(No.5 of 6 articles published in Choir & Organ in 1998-9 under the heading 'Spit and Polish')

5. In at the Finish

In 1868 the Sheffield organ-builder Charles Brindley was engaged on a complete rebuild of the organ in Selby Abbey in Yorkshire. The instrument that resulted was never famous, but a newspaper account of it gives a rare insight into nineteenth century practice in tonal finishing:

"... it is in the voicing of the pipework that the greatest skill and care has been shown ... The whole of the voicing has been done by Mr. Brindley's own hand, and carefully adapted to the building by repeated experiment on the spot. This is a manifest improvement on the old plan of voicing in the factory with no reference to the specialities of the building for which the organ is designed." (1)

Here is encapsulated an argument that lies at the centre of nineteenth and twentieth century organ building. For example, the tradition at the London house of Willis was to voice the pipes in the factory, reducing time spent on site to an absolute minimum. Once the organ reached the building, only regulation of individual ranks would be pursued further; balance between them was already 'set'. This can be checked on an instrument by 'Father' Willis: his many harmonic flutes are beautiful voices in their own right, and build well in families. However, they do not blend well with neighbouring stops of different types.

Meanwhile Lewis, inspired (as was Brindley) by the on-site voicing of the German builder Edmund Schulze considered factory preparation as only the start of a process that continued at great length in the building. The consistently careful balance of one rank to the next and the relative effect of the different departments in relation to their scope and position exists throughout Lewis's work and can hardly be accidental. Though Lewis's principals and reeds are quite different from those of Willis, his Gedackts, Salicionals and Harmonic Flutes are broadly similar - and yet they blend in a sophisticated and elegantly musical way that was eternally out of the reach of his more commercial rival.

The same approach distinguishes the great works of Cavaille-Coll. Each of the larger instruments has a distinct musical personality, and while this is sometimes connected with pipes retained from a previous instrument, it is also a result of the process of tonal finishing on site. This work was executed by a small and trusted group of specialist harmonistes who were regarded as artists in their own right. In fact there may even be an additional element based on regional cuisine, for while the plump-sounding warmth of the organ at St. Etienne Caen reminds one of Normandy farmhouse cooking, the fiery eructations and occasional flatus audible at St. Sernin Toulouse are surely associated with the sausage, bacon, beans and garlic in the local Cassoulet. The harmonistes must have been eating well at a nearby restaurant!

The extent and quality of site finishing may easily be 'read', at an organ old or new. For example, one can check how the voices are balanced for bass and melody, how they relate to each other, and how many different combinations of them are truly useful; gradually these tests can be expanded to include all parts of the instrument and an assessment of the relationship between foundation and chorus, between flues and reeds, between manuals and pedals, and between one department and another.

Even at his best, Willis followed a formula, often seeming to cheat his organs out of interesting possibilities. The major effects are dazzling, and the ease of control impressive, but there are repeated duplications of sonorities treated only for their individuality, making sense neither in balance with other voices. Lewis's giant flue choruses are far more demanding for the listener, the build-up is unpredictable and less easily controlled, and the full effects are less immediately spectacular; yet analysis in detail reveals Lewis as by far the more thoughtful and artistic builder, providing countless unexpected combinations from a palette that appears narrow only on paper.

What happens in the last moments on site can indeed define the quality of organ building, and helps us to distinguish the organ factory from the craftsman organ-builder. There is no real consensus between members of the profession as to what constitutes an appropriate method. Frobenius of Denmark is one of the few European firms to have retained the tradition of voicing entirely on site, but in order to keep pace with production back at the workshop they have to work at a good pace. Other builders perform a greater or lesser degree of work in advance at the workshop, calling it variously 'preparation', 'pre-voicing' or 'voicing' according to taste. For those who only 'prepare' at home, the site-work is called 'voicing'; for those who 'voice' at home the site-work is called 'finishing'. Some hardly seem to bother, and there are spectacular examples from mainland Europe of modern organs that have barely been voiced at all, and of famous firms who rely entirely on subcontractors for pre-voiced reeds which are merely dropped into the organ and regulated.

