ST GILES ORGAN RESTORATION


 
Sunday July 14th 2019 was to have been the date for the dedication of the refurbished organ by Bishop Edward Holland, but instead this took place on  Sunday 13th October See Photos.   We wanted this to be a celebration of the musical life at St. Giles so the service included, of course, some of the best Church Music there is.

The photos on this page accompany the updates that have been written by Clive Brearley at about monthly intervals during the work, which started in January 2019.

October Update - The Work is Complete

On Sunday 6th October.Clive led two talks about the work with demonstrations.
The first three photos are from the second talk starting at 4:30pm.

The remaining photos show the refurbished front pipes, highlighting the new gilding.

Click all photos to enlarge.

        



 


September Update - Bob the Gilder

The work on the organ has been beset by difficulties such as late delivery of components, staff shortages due to sickness etc. Whilst I think that things could have been managed rather better, the most important thing is that nothing is rushed or skimped as it all needs to last for many years.


We are at the end of a long haul. In late June everything stopped - again - so that the gilding of the display pipes could take place. Robert, known in the organ building trade as Bob the Gilder, arrived, with his extremely able assistant Debbie fresh from a trip home to her native USA. I know almost nothing about gilding but I insisted that the gilder must have gilded organ pipes before and I'm glad I did.

The St. Giles display pipes are not the easiest to work on. Some of them 'speak' while others are dummies and make no sound at all and the largest are mitred - bent over at right angles about 2/3 of the way up - to fit under the roof of the gallery. What they all have in common is that they have been decorated three times before; so much careful preparation had to be done before gilding.

'Unsocial hours, this gilding lark' muttered Bob as he arrived to start gilding the first pipes. He and Debbie had left St.Giles at 8pm the night before, having sized the pipes due for gilding the next day. The gold leaf has to be applied at the right time, about 15 hours after sizing and then brushed to make a smooth finish.

The pipes had to be left in position for at least 3 weeks for the gilding to harden enough for the pipes to be moved from their temporary framework: even then the handlers need to wear white cotton gloves and handle them very carefully. Just over a month later Robert and Debbie, fresh back from gilding in York Minster, arrived to do some stencilling on the pipes to give them something more approaching their original Victorian decoration, which was not popular in the 1960s when the previous decoration was plain. Manoeuvring the pipes with their delicate finishes in a confined space was extremely difficult and it was all hands on deck (the deck consisting of the upper platform of the scaffold with some boards removed to make a large hole) and featured a couple of bodies who were there at the time, i.e. self and Matthew, who had to brush gold leaf out of his hair before he left for a funeral.

So one more step is completed. Hopefully everything will be finished (at last) by mid September.

July Update

One of the challenges that has faced us is to try to make the organ better for accompanying the choir without losing its capabilities for accompanying a 'full house' which is quite a tall order. The organ builders will return after a couple of months to do a bit more regulation to the sound of the instrument where it is needed. The rededication service will be an ideal opportunity to hear how it all sounds and if any changes are required. What we need to test things is a packed church and everyone singing up in the hymns, which are all very familiar. So by coming along you will be making a very practical contribution to the organ re-build venture!

The organ refurbishment is a very significant investment in the musical life of St. Giles, both present and future. Frankly, the old organ had become no pleasure to play, and when things were taken apart it was evident that much of it was hanging on by a thread. We now have to ensure that the investment pays off, particularly by strengthening the choirs. New members are always welcome in the Senior Choir and our session on the first Monday in the month is especially for those who would like to sing but feel they need to know a bit more about it first.

We shall have some vacancies in the Junior Choir at the end of the Summer. The Junior Choir plays a very important role in our commitment to music – if every parish did the same as St. Giles things would be much better in the world of church music and I see evidence that, at last, some are waking up to the idea. Last year I was delighted to find that when I mentioned vacancies at the July All Age Family Worship service, at the end of the service a queue formed at the organ console. Hopefully, the queue will be even larger this year.

As soon as I am happy that everything with the organ is finished satisfactorily (they are complex inside and gremlins can appear during the settling in period) I shall organise a little demonstration session for those who are interested in seeing what all the improvements look like and sound like. Meanwhile, the photo shows Andrew the wiring man enjoying himself wiring everything into the board up in the gallery.


