Swell Organ pipework.
130 years of music-making
The pipe organ is arguably the most complex musical instrument ever invented. While early organs were rather simple in construction, the industrial revolution and developments associated with the advent of electricity in the 19th century inspired a huge leap forward in organ design.
The organ here at All Saints' Church was designed and built by Hill & Son, one of the foremost organ-building firms of their time, in 1887. Some of the main components of the organ, including the large wind-reservoirs which store and regulate the pressurised air for use by the pipes, have never been removed since their installation.
Below, we will explore the different areas of the organ in detail and look at why such major work is required; but in brief: the organ has been in constant use for over 130 years. The time has come where major components have reached the end of their working lives and now need specialist attention in order to ensure they can continue to operate for another 130 years.
Standing the test of time
The organ has done phenomenally well to keep playing for 130 years; a testament to how well built it was in 1887.
Naturally, technological developments were taken advantage of; the actions, originally mechanical, were converted to tubular-pneumatic (TP) in 1899 by Hill & Son, and partially converted to electro-penumatic (EP) by Nicholson & Co in 1952-3. The organ also gained another department; the Chancel Great, and this was subsequently given its own keyboard in the 1952-3 work, giving us the four-manual console that we have today. Other than these changes, however, the organ has had very little work in its lifetime, and significantly for an organ of its age; not once in its lifetime have the major components (reservoirs, soundboards, swell boxes etc) been removed for restoration.
It is incredible to think that some of the pipes within the organ, particularly the large wooden basses of the Open Diapason stop of the Pedal Organ, have probably not moved since they were installed; and will still be sounding as they were when young Gustav Holst sang in the choir under the direction of his father, Adolf, who was organist here from 1866 to 1894.
Great Organ pipework.
Swell Organ pipework.
The present day
As these large components have remained in situ for so long, perishable materials used in their construction, such as leather, have deteriorated to the point where they can no longer effectively perform their function. Atmospheric changes, especially changes in relative humidity, cause the many wooden components in the organ to expand and contract. Today, we have specially designed humidifiers which ensure the internal components of the organ do not become too dry; but these are a relatively modern addition and past exposure to a constantly changing environment, particularly the rapid changes in humidity caused by the sudden rise in temperature when the church building was heated for Sunday services, caused internal damage to the soundboards. As a result, the organ now suffers from whimpers and runnings, where air reaches places that it shouldn't.
The organ also contains a large amount of leather, used both to seal various components such as reservoirs, wind trunks etc. and also pneumatic motors. These motors, powered by compressed air provided by the blower, are used to open the pallets (which admit air to the correct pipes corresponding to the note played) and operate slides (which bring specific ranks of pipes into play, depending on which stops are drawn at the console). The cumulative effect of the leaking air around the organ is a constant "hissing" sound which emerges from the chamber when the blower is running. This is incredibly distracting, and detracts from the sound of the pipes when softer combinations are used. Once rebuilt; the organ will run much quieter and be less of a distraction both to players and singers in the church.
As you may be beginning to imagine; the organ is a phenomenally complex piece of machinery. There are tens of thousands of components needed to control the two-and-a-half thousand pipes, which all need to work correctly in order for the organ to respond properly to the organist's movements at the console.
The console itself is also showing signs of age; while it is one of the youngest parts of the organ, dating from 1952-3 (when Nicholson & Co replaced the original Hill & Son console will a "modern" electric-action equivalent and spread the organ across four manuals, instead of three) it is suffering from electrical problems, most notably the solenoids which move the stops in and out in response to the organist's use of pistons. As a result, it is difficult to know if the organ will always do what the player wants it to do, which can lead to some rather nerve-racking experiences for visiting players!
An ever-growing list of faults
The cumulative effect of all of these mechanical faults and failures is that there is an ever growing list of faults, many of which are simply to complex to be rectified with regular maintenance visits. Soundboards, for example, cannot be repaired without first removing all of the pipework standing on them, removing them from the organ (not a small task especially as some of them are over 3 metres long!) and getting them on a workbench where they can be safely dismantled.
Certain notes no longer work reliably, or at all, neither do some stops. Slowly but surely, time is taking away the musicality of this phenomenal instrument and, if we don't intervene, will eventually render it silent. The organists at All Saints are dedicated to getting the best results every time they play, but it is a losing battle; and there are some faults that simply cannot be worked around or masked.
North transept case, designed by Arthur Hill.
Stained glass in the north nave aisle.
The sound of the community
The organ does more than just accompany the choir and lead the singing of hymns; it has been the sound of the local community for over 130 years. The sound of the organ at All Saints has been part of those key moments for generations of Cheltenham families; baptisms, weddings, funerals, not to mention countless concerts and festivals. The sound of the organ has also inspired one of the town's finest exports; famous composer Gustav Holst.
This is why your generous donation is so much more than just a part of the amount we need to raise. By supporting our project, you are helping preserve a piece of history that is still, over a century after it was first built, providing pleasure to music-lovers in the community and, thanks to the internet, all over the world.