In the English-speaking world the dominance of organ factories has meant that the art of site finishing has been on the verge of extinction for many years, and there are many companies in existence who are not fully aware of what marvellously musical results may be obtained by careful work in the building. A voicing-room culture, combined with the discomfort and long hours inevitable on site, tends to encourage an ideal of mechanical perfection in voicing, as heard at close quarters on the voicing machine or 'jack'. In a large company with many organs being turned out, voicing may be in the hands of several people who are classified and educated as workers rather than as musical stylists carrying the reputation of their employers. Neither full-time voicers nor company Principals have much time left to work on site, and finishing may be conducted by area representatives or local technicians. In such an atmosphere, a 'deadline' mentality usually prevails as an additional burden: organ-builders who are driven by sales rarely have the strength of character to demand the postponement of eagerly awaited dedications and opening concerts. In such circumstances, if the organ for any reason arrives late, then it is inevitably the musical result that suffers.

There is no reason why extensive preparation should not be made in the workshop, especially of reeds. Fluework may be put on speech and tried on a machine before it leaves for its destination, but no-one should ever doubt that the task left to be performed when the organ reaches its destination is of equal or greater importance and should not be pressured or down-graded - or performed by mere deputies. It should be taken for granted that, whatever the degree of preparation conducted in advance, the entire musical effect (as opposed to the technical process of making the pipes 'go' and sound like each other) is achieved in the building. Only then can the various ranks be balanced to each other in their final position on the chests and in the building.

To take an example: three eight-foot flue stops on a Great division - perhaps Principal, Flute and String - should be set up not merely for their own qualities but for the individuality and usefulness of the four different combinations that an enquiring organist may try out. This inevitably means repeated backtracking to adjust initial settings of power and of balance bass to treble. When one considers the additional roles these stops may have as components in the chorus; in accompaniment of other voices or in relation to other departments; as part of registrations including mutation ranks; or as colouring matter for reeds - it will then be seen that there is a great deal to think about and only 'repeated experiment on the spot' will get the job done.

My own feeling, based on experience of several slightly different methods, is that the normal factory standard of site-finishing conducted at a pace of 'three ranks per working day' is more racy than rational - and the practice I once encountered of 'three stops per day' - mixtures and reeds included - insupportable.

Learning about organ tone using musical examples as a guide should be a part of every voicer's training. The absence of that component - an interest in music was actively discouraged in British organ building thirty years ago - has had tragic consequences from which it is taking time to recover. The pyramid-shaped tonal structures of the past - discussed and criticised in previous articles - still cast their shadow. For example: from the assumption (on pseudo-technical grounds) that foundation should be louder than harmony stem many musical inadequacies: weak and unblending choruses, over-loud pedal fluework, mutations too feeble for either the German or the French repertoire. From a desire to see each rank as a technical entity in its own right stems a further defect all too often found in new instruments (as well as in less good old ones), where individual ranks sound perfectly pleasant but two drawn together do not seem to blend.

The customer should be fully informed as to the peculiar nature of the last stage of installation. Finishers should operate in the most carefully regulated conditions (but rarely enjoy them): there should be absolute silence; other activities should be suspended until the work is finished; services should be rescheduled or moved to remote chapels where possible. When Samuel Green built a new twenty-three stop organ for Salisbury Cathedral in 1792, a local newspaper advised: "it is understood that no person will be allowed to visit the Cathedral Church during the time that Mr. Green is employed in voicing and tuning the new organ, which may probably require a fortnight to accomplish" - an ideal edict.(2) Opening events and concerts should not be scheduled until after a new organ has arrived - in full understanding that this may mean that a new instrument is in use for six months or more before it is officially 'opened'.

The conditions surrounding the tonal finishing of an organ are delicate to a degree, and yet essential to success at the most fundamental level. Only in those last few weeks can something still so obviously a machine be turned into what it is actually supposed to be - a musical instrument.

(1) The Organs of Selby Abbey ('new edition', Selby 1976) p3
(2) B. Matthews: The Organs and Organist of Salisbury Cathedral (2nd Edition, Salisbury 1972) p13

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