More connections and wiring have been done in the console at the works, ready for everything to be put together. BT, eat your heart out!
 

June Update:

or a day (well two, actually) in the life of a St. Giles Organ Grinder with no pipe organ to play

Whilst it might appear that work on the organ refurbishment has not gone anywhere through the month of April, Andrew, the organ wiring man, has spent many hours up there doing thousands of soldered connections and working out what changes have to be made to the transmission system to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of our instrument. The church electrical contractor has also been at work, providing new mains supplies at both ends of the church.

In mid April, we hired a digital organ (hereinafter referred to as 'The Toaster' because that's what the organ playing fraternity calls organs without pipes) to take us through Easter and on into the wedding season up to the start of June. A welcome respite for me, who was sick of playing the piano and also probably for members of the congregation who were sick of listening to me.........why are organists often such poor pianists? After all, the keyboards all look the same. I think you probably have to start learning the organ to understand why – apart from the basic fingering the technique is quite different.

On Thursday afternoon 11th April David, the man from The Toaster hire company arrived an hour late, fuming about his crawl round the M25. The van was unloaded; console, speakers and numerous cables were all trundled along to the church. It took a couple of hours to set everything up, with the speakers all well out of the way on the scaffold platform. Instruction on how to use The Toaster took little time as we had had an instrument of the same make on trial a couple of years ago so I knew how everything worked. Until fairly recently your average toaster tried to imitate the sound of a pipe organ – and failed miserably – by synthesising the sound. These days toasters have all ducked out of trying to imitate a pipe organ this way and it is done by digital sampling of real organ pipes, taken from real 'pedigree' pipe organs. One sampling system that is popular at present goes as far as trying to include all the building atmosphere, sound of the blower etc. so that you can pretend that, for example, you are in a French cathedral but as the sound still comes through speakers it sounds to me as if you are listening to a CD.

The system on our temporary Toaster used, I believe, sampled sounds taken from Anglican churches such as one up the posh end of Brighton (Hove) which are then 'bended' and played around with until they are quite different from the original pipe sound but hopefully suited to the building where the toaster ends up. Sounds a bit crazy, doesn't it? Various gismos are added such as the facility to change the sound to different styles and the tuning to some of the many different types used in earlier times, along with flashing lights etc. but the whole lot ends up coming through four loud speakers rather than the 1200 odd pipes in our pipe organ so still sounds a bit like a recording to me and I suppose that's really exactly what it is.

David the Toaster hire man had been highly impressed by our scaffold, he thought it was an excellent job and admired the spacious platforms where all the work on the pipe organ is taking place. When Saturday's bride turned up for her wedding rehearsal the next day her opinion differed somewhat. Funny, that. I spent much of Friday morning and afternoon trying to get some decent sounds out of The Toaster for The Crucifixion next week while the bridegroom and his father, along with the florist, draped the scaffold with curtains and flowers. It looked much better. They finished just in time for me to go home, have a quick cup of tea and come back for 2½ hours of choir practices. When the pipe organ is undergoing its final setting up I might bring a sleeping bag.

The Crucifixion by John Stainer is a Marmite piece of music if ever there was one. Love it or loath it, the fact is that Stainer managed to write something for Holy Week that is singable by a parish church choir, has a few challenges but does not tie everyone up for months rehearsing it, has solos that can be sung by choir members and an accompaniment that sounds good on modest – even quite poor – organs. It even sounded all right played on The Toaster. Not many composers of choral music manage to achieve all that.

We shall be putting the re-built pipe organ through its paces on July 14th at the re-dedication service. As I write this the new keyboards that have held everything up should hopefully be finished and delivered to the organ builder's works, after which the work should resume with a vengeance, leaving time for the painstaking part which is the re-voicing, regulating and fine tuning.

Let's hope it's all plain sailing from here, it's been a long haul.

May Update:

The best laid plans............................

When I wrote last month's article towards the end of February everything was going well. Not any more, unfortunately.

As with most companies who make or manufacture complex things (Purcell, in his Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day, refers to the organ as a wondrous machine’ - he was a great guy) some things are made for them by specialist suppliers. In the case of the St. Giles organ there are four suppliers, who are making things such as action components, transmission system, the Swell Engine (no organ is complete without one of those!) and the new keyboards.



