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ORGANS IN CHURCHES

Summary of a talk given to the Ecclesiastical Architects' and Surveyors' Association on 2 November 2000

Nicholas Thistlethwaite

The Organ and its environment

Most English churches contain a pipe organ. Commonly, it is located hi a chancel chamber, and all that is visible is a row of pipes perched above some simple panelling. However, an organ is a complex machine (see cross-section of a typical Victorian organ) consisting of the following basic components:

*   Pipes of various shapes and sizes that produce the sound and are combined by the organist in different ways to create varied musical effects

   Soundboards that support the pipes and contain wind chests, grooves and valves that enable the wind to reach the appropriate pipes

   Bellows and trunks that supply wind at the correct pressure to the soundboards

   Action (mechanism) to connect the keys and pedals to the valves admitting wind to the pipes

*   Console at which the player sits, usually with a set of pedals, and with anything from one to five sets of keys for the hands

·        Casework - at its simplest a screen intended to conceal the interior mechanism and support some of the largest metal pipes, but in other instances a stylish piece of furniture in its own right.

 

 

These components are made from a variety of organic and inorganic materials. Even if they have been carefully selected and correctly seasoned before use, they respond in different ways to their environment, and (even in ideal conditions) deteriorate at different rates. Materials include: wood, metal (tin, lead, copper, zinc, brass and iron), leather, cloth and felt, ivory and bone, cork and paper.

Churches are characterised by particular environmental conditions which affect all furnishings to a greater or lesser extent. But because of the variety of materials of which it is constructed, and its complex mechanisms, an organ is especially vulnerable to an unfavourable or unstable environment.

temperature

humidity

rapid changes of temperature will affect the organ's tuning adversely

heating systems designed to heat the building fiercely for a short time before a service can play havoc with tuning

they can also damage materials: warm air blown into a cold organ can cause condensation and consequent corrosion of metal parts

organs are most comfortable in conditions where the relative humidity is 50-65%

heating systems that create low levels of humidity may cause soundboards and trunks to split, with the result that there will be wind leaks and pipes will sound apparently of their own accord; in the worst cases, the organ will become unplayable

excessively damp conditions (wet walls, leaking roofs, broken panes) will lead to corrosion, mould and the dissolving of animal glues, causing ivories to become detached and wooden pipes to fall apart

 

   dirt and dust     grit causes organ actions to malfunction

and notes to stick; it also prevents the pipes speaking properly and generally increases wear and tear on moving parts

all organs gradually accumulate dust and dirt, but every effort should be made to protect them from exceptional incursions, e.g. when work is being undertaken on the fabric or when a major re-ordering or cleaning is underway

   pests woodworm enjoy the softwoods that were

extensively used by Victorian organ-builders, and because these are usually inside the organ the damage is sometimes overlooked

mice enjoy ivory and leather moths attack felt and cloth

bats deposit their urine on the casework and display pipes

   fire hazards; organs are highly combustible and have attracted the attention of arsonists parishes should be strongly discouraged from using the area around and behind the organ as a storeroom; quite apart from making access for maintenance difficult it renders the organ even more of a fire hazard electrical wiring to console lights and the blower should be checked regularly

fabric;  because organs are seldom fully dismantled the walls of the organ chamber, its roof and floor may not be inspected regularly; the effort should be made at quinqennial inspections to ensure that plaster is secure, the floor sound and the roof watertight

Maintenance, conservation and rebuilding

An organ is a piece of machinery and requires regular servicing. However, it is also a musical instrument, and like other musical instruments (pianos, harpsichords, stringed and woodwind instruments) it requires tuning before it can be used.

   Three tuning visits a year is typical. The tuner should attend to any faults (mechanical or tonal) noted in the tuning book, but he should go through the instrument himself to look for any faults missed by the organist. He should record the temperature at which the organ was timed - it is important that the church is at its 'Sunday' temperature for the tuning - and should record his work in the tuning book.

   The organ tuner will not service the electric blower.

•    Someone from the church should check that it is regularly oiled.

   Every 20-35 years the organ will need a clean and overhaul. The extent of the work will depend upon the condition of the instrument; it may be possible to do most of the work in the building, or parts may need to be taken away for workshop restoration.

Historic organs demand specialist attention. The term is difficult to define, but BIOS suggests that an historic organ is one that is a good and intact example of its style or period;

or      incorporates material (e.g. pipework) from an earlier instrument of good quality;

or     retains an interesting or architecturally distinguished case.

When dealing with an organ of historical importance, the first step is to seek specialist advice from AIOA or BIOS. A lengthy process of investigation and discussion will follow, leading to the commissioning of an organ-builder who is experienced in conservation techniques.

Policy should be guided by principles applied to the conservation of any historic artefact:

   minimal intervention and disturbance to original surfaces

replacement on 'like for like' basis                -

• no alterations

• maintenance of a photographic record

• retention of discarded components

When dealing with an organ that is not of historical significance but (equally) is not of such poor quality as to demand replacement, reconstruction may be appropriate.

The following questions need to be asked:

   Is essential work being properly attended to (leatherwork, soundboards, action) or is this a cosmetic exercise to satisfy the organist's desire for fancy names on the stop knobs?

   Will the alterations make maintenance easier or more difficult?

•    Has an experienced adviser been consulted to check that the scheme is sensible and not merely an idiosyncratic proposal of the current organist?

   Has proper tendering been carried out, and has the proposed contractor appropriate skills and experience?

   Can the Church afford it?

Only if the answer to all these questions is "yes" should major expenditure be committed to the project.

Help

Three bodies that can be of assistance to architects over organ matters are:-

The Institute of British Organ Building, 13 Ryefields, Thurston, Nr. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk IP31 3TD (01359 233433). IBO is the organ-builders' professional organisation and publishes a register of accredited businesses.

The Association of Independent Organ Advisers, 46, Constable Road, Ipswich, IP4 2U2 (01473 219102). AIOA maintains a register of accredited advisers and supplies information about their specialist fields.

The British Institute of Organ Studies, 39, Church Street, Haslingfield, Cambridge, CBS 7JE (01223 872190). BIOS is concerned with conservation and research, and can often assist in discovering the history of an instrument.

TRANSACTIONS OF THE ECCLESIASTICAL ARCHITECTS' AND SURVEYORS' ASSOCIATION

Volume 5 2004

 

INTRODUCTION


The papers in this fifth volume of transactions are based on lectures given at recent EASA meetings. Original notes have been kindly provided by the speakers, this is done for the sake of format, not content.

 

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