Preserving Norwich Cathedral's organ for the future

By Ashley Grote, Master of Music - 22 June 2022
Organ Project

As work begins on an ambitious 15-month project to rebuild Norwich Cathedral's historic organ, Master of Music Ashley Grote looks back at the history of the incredible instrument and the plans for its future.

In 1899, the Norwich-based organ building firm Norman and Beard were commissioned to build a new organ for Norwich Cathedral. With five manuals and 65 speaking stops, it was a large instrument for its time and, alongside the new, it included some historic pipework which dated back to earlier instruments from as far back as the end of the 17th century. The instrument would likely have lasted for many years longer, had it not been for an electrical fire that took hold during Evensong one day in April 1938. The last remaining chorister who was singing at that service, Duncan Pigg, died only in March 2022 and often recounted the story saying that Dr Heathcote Statham, who was playing at the time, realised the organ was on fire only when the electrics failed and it stopped sounding!

So it was that, despite the outbreak of war in 1939, a new instrument was constructed and completed in 1942. Some eight years later, the magnificent carved wooden organ case that we see today was designed and added by the famous architect Stephen Dykes Bower.

Norwich Cathedral organ
The fact that this remarkable instrument, with its 105 speaking stops and 6,655 pipes, has survived the past 80 years without a complete restoration before now is testament to the quality of the workmanship with which it was built. There have been some tonal changes over the years, in line with evolving trends and fashions in organ music and building. Brian Runnett (the brilliant young organist of the Cathedral from 1967 until his untimely death in 1970 at the age of 35) made some alterations and, in 1969, at his own expense, added the famous ‘Cymbelstern’ – the rotating star on the west face of the organ case with its peal of six small bells, which was initially powered by a motor intended for car windscreen wipers! Under Dr Michael Nicholas, Organist and Master of Music from 1971 to 1994, the organ saw further changes including re-voicing of the powerful Great reeds and mixtures.

Over recent decades, the organ has suffered with an ever-increasing number of mechanical faults, with ciphers (sticking notes) becoming a common occurrence, as members of the congregation will know all too well. It has been apparent for some time that, in order to ensure the organ is playable for the next 80 years, a major rebuilding would be needed. Over the past 10 years, many hours of careful discussion, research, consultation and planning have been invested to come up with a scheme that will not only restore the organ to reliable working order, but also to ensure that it is an instrument of the highest possible quality, fit for purpose, and ready to serve the liturgical and musical life of the Cathedral and the City for years to come.

A music appeal, ‘They shall laugh and sing’, was established under the leadership of Dean Jane Hedges to raise money for the restoration of the organ and also to secure funding for both boy and girl choristers. The generosity of response both from within the Cathedral community and beyond was quite overwhelming, with the £2.5 million target reached in just over three years.

Organ Project
Organ builders Harrison and Harrison of Durham were appointed by the Dean and Chapter to undertake this once-in-a-lifetime project. Arguably the country’s leading organ building firm, Harrison and Harrison are well used to managing instruments of this size and scale, having recently rebuilt the organs in York Minster, Canterbury Cathedral and King’s College, Cambridge, to name a few.

In consultation with the Cathedral’s Master of Music, Organist and Canon Precentor, as well as the Chapter’s independent consultant on the project, the Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite, Harrison and Harrison have come up with a scheme which aims first and foremost to retain the musical character and sound of the organ as it is: an instrument in the English Romantic style, with a rich, colourful and varied musical palette, that fills the Cathedral with warm and powerful tone. Pipework of good quality and condition will be retained and restored. New pipework will be added where needed, most notably in a new Great division, sited on the North side of the Pulpitum screen above the organ console, intended to serve better the accompaniment of the Cathedral Choir in either side of the building. The mechanical components of the instrument will all be renewed and the electronics brought up to date. The 1942 console, now with worn out key action and dated technology, will be replaced with a new console that has been designed to make the instrument as accessible as possible to the player, with modern playing aids and some 7,992 levels of memory for registration settings to be stored.

The 1942 organ was designed to speak first and foremost into the Cathedral Nave for large services and concerts, with the choir and positive divisions on the east side serving the smaller area of the choir stalls for Choral Evensong. Today’s use of the Cathedral, with full congregations often on both sides of the Pulpitum screen, requires a more even distribution of sound throughout the building. With this in mind, the internal layout of the restored instrument will be considerably altered, with the Great and Swell soundboards running along the long axis of the building rather than across it, resulting in a sound which should be almost equal in volume in the east end of the Cathedral as in the west. This arrangement will also increase the variety of sound available for choral accompaniment in the quire.

Organ Project
The organ has now been dismantled and most of the instrument taken to the Harrison and Harrison workshop in Durham, where many months of preparatory work and construction have already been underway. During the period of the works, the Cathedral will be served by two temporary digital organs, supplied by Church Organ World of Manchester, one built by Copeman Hart and the other by Makin.

In January 2023, Harrison and Harrison will begin the careful process of re-installing the instrument in the Cathedral. This is anticipated to take about three months, completed just before Holy Week 2023. The gold coloured case pipes will be re-gilded giving a fresh new face to the instrument which will otherwise be unchanged in its outward appearance. After Easter, the long and pain-staking process of voicing the newly restored organ begins. Expected to last around two months, this involves going through the instrument pipe by pipe, regulating and tuning each one so that it speaks perfectly in the building and in balance with all the others. Quiet conditions are needed for this detailed work, so we will be asking visitors for their understanding in keeping noise to an absolute minimum during this time.

By the summer, this monumental project should be complete, with the organ ready for use again in choral services in September 2023. After a ‘settling in’ period, we look forward to an exciting programme of events to celebrate the joyous return of this magnificent instrument which is at the heart of our Cathedral worship and musical life.

O praise ye the Lord,
All things that give sound;
Each jubilant chord
Re-echo around;
Loud organs, His glory
Forth-tell in deep tone,
And sweet harp the story
Of what He hath done.

To read the full specification of the newly rebuilt organ click here: Norwich Cathedral organ specification

Pictures: Bill Smith

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