St. Dominic's Haverstock Hill

This essay first appeared on the electronic mailing list Piporg-l

What does an untouched Father Willis really sound like? As with the work of so many nineteenth century English organ builders, it is very difficult to be certain any more. I know the 1877 organ at the Union Chapel Islington, mentioned in an earlier posting, but in this instrument the Choir Organ has been enclosed, to its loss - and when I first heard it some years ago I though the tutti to be rather smooth. Where was the 'extreme brilliance' complained of by some of Willis's comtemporaries?

I puzzled over this for a long time. Of the really big Father Willis organs, nothing remains unaltered. Reading Town Hall (also 1860s, completed 1880s) is bright, but not very loud - perhaps stifled by the heavy case - though exceptionally successful in many ways. But I noticed that at Salisbury Cathedral (where, at the express insistence of the organist Walter Alcock, the fluework did not leave the building when Henry Willis III worked there in the 1930s) there is both power and an astonishing level of brightness in the upperwork. There are, of course, no high pitches - Willis was often content with a 1' as the highest rank in his mixtures - but the small-scaled upperwork is pushed incredibly hard and the tone of the individual pipes is loud and rather fierce.

When I first went to St. Dominic's Priory, Haverstock Hill it was a real eye-opener. The church is a large mid-Victorian barn of splendid quality and with a pretty immense acoustic. The organ stands in a very lofty north aisle, completely open, and commanding the nave and chancel equally. The organ retains all its nineteenth century pipework without change, and has the original Barker and tracker actions to the manuals, and charge-pneumatic to the Pedal organ. All the principal stops are voiced boldly and with a characteristic bright tone. The mixtures are, in their way, as uncompromisingly bright as some of the fiercest neo-baroque organs, but of course with zero attack and a quite different kind of brightness - narrow scale, narrow mouths, heavy nicking, blown hard. The organ is still at its original high pitch; only renovation work has ever been done on it; I feel fairly confident that the voicing and regulation are as left by the man himself (he is known to have done the finishing personally in this instance - the church is near his home).

The kind of fluework found here is not at all useful in a classical sense - it is far too reedy in tone, especially with the presence of tierces in the mixtures. It contrasts with the upperwork of Hill and Walker which, in keeping with an earlier tradition, tends to be large scale (especially the top notes) and voiced quick and dull (even sometimes fluty). But it does have the interesting quality that it secures an absolutely impeccable blend with the characteristic Willis reeds - here low pressure and fiery on the Swell, and seven-inch pressure and smooth tone for the Great and Pedal. This is surely a reflection of the English habit of rarely drawing a mixture unless a reed was on as well. The unenclosed Choir organ is fresh and perky, with a spectacularly bold Corno di bassetto - as loud as a French Cromorne but broad and woody.

Thomas Murray's recording of this wonderful organ is Vista VPS 1069 and was recorded in 1978.