When the organ builders rang the keyboard makers to ask where the new keys had got to the answer was 'Sorry, we're running eight weeks late'. Without the new keyboards the console cannot be refurbished and without the console to test and play the notes for the voicer and tuner it is not practical to reinstate the pipes which meant that by the end of the second week of April the project had ground to a halt. By not notifying the delay the key makers had made sure that if the supplier was changed the delay would be even longer. There are no penalty clauses in an organ builder›s contract and, even if there were, the keyboards were specified by us, not them. The keyboard makers, who, incidentally, were specified because they have a reputation for turning out a very high quality product, might well find it difficult to get more work in Rochester Diocese but that›s very cold comfort. Meanwhile, the components manufacturer (in Swanley) has got away with delivering late because the parts are now not needed yet.

We had decided that the best time of year for the works to take place was from January to May and the delay is extremely frustrating, caused, we are told, by a key member of staff leaving. On the other hand, it had always been understood that quality of workmanship would be key and has to take precedence over time frames. We are continually pressing for an improved delivery date.

The rededication service is now scheduled to take place on 14th July, and the opening recital date is still 12th October.

April Update - What have we achieved?

As I write this at the end of February much has still to be done. Items that have been made by specialists have only just been delivered to the workshop and the work to put everything back together in the church has not yet started. However, by the time you read this the work should hopefully be near to completion. By the way, when an organist has had no organ to play for well over 3 months his fingers start to get very itchy.

So will spending all this money have been worthwhile? Apart from replacing the instrument with digital, which would have been a much smaller outlay but not a good musical or economic option in the longer term, we could have spent less on the pipe organ, doing only the work that was necessary to keep it on the road. This would have proved more much costly over time as more work would have had to be done in a few years, involving major dismantling again along with its associated costs.

The instrument had behaved fairly well over the last year or so but when everything was taken apart I found it difficult to see how this was. There were numerous cracks in the wooden soundboards, much of the leather used for the actions in the 1963 build was synthetic and had become totally brittle, some leather used in the pipe work was in a similar state (see photos). Much of the wiring and electrical contacts in the console and in the organ itself was in a really bad way. So the option that we took of doing a comprehensive refurbishment proved to have been a very good decision and we should now have a reliable instrument for many years to come.

But we have gone a little further with a view to making the organ more suitable for the rather varied requirements that we have of it. When looking at the console 'before' and 'after' the instrument will appear more comprehensive than it was, and also around 30% larger. Actually, the overall number of pipes has increased by only 48, from 1152 to 1200. The largest pipes in the organ, which took up a great deal of space and were of poor quality, have been removed so whilst there are now more pipes they take up less space, allowing for important revisions in the internal layout. Because of the development of digital transmission systems and other electrical gismos some ideas that would have cost a fortune in the 1960s can now be achieved very easily at little extra cost and we have taken full advantage of this. Many

Many years ago I had a new quite sporty car that certainly moved fast but had problems. I took it to the garage and complained, because whilst I loved the speed I was really keen that it should stop properly, pulling up in a straight line. I was asked if I did much motorway driving. I did - and it seemed that due to the disc brakes being inset they would pick up dust and dirt at speed. I complained about the engine, which was running very unevenly. Did I do much driving in town? Yes. But the engine was designed for the open road, not stopping and starting, they said. It was a no win situation. The St. Giles Organ has been a challenge in that sort of way because the difficulty is that, in a similar way to the design of my car, we need to end up with something that is just as good for accompanying the choirs and smaller congregations as it is for the 12 or more services each year when there is standing room only. We can never expect perfection – after all, there are plenty of large cathedral organs that do not cope at all well with a full building – but with the internal layout changes, additions and use of technology we should be somewhere much closer than before.


Whilst I have been writing this, photos have been coming over from the organ builder's workshop, showing the work in progress, see above and right.
 

