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MAKING MODERN CLASSICAL ORGANS by Dominic Gwynn

Our new organs are based closely on historic classical English organs, which we consider to be particularly beautiful, and particularly appropriate for English church music and the re-discovery of English music before about 1850. The core of the instrument is always close to the original style, but we develop the organs in varying degrees so that they suit the requirements of the customer. The important thing is that the sound and character of classical English organs are once more accepted as normal, so the new organs are partly copied but may also have modern key compass, balanced swell pedals, pedal organs and modern wind systems.

Our first organs were chest and chamber organs built for music colleges and Early Music groups. We made chest organs, including our second organ for Peter Holman and the Parley of Instruments, which have helped to illuminate Peter’s revival of British music of the 17th and 18th centuries. We have made a copy of the ca1630 consort organ at Staunton Harold for Harm Vellguth in Hamburg. The organs which often accompanied 16th and 17th century English viol consort music were of a particular sort, they are ideal for their contribution to this wonderful repertoire, and there are too few of them available for modern viol consorts to use. The fluty little chest organs which are usually used with viols (if any organ is used) are just not the same.

We have made organs for churches in Canada, the Netherlands, England, Japan and Germany. We used the organs of Richard Bridge at Christ Church Spitalfields (1735) and St Leonard Shoreditch (1758) in London as models for the sound of our early organs in Vancouver, Den Haag, Marldon in Devon, South Shields and Yonago in Japan. We used the work of Father Smith at Finedon in Northamptonshire (1704) and Great St Mary’s Cambridge (1698) as models for the organs at Olpe-Rehringhausen in Westphalia, Magdalene College Cambridge, St Endellion in Cornwall and Odiham in Hampshire. The work of Bridge and Smith are not dissimilar, but the the slightly higher cut-ups and slightly more open toes of the Smith organs mean these organms respond better to northern European music. The early style of Father Smith was used in our organ at St Matthew Sheffield, based on the organ in the Grote Kerk in Edam (1664) – it is a Dutch organ of the 17th century, the most beguiling of all organ styles in our view..

Underlying all our activities is a desire to revive the classical tradition of English organbuilding and to raise the level of interest in old English organs. Since most old English organs have been irredeemably altered or destroyed, it is mainly on new organs, or on reconstructed organs using original parts, that today’s players can recreate the music of the past, and create new music with its roots in the English classical tradition.

There is a continuing appeal about the classical organ, its discipline and compactness, the logic that comes from being centred round a slider wind chest with mechanical actions. The relative inflexibility in registration is also a virtue, since the player has to think about the expressive side of his playing rather than relying solely on the colours and dynamics at his or her disposal. Modern registration aids tend to lead to an inflexible style of playing.

Nonetheless, these organs are also ‘normal’ organs, helping to realise a wide repertoire of music, and accompanying congregational singing of all sorts; they are as eclectic in their use as modern church and chamber organs have to be. That does not compromise their character, or the standards to which they are made.

The sourcing of materials is a crucially important part of the manufacture, and in this modern world is not always easy. Our organs use traditional materials, oak and pine for the wooden parts, leather and hot hide glue, increasingly stainless steel wire, etc. Our oak supplier used to be Whitmore’s Timber of Claybrooke Magna near Lutterworth in Leicestershire, whose stocks and selection were second to none in the UK, but since their tragic reduction by a new owner we have turned to Somerscales near Grimsby, smaller but equally conscientious. For pine we have wavered between Canadian Yellow Pine or Russian redwood, the former available in adequate dimensions, but surprisingly corrosive, the latter the traditional softwood in classical English organs but increasingly unavailable in adequate dimensions. We make our own metal pipes, both flue pipes and reed pipes, but we do not cast our own metal, which we buy from Jacques Stinkens (Zeist NL) or Aug. Laukhuff (Weikersheim D) from whom we also buy electric blowers and small action parts.

We use traditional woodworking techniques in the casework and the mechanism. We use as few screws as possible, no plywood, etc. not so much because these modern additions to the woodworkers’ repertoire are wrong in themselves, but because traditional woodworking leads to a different attitude, more careful, more exacting on technique, more mindful of the materials and the way they are used in the instrument. In the sensitive parts of the organ, such as the wind chest and the keyboards, it is vital that the parts do not shrink or expand, or change shape, with humidity changes, or at least, not more than a minute amount.

We keep our workshop humidity, including the wood stacks, at around 60% RH, which works well in the UK (wetter in the west, drier in the east), but sometimes have to accommodate drier environments where heating levels are higher. Heating churches during the week is an increasing trend, and during the occasional cold winter the effects of driness bellows about 40% in previously damp churches can be disastrous for organ mechanisms.

We like to think that our instruments are made to last for as long as the organs we have restored or reconstructed, decades without maintenance, and centuries with the occasional clean and overhaul. Nonetheless it is important to us that all the parts are accessible for maintenance.