A Brief History of the Moot Hall Organ

by Ian Ray

Honorary Borough Organist since 1988

 

The magnificent three-manual organ was built in 1902 at a cost of £1000 by Messrs. Norman & Beard, popularly regarded as the pre-eminent organ builders of the late Victorian/Edwardian era. Designed by Mr John Belcher, architect of the Town Hall, the beautiful oak case was constructed by Messrs. Kerridge & Shaw, with Messrs. Fabrucci & McCrossan contributing the carved woodwork. Built primarily to enhance the dignity of formal civic occasions such as the annual Mayor-Making Ceremony and the famous Colchester Oyster Feast, the specification of the organ was characteristic of the early twentieth century and late Romantic period. Before the luxury of recorded and transmitted sound, as well as the considerable challenges of travelling, the provincial organ recital often included transcriptions of standard orchestral pieces and operatic extracts. So, alongside the typical fundamental diapasons (the main, or characteristic tone of a pipe organ), we find the clarinet, oboe, horn and different varieties of flute.

The organ remained in its original form until it was overhauled in 1938 when the original zinc pipes were gilded; the old trigger-swell pedal was replaced by a balanced swell pedal and thumb and pedal pistons were added, enabling the organist rapidly to change and combine various tone qualities. In 1952 a second overhaul saw the pitch being raised from a1=435Hz (French Pitch) to a1=440 Hz, by then the accepted norm, enabling the organ to be played with other orchestral instruments manufactured to the new pitch. In 1964 a further overhaul took place and in 1972–1973 the organ was once more overhauled and the choir organ was tonally remodelled, in line with the contemporary fashion for providing registers to facilitate greater clarity in the performance of the music of J. S. Bach and other composers of the Baroque era. Hill, Norman & Beard also replaced the doors in front of the Choir Organ with a mesh, which allows the pipes to speak more freely into the hall. After this, apart from the twice yearly regular tuning and maintenance visits carried out more recently by craftsmen from The Village Workshop following the demise of Hill, Norman & Beard, no further overhaul or refurbishment of the organ took place. Regular pleas from the Borough Organist and the organ tuners for increasingly urgent repairs sadly fell on deaf ears; the condition of the organ steadily deteriorated over the years. On arriving to prepare for the 2003 Annual Mayor-Making Ceremony, the organist was informed by the Town Serjeant that the organ tuners had left a message to the effect that the organ was too unreliable to be played in public. The organ has languished for more than a decade and has been largely silent.

The organ has been carefully restored by Harrison & Harrison Ltd of Durham. The pitch change made in 1952 has been retained, but the later tonal changes have been reversed to allow the organ’s broad-shouldered Edwardian musical character to be re-established. The funds were generously provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Friends of the Moot Hall Organ, with support from The Essex Heritage Trust and The Hervey Benham Charitable Trust as well as many individual benefactors.


Organ Specifications

The organ has been restored largely to its 1902 specification.  W = wood; M = metal

Pedal Organ (C-f; 30 notes)

  • Open Diapason; 16 — W
  • Bourdon; 16 — Stopped wood
  • Principal; 8 — Derived from Open Diapason
  • Flute; 8  — Derived from Bourdon

Choir Organ (C-c4; 61 notes)

  • Viole d’Orchestre; 8 — M; Harrison & Harrison, 2015
  • Lieblich Gedeckt; 8  — W & M; replaced 1972, restored H & H 2015
  • Dulciana; 8  — M
  • Concert Flute; 4 — M
  • Orchestral Clarionet;  8 — M; Harrison & Harrison, 2015
  • Choir Sub
  • Choir Octave
  • Tremulant

Great Organ (C-c4; 61 notes)

  • Double Open Diapason; 16 — W & M, leathered lips
  • Grand Open Diapason; 8 — M, heavy gauge, leathered lips
  • Claribel Harmonic Flute; 8 — W, part harmonic
  • Octave; 4 — M
  • Hohl Flute; 4 — W
  • Fifteenth; 2 — M
  • Mixture; IV — M, composition: 12.15.19.22
  • Posaune; 8 — M, hooded pipes
  • Clarion; 4 — M, hooded pipes – independent rank
  • Reeds Sub Octave

Swell Organ (C-c4; 61 notes)

  • Contra Gamba; 16 — Wood bass 1–12, Metal from Tenor C
  • Open Diapason; 8 — M
  • Rohr Flute; 8 — W and M with wooden stoppers
  • Viol d’Amour; 8 — M
  • Voix Celestes; 8 — M from Tenor C up
  • Principal; 4 — M
  • Harmonic Gemshorn; 2 — M Harrison & Harrison, 2015
  • Mixture; IV — M 15.17.19.22; quint mixture from c#26
  • Horn; 8 — M
  • Oboe; 8 — M
  • Swell Octave
  • Reeds Sub Octave
  • Tremulant

Couplers

  • Swell to Great
  • Swell to Choir
  • Swell to Pedal
  • Choir to Great
  • Choir to Pedal
  • Great to Pedal
  • Great Pistons to Ped. Compos. (added 1938)
  • 4 Composition pedals to Great Organ
  • 4 Composition pedals to the Swell organ
  • 1 Great to Pedal on and off (reversible)
  • Four thumb pistons to Great, Swell and Choir (added in 1938)
  • Reversible thumb piston Great to Pedal (in Swell key-slip, added in 1938)

 

The original contract contained the following interesting observations on the organ that would be provided:

  1. ‘The whole of the pipework to have spotted metal trebles and to be voiced on special principles — producing the finest Orchestral quality of sound.’
  2. ‘The voicing of the pipes to be such as to secure power and accurate balance of tone in full combination, together with purity and delicacy in the soft and solo registers. The scaling of the pipes to be specially adapted to size and requirements of the Building, and to be carried out under the personal supervision of Mr. Herbert Norman.’
  3. ‘The action to be Tubular-pneumatic throughout of the most improved principal (patent 18373 [dated] 1891).’

 

The original contract document
The original contract document

 

Graffiti inside the organ chamber records that CW Perkins opened the organ on 15 May 1902
Graffiti inside the organ chamber records that CW Perkins opened the organ on 15 May 1902

 

Graffiti in the organ chamber
Graffiti in the organ chamber

 

Two blank stops at the console were offered in the contract as ‘Bombarde 16ft and Trumpet 8ft’ — ‘made with specially shaped Reeds for producing a majestic tone’. This must have been something of a sales pitch, as there was not room for such large pipes within the cramped organ chamber.

The pitch of the organ was formerly c2 =517Hz (a1=435Hz) which was known as ‘Normal Continental Queen’s Hall USA PMA 1891 or French New Pitch’. This was changed to modern pitch (a1=440Hz) between 5 August and 19 September 1952. This modern pitch has been retained in the restoration work.

The pipes are inscribed with Job Number 419. The inaugural recital was given by C.W. Perkins, organist of Birmingham Town Hall (1888–1923) on 15 May 1902 — graffiti inside the organ chamber records this fact.

Keeping up the traditions
Keeping up the traditions