March Update:

Due to magazine deadlines etc., the previous pieces were written before the work started and the sight of all the scaffold actually appearing rather than just being written about has bought home the scale of the project. Dismantling took some time and was not easy, culminating, almost 3 weeks into the job, with the big Swell soundboard (ask me all about organ soundboards only if you have an hour to spare) being lowered on a Genie Hoist to ground floor level for removal to the workshop - a very difficult job with all but the organ builders banned from the church for the duration. Now that everything is dismantled it can be seen that not only were the actions very well worn, there are plenty of repairs to be done to both pipe-work and soundboards and the instrument could not have gone on in its present state for much longer. More pipes have gone to the works in Canterbury for cleaning and repair than was originally envisaged because travelling time is saved by doing it this way and so there will often be days when no organ builders appear in the church.


Over the last 150 years organ building has benefited from advances in technology and things that mean a lot to organists and organ builders but not to anyone else (except perhaps engineers in organisations such as BT and the London Underground) will be fitted in the workshop. New stop solenoids along with hundreds of Neoprene slider seals will improve the tuning, while the Swell Engine will change from being a huge machine to a small box, specially imported from the USA, that will do a much better job in making the organ's crescendos and diminuendos smoother (I did say it doesn't mean much to anyone but us organ nutters!). The transmission system will have one small data cable between the console and organ, replacing the thousands of little wires that were buried under the floor.

During March work starts on re-assembly. Large items that have been taken to the workshop for refurbishment, including the console and soundboards, have to be returned to the church and put back where they belong, which, of course, involves bringing in the Genie Hoist again. Then all has to be connected up. As almost everything behind the facade will have been turned through 45° many alterations have had to be made. All the wiring and transmission system are new and, while it is all low voltage, the number of connections that have to be made are almost too many to count.

After this, a very important part of the work starts to happen. The pipes (over a thousand of them) have to be reinstated in their new positions. All have been cleaned and regulated, some will have been repaired, others have been changed so that they sound different and a few are new. The person who 'voices' the pipes has to work his magic to make everything sound right. I cannot begin to understand how they do this: if you stand close to organ pipes they shriek at you and some are almost deafening. The voicer has to work in this racket but end up with a sound that sounds good at the other end of the church. Every pipe has to be 'fine tuned'. As it can occasionally take over half an hour to fine tune a couple of pipes, depending on their size and pitch, this is a painstaking job and done in extremely cramped conditions. This 'last half mile' of the project is so different from the first half mile as those people who, a couple of months ago, were working wearing hard hats and safety boots for what appeared to be a demolition exercise are now spending hours and hours making intricate adjustments to get things just right.

In April the work should be nearing completion and we shall be looking forward to the re-dedication of the organ on 19th May, which we also want to be a celebration of the musical life of St. Giles – because that is what the project is really all about. Every time that work has been done to the organ since the second half of the 19th Century I can see that those involved have done the very best they can in a building where it could not be much more difficult. John Wade, who some will remember from the days when he was assistant organist in the 1960s, has very kindly sent me some very valuable information on the work that was done in those times – more of that next month along with details of the opening recital which will be by Daniel Moult and will take place after the final voicing review and re-tuning on October 12th.

February Update - every organ builder knows the way to Swanley:

Progress on work to the organ is now well under way. Last month we looked at the work that is being done to the console. This month it's more about things that no one can see at all, a few things about the inner workings. This is where Swanley comes in.

Organ building became really big business in Victorian times but by the 1930s the pace had slowed as most churches had a well constructed instrument. A couple of builders did well building cinema organs but others spent more time refurbishing and 'modernising' existing instruments. Innovation was the order of the day. Henry Willis III, principal of one of the most highly regarded organ builders, was constantly on the lookout for ways to get ahead of the competition, even travelling to the USA and making reciprocal arrangements with an organ builder there but his most far reaching move came one afternoon in Peckham, just down the road from his works, when he burst in to the premises of Kimber-Allen Ltd., a very small engineering company, holding several components that he normally made in house, asking if they could do it cheaper. They could, much cheaper. Orders were placed and Kimber Allen grew so quickly that they went over to just making organ components and moved to much larger premises...........in Swanley. Other specialist suppliers have emerged through the years and, in common with most manufacturers, organ builders now tend to make few parts in house. Today, almost 90 years on, there are some components for organs that Kimber-Allen supply to the trade exclusively. Our re-built organ will have fewer of their components than it did previously as we have meticulously specified the manufacturers of all the components that the organ builder will buy in. These will come from two companies in Brandon, Suffolk, one in Lancashire and also from the USA. Components from these suppliers will be found on many famous instruments such as those at King's College Cambridge and St. Paul's Cathedral. However, those UK manufacturers will themselves buy some parts from Swanley.

