft metal Diapason (shared with the Great, and partly using early 19th-century case-pipes); and the unhappy lack – in a 79-stop organ – of any 8ft Pedal Principal to tie things together. This should be given thought. A further niggling irritation was a lack of blend and appealing character in the important 4ft Flute of the Great Organ – much in demand in accompaniment, but whose triangular wooden pipes from 1934 were of an elusively unsociable nature.


There was nothing about these thoughts to raise the hackles of the organ’s many admirers. A more pressing concern, in those early meetings, was to settle upon the path that would be followed for the mechanism. In recent similar projects elsewhere the organ builders had advocated a policy in which virtually everything mechanical would be renewed: soundboards, key and stop mechanisms, wind system and so on. This had of course been the policy pursued at King’s in 1934, albeit allied to a scheme that involved numerous additions to the stop list and changes to the layout. It could perhaps be seen as less easily justifiable in the context of a plan where very little was to change, especially since the cost of once more overhauling what existed was persuasively lower than starting afresh.


Our recommendation to the College, following discussion with Harrison & Harrison, was that the opportunity to take the more thorough approach should not be missed. Foremost among many advantages of this were three particular points. First, the slider soundboards, now 80 years old, were not finding it easy to get along with the relatively recent installation, buried discreetly beneath the marble tiles, of efficient under-floor heating. This unhappiness was unlikely to ease with time, and the soundboards were not the only items under threat. Second, the organ was uncomfortably tightly packed inside the surrounding case and organ screen, and access to some aspects of the mechanism demanded determination. Beginning again, with more compact modern designs and a layout designed for the current stop list, would allow things to become tidier, as well as safer and quicker to maintain. It should also offer the opportunity of rescuing the smaller Pedal chorus work from the remote corners of the organ screen, bringing it together up in the main case. Third, and importantly, starting afresh with new electro pneumatic mechanism, new framework, and – in the outcome – even new swell boxes, would mean that the organ could remain in use in Cambridge while everything was being prepared in advance and completely assembled in the workshops in Durham, leaving just the pipework to be repaired and introduced to the new soundboards once the organ was taken to pieces. This meant that the ‘down time’ could be drastically reduced from that of the two years that might otherwise have been expected.



The College accepted this recommendation, and in the summer of 2014 – with the organ still playable and in use – Harrison & Harrison’s principal designer began the arduous process of measuring these fiercely tightly-packed spaces which he could not really reach, but of which he needed to use every last inch. Thankfully he is a determined and resourceful man, and this planning, followed by a year’s steady construction in Durham, meant that the organ could still be played up until 24 January 2016 – with the organ builders waiting in the shadows to dash in and begin dismantling – and was then handed back, completed, just over seven months later, on 2 September. During that time the casework and screen were completely emptied, and everything went up to Durham except a few of the Pedal pipes, including the six largest 32ft basses which lie in two stacks of three, horizontally across the screen behind the west parapet. While the organ building work continued off-site, others were busy. The opportunity was taken to clean a remarkably thick accumulation of sooty dust from the interior walls and carvings of the Chapel; at the same time the organ blowing plant, installed in 1934, was removed, sand-blasted, and completely restored by specialist James Richardson- Jones; and the organ case was inspected, cleaned and repaired by a team supervised by Hugh Harrison, the distinguished specialist in historic woodwork and its conservation. Those examining the woodwork included Nicholas Thistlethwaite, whose arms-length assumptions were not contradicted in any respect by the evidence found.


Hugh Harrison’s team also surveyed and strengthened the organ screen and its 1530s staircase. Organs have become decidedly larger and heavier in the last 500 years, so it seemed worth taking the rare opportunity to check exactly what is supporting the weight. The floorboards were lifted, each a complete slice through an oak tree, hand-sawn to two inches thick, and the structure was found to be very solid. Even so, an additional beam, made of stainless steel, was inserted to reinforce the timbers running beneath the organ, where some had later been partly cut away to make space for wind-trunks.


After three months all was ready for the return and reassembly of the organ, which proceeded smoothly and rapidly with a team of eight Harrison staff, while the restored and strengthened case-pipes received new gold leaf. All of this had to be achieved amid the endless flow of tourists from around the world, and avoiding disruption to the daily services and their rehearsals. Within three months head voicer Andrew Scott was able to begin on the delicate business of making the organ sound rejuvenated, while keeping it sounding the same. This tricky tightrope has been cleverly negotiated; the resited Pedal chorus is now cohesive, but also, very subtly, there has been a similar final pulling together of elements of the manual choruswork that had still shown odd signs of the 1960s intervention. The place of the banished triangular flute has been taken by a winsome new metal rank that charmingly fulfils every hope.


Does the organ sound the same? Not quite, because a little more breathing space in the revised layout has allowed the sound to circulate more freely, and the new swell boxes open a little wider, and project more efficiently, than the old. Allied to the cleaning of the pipes, and indeed the surrounding stonework, the change is one of a little greater clarity rather than increased power, though the difference may be thought academic. Certainly, the pipes themselves remain as before, appearing simply to have been roused from a degree of lethargy.


The last word goes to Stephen Cleobury: ‘Ian Bell has described with great clarity the process that Harrisons, he and I have been through. I can add only that I have much admired both Ian’s analysis and planning, and the skill and professionalism of all those from Harrison & Harrison who were involved. The words of Francis Pott, hymn writer, come to mind: “Craftsman’s art and music’s measure for thy pleasure all combine.” The result is everything I would have hoped for, and more.’ I think that is reassurance enough.

After 30 years in organ building, Ian Bell became a professional consultant in 1993. He has advised on projects ranging from house organs to the Royal Albert Hall, most recently as project manager and consultant at King’s College, Cambridge.

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