Organ Restoration Project – What’s Involved ?
An overview by Josh Johnston
On the 10th March 2013, the church, represented by chair Rory Delany and secretary Sheila Hanley, signed the contract for the Organ Restoration Project with Irish Organ-builder Trevor Crowe to carry out the restoration in stages between April 2013 and January 2016. A number of people have asked me to explain in more detail what exactly is going to be done in this project and how the congregation and wider Dublin community will experience the effects.
There are three distinct strands to the project.
Restoration of internal workings
There are hundreds of pipes, some of wood, some of metal, within the organ. Their size varies from the largest ones fronting the instrument to tiny ones inside which are no bigger than a pencil, and a whole range of sizes in between, covering the entire musical range from the lowest to the highest note, and from the loudest to the softest sounds. Whilst organ pipes have a life normally measured in centuries, they do need periodic cleaning and adjustment every few decades to maintain their musical quality. Just imagine how much dust would accumulate on furniture if it was only cleaned every thirty years or so! Because of the compact placement and delicacy of the internal pipes of the organ, it is only possible to clean them when the organ is dismantled for overhaul.
The internal pipes (which outnumber the visible ones by a factor of around ten to one) are neatly arrayed on special racks placed on soundboards in the upper part of the organ, over the organist’s head. A typical soundboard is about the size of a large table, and is in fact an elaborate wind distribution machine entirely made of wood, with dozens of moving parts working to incredibly fine tolerances. All the soundboards in this organ are in terminal condition at this stage, and their renewal is an essential part of this project.
Each soundboard is supplied with wind at constant pressure from a large bellows, (each bellows is about the size of the soundboard which it supplies), and the various bellows are supplied with wind from a large electric fan or blower. Our electric blower, now 102 years old, has only been kept going in recent years through the superb maintenance work of Dennis Aylmer. The current project includes the provision of a new blower, and the old one will be placed in honourable retirement.
Updating of internal workings
For centuries organs, like pianos, have used elaborate mechanical actions to connect the keyboards with the sound producing parts. During the nineteenth century, as organs became larger, the force needed to play the keys increased to the point of taxing the strength of even the most muscular organist.
To overcome this problem, in common with most of the larger organs of the period, this organ was built with tubular pneumatic action instead of the older all-mechanical type. Pneumatic action cleverly used the air pressure already available in the organ to connect the keyboards with even the most distant pipes whilst providing the organist with a form of power assistance which made even a large organ easy to play. Each note of each keyboard involves a separate lead tube about the diameter of a finger, running perhaps 10 metres between the keyboard and the soundboard above. The hundreds of metres of tubing plus the quite complicated mechanism at each end take up a lot of space making the inside of the organ very cramped, so that some working parts cannot be repaired when they start to go wrong (fortunately this has only started to happen in recent years!).
Pneumatic actions are no longer usual because modern electrical actions are equally reliable but far more efficient and compact. Retention and restoration of pneumatic action is problematical because of its complexity and because the various membranes require extremely thin yet durable leather of a quality which is no longer available. The preferred solution here is to convert the mechanism to electrical operation, which in addition to ensuring a reliable and more responsive action will also facilitate the operation of the stops through an updated combination system. Of course the use of electricity is confined to the signalling between keyboards and soundboards – the sounds are still being produced by the same wind-blown pipes that have made music in this church for the last century or so – we are not turning the organ into a synthesiser!
In the 1960s and again in the 1980s, in the course of cleaning the organ, various tonal changes were made, and although at the time it seemed that the organ was being brought up to date with current musical fashion, in fact the results were not entirely successful for various reasons – some lovely elements of the organ’s original Romantic style were removed and some fashionable but arguably less appropriate elements introduced, so the basic integrity of the original instrument was lost. The organ’s identity crisis is to be resolved by some judicious adjustments and additions to the organ’s specificationt which will restore and enhance the instrument’s original musical integrity, whilst broadening its musical range to make it more suitable for occasional concert use, without diminishing in any way its present qualities in terms of service accompaniment.
All things going to plan, the work will proceed along the following timetable:-
Newly manufactured items including pipes, soundboards, electric key-action and stop-action parts, and solid-state transmission and piston systems, to be prepared in the nine month period preceding dismantling of the organ. The church congregation won’t see the organ builder during this time but can rest assured that work is going on behind the scenes.
Dismantling of organ. Some disruption to week-time use of church during this period, which should be no longer than two to three weeks. Plenty of notice to be given to affected parties.
Restoration of pipes, console, bellows and windchests in organbuilder’s workshops. . It is anticipated the organ will be completely out of action over this period.
There will be an initial intensive assembly period of two to three weeks, during which major elements of console, bellows and soundboards will be put in place. This will cause some disruption again to weekday activities in the church during these few weeks only.
The succeeding months will see the organ gradually return to life, as each set of pipes is first prevoiced, then reinstalled, tuned and regulated. At least six stops are promised for Christmas but it is possible that considerably more of the organ’s resources will be playable by then.
Workshop preparation and prevoicing of pipes will continue, and these will be installed from time to time, occupying not more than one day in any week. Normal use of the church and organ should be unaffected during this period.
Final completion of the project.
The restored organ will have the following registration.
Open Diapason 8
Stopped Diapason 8
Voix Celeste 8
Mixture 19.22 II
Open Diapason 8
Stopped Diapason 8
Harmonic Flute 4
Twelfth 2 2/3
Wald Flute 8
Suabe Flute 4
Bass Flute 8
Swell suboctave to Great
Swell to Great
Swell to Choir
Choir to Great
Swell to Pedal
Great to Pedal
Choir to Pedal