Peter Collins (1941 – 2015)11:37, 2nd February 2016
The English organ builder Peter Collins died on 24 October 2015, at the age of 74. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the firm he founded.
Having become disillusioned with the largely conservative English organ building scene of the early 1960s, Collins left his apprenticeship at Bishops (London) for a thorough training with Rieger in Austria. On returning to the UK and establishing a small firm south of St Albans and subsequently in Redbourn, he first came to prominence with his 1968 organ for St Faith’s, Shellingford, Oxfordshire. This instrument typified the then-emerging new generation of UK craftsmen: a mechanical action, free-standing, properly encased and classically voiced instrument.
This style of organ has formed the company’s core philosophy ever since, although the firm has diversified over the last 15 years or so. Many such classically conceived instruments, from modest two manuals to more substantial three manual organs, were commissioned by various educational establishments, including Southampton University, Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane as well as Manchester Grammar School, Wells Cathedral School, Oakham School and Harrow School. Their responsive mechanical actions have helped to shape subsequent generations of English organists. Similarly, the firm gained expertise in designing and executing house organs. Peter understood the acoustic factors that influence scaling and voicing that make such instruments liveable with over an extended period, and the benefits of computer-aided design and manufacture of many such instruments to a relatively set design helped to reduce costs in this market. Box organs also became a hallmark of the firm, many being found in cathedrals and institutions across the country (the firm has built around 80 to date).
Although Collins’s largest instrument was for St David’s Hall, Cardiff, many regard his best ‘flagship’ instruments as St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, and Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. The Norwich instrument (1984) remains one of the very best Werkprinzip organs in these isles, and much of its success and strength of character is due to the relatively few concessions to romantic and later organ cultures (a celeste stop and enclosed Brustwerk aside). When left to his own devices, his modernist case designs were superb, and this factor, coupled with his incredibly broad knowledge of organ building and outgoing personality, helped him also to win both friends and contracts. The firm continued to expand and became one of the major players on the UK organ building stage, with a good number of exports to their credit. In 1989 they relocated to new and larger premises in Melton Mowbray.
Collins was never one to shy away from controversy. In the late 1990s he joined forces with Allen to create a hybrid pipe-digital instrument for Trönö Church in Sweden. It divided opinion amid the UK organ fraternity, although Collins defended such instruments with a passion when circumstances would otherwise have led to a purely digital installation. The five or so hybrid instruments created by the firm can all be played as musically integral pipe organs, without relying on electronics for balanced choruses, essential flutes and pedal subbass etc. Less documented, perhaps, are the various sensitive and thorough restorations of (mostly) 19th-century village church organs, a good number of which were in the Leicestershire area.
The last new instrument on which Collins worked was a free-standing two manual mechanical action organ for the St Albans International Organ Festival, a festival with which he had long-standing links. It was intended primarily for the concerto repertoire (Handel et al). He was taken ill while installing this organ, and although it remains just short of completion at the time of writing, it has a poignant significance as the final, new organ he designed and oversaw himself.
Collins was one of the most influential and, at times, controversial UK organ builders of the last half-century. He was a warm, jovial extrovert with a keen sense of humour (he blamed his early baldness on working with too many Brustwerk divisions). He had a huge source of amusing (and occasionally irreverent) anecdotes, with which he would enjoy regaling guests over a drink or dinner. He was an excellent communicator, and people remember fondly his talk which I asked him to give at the London Organ Day in 2009: it was peppered with fascinating reminiscences of figures from the northern European organ building fraternity, with whom Peter retained both personal and professional friendships. Our condolences go to his wife Janet, their three sons and all his family and friends.
Sitting with a coffee in the office of his workshops six months ago, I was interviewing him for an article for this magazine on the firm’s anniversary. Peter was proud of his current team, which include some very well-informed and capable younger colleagues. The firm is now steered by them and inspired by their pioneering founder.
With thanks to Douglas Hollick and John Norman for their help in preparing this tribute.