FH Browne and son, our organ builders, do more work in house than some. In January they started refurbishing the soundboards – these are what the pipes stand upon, some of them are over 120 years old and this is probably their first refurbishment. During February they will have taken delivery of the components they are buying in and will be busy in their works fitting them to the refurbished soundboards and console. Some of the pipes will have been taken to the works for repair and up-grading but many will remain in the church where they will be cleaned – organ pipes are easily damaged and it makes sense not to remove them from the church if work to them can easily be done on site.

When we notified the church insurers that work to the organ was to be undertaken they asked, amongst other things, how many component parts there will be in the organ. Browne's answer – 'lots and lots' – may seem facetious to some but there really are almost too many to count. br />
I hope to be able to get down to the workshops in Canterbury to see some of the work in progress, partly because I would like to know that everything is going as we want but also because I love seeing craftsmen at work. Much of it would seem a bit strange and dull to many people and include very large hunks of wood being flooded with hot glue, hundreds of Neoprene seals that look like big Polo Mints being stuck to smaller bits of wood, large solenoids (fresh from Swanley) being fixed to yet more pieces of wood. All these things should not only make the instrument reliable for many years to come but will improve tuning.

Coming up next month: details of what is being done to improve the instrument's sound and make it more suitable for our needs. And no mention of Swanley, I promise!

January Update - The Console:

That's the bit where almost everyone can see the organist playing but he can't see anything much himself. I never could understand why that is. The console was made in 1963 when the organ was moved to the West gallery. In those days people were still fascinated by a musical instrument that could be played by remote control so everyone would have been very excited about it being as far from the organ itself as possible. It was made in the workshop of the organ builder, Kingsgate Davidson Ltd., In South London. Some of the dimensions are not standard, making it not very pleasant to play. If anyone had asked organ builder Mr. Davidson why that was, according to organ builders' legend he would have stroked his chin and said 'I shall consult with Mr. Kingsgate on the matter'. This would not have been a good answer, firstly because Mr. Kingsgate did not actually exist and never had and, secondly, the standard for console dimensions was not formalised until 1967 so he had a readymade excuse anyway.


After 55 years it is not surprising that almost everything in the console is worn out. It will be removed to the organ builder's works (quite possibly via Swanley) for complete refurbishment. The two keyboards will be replaced with top quality new ones. For some reason the old keyboards have five more keys than they need at the top which do nothing (Mr. Kingsgate could have been asked about that one too) and reducing the compass of the keyboards to the standard 56 notes will be a great help in correcting the console dimensions. The pedal board will be completely refurbished and will look like new. Inside, the wiring and switchgear, much of which looks a bit like a telephone exchange from the 1950s, will be stripped out and replaced with a digital transmission system, but more of that in the months to come.

Organs come in all shapes and sizes and the keyboards can number anything from one to seven. The St. Giles organ has two keyboards - referred to by organists as ‘manuals’ - which is the number one would expect in a relatively small building. This is quite sufficient for what the instrument is used for much of the time but the Choir also sings music where the accompaniment would have been written with a three or four manual organ in mind: playing it effectively on a two manual is not easy. Technology has come a long way since 1963 and it is now possible to include what are termed 'registration aids’ which could never have been countenanced then. These will make the instrument easier to play where a larger instrument is really called for. The same technology makes it much easier to do some other things that would have been difficult in 1963: more stop keys will appear, making the instrument appear larger than it was, although overall it will increase in size by just a few additional pipes.

Finally, the design of the music desk makes it almost impossible to see a conductor (to be fair, there was no reason to make Mr. Davidson tell Mr. Kingsgate off about this one as the console originally faced in another direction) so this will be altered and adequate console lighting provided.

The console is just one part of the works – and we don't yet know why organ builders have such a thing about Swanley. We shall have to wait until next month for that.

 

ABOUT ST. GILES CHURCH


Photos from the Workshop

Photos taken March 2019

 

Work In Progress

The photos below, also the ones below left, were taken mid February 2019.