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

6. Weighed in the Balance

Belshazzar would, no doubt, have approved of the organ. To a king who worshipped the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood and stone the combination of pipes, mechanism and musical entertainment would have been irresistible. Perhaps the strains of a Lefebure-Wely sortie would have been a suitable accompaniment to the feasting of the great ruler and his thousand lords - at least until the hand appeared to write its awful message on the wall, after which the atmosphere might best have been captured with a trenchant excerpt from the Reubke sonata.

The temptation in organ building, and most especially in organ buying, is to note with interest the exact quantities of brass, iron and wood to be specified and to balance the sum against the amount of gold and silver to be laid out on their acquisition. And, while the simple equation of dollars per rank may be of great interest to a hard-nosed Son of Nebuchadnezzar sitting on an organ selection committee, if this is the only criterion used in the judgement then the result will be found wanting.

To understand the difference between good organs and less good organs there has to be something more than this, and in this series of articles I have tried to shed light on chosen areas where artistic quality may be measured: -

First, I believe there was indeed a lingua franca or common denominator of musical and artistic excellence in organs from before the industrial age, and even in a small organ by an obscure builder (the Smith organ at Edam was our example in the first article in this series) those standards reflected a culture in which all hand-crafted objects, however mundane, were executed with beauty - as well as function - at the head of the list of requirements. Of course there were bad organs, as well as good ones, even then; though in a period where craftsmanship of many kinds was central to everyday life, people understood so well how to make things beautiful. Today we are impressed by complexity without beauty or ingenuity without art: these contemporary obsessions have little to do with music.

Secondly, the musical quality of an organ may be judged by starting with an analysis of its principal chorus, for without that structural backbone all else fails. In the middle articles of this set I looked at how the traditional organ chorus is made. There are many different kinds of chorus and the term covers many sounds made according to the taste of many artists and at many periods. Nevertheless the sound of principal stops of different pitches played together is the definitive effect of which the organ is capable and the root of its long and noble tradition.

Thirdly, the success of the chorus - and therefore of any other musical effect in the organ- can only be attained by unswerving application in all aspects of the craft. In articles four and five I highlighted the tasks of scaling, voicing and site finishing, suggesting some of the hazards and pitfalls inflicted on us by the merciless and inartistic rush of 'progress'. Many other aspects of the craft also affect tone: chest design, organ layout, action characteristics, winding and so on. All these also need to be considered with care.

Of course there is far more to an organ than just these selected elements, but in the space of a short series a handful of examples must serve to illustrate the point: only some organs are good.

In today's hurried and over-commercialised world the truth is that very few organs are good and the great majority are children of Babylon. Moreover, though there are countless areas in which the builder can strive to make the instrument better (more musical and artistic, more truly worthy of its role in worship or concert) it is ultimately the rest of us - listeners, players and purchasers - who need to be most alert to questions of good and bad. There is a task to be performed in trying to decide amongst ourselves what is truly excellent and worth encouraging, and what may be ignored. That task may not be easy, but the endless variety to be found in our instrument should make it enjoyable and informative. Gradually, by comparing instruments, analysing what we hear, and discussing our opinions we can help mould the path of organ building and thus of organ music and playing.

If and when any of us are charged with the daunting task of choosing an organ, that critical faculty must be exercised with more than usual attention. Choosing and commissioning an organ is not done in a committee room. It is not to do with bits of paper, with reports, proposals, letters and contracts (though these are all items that will require scrutiny during the process). It is not to do with agents or salesmen, though these functionaries may be flirtatious and persuasive. It is not to do with organists, whose length of tenure is infinitely shorter than the life of an organ and whose judgement is frequently affected by personal aspirations. It is a task primarily concerned with musical instruments and the judgement must be made in the field: committees must be prepared to travel en masse to see the work of those builders who interest them, and they must be ready to learn the task of comparison of unlike with unlike.

They may need a guide: this should not necessarily be the incumbent organist, whose understandable desire for more stops, more equipment, more playthings, may cloud his or her sense of stewardship or even lead to expressions of vanity - a big console, too many gadgets, inadequate consideration of architectural matters, more or bigger pipes than are right for the building. The guide may carry some unnecessarily grand title - consultant, adviser - but should be chosen in turn on the basis of track record and on ability to nurture human relationships.

Some qualifications for being an organ adviser are obvious enough: knowledge, impartiality, efficiency and experience. One important area is frequently neglected: an organ project is stressful and disruptive for all the parties concerned; it is the job of the adviser to create an environment where everything runs as smoothly as possible and thus the skills of a diplomat are perhaps more needed than any other. During the course of commissioning, constructing and installing an organ, the many complex relationships between buyer, player, and contractor will be defined - and tested to their limit. The success of those relationships will affect the result more deeply than one could possibly imagine. An angry organ-builder will be only too anxious to get the job finished; even the best builder has had experience of an 'unhappy' project where things just weren't as they should be. An unhappy organist will fail to find a new instrument's musical potential. A disillusioned buyer may lose interest in the organ and what it can do, and the instrument may be ignored or even fall into decay.

So an adviser needs to be a project manager with a gift for friendship. He or she needs to inform and encourage the buyer and committee, preferably allowing them to make all executive decisions (while offering considered opinion where it seems appropriate). Friendship between the buyer and the organ-builder should be encouraged: when the time comes for site installation cordial relations and at least some knowledge of each other's foibles are essential to success. Disputes - there are always one or two - are more easily settled if the parties feel they like each other at heart. From friendship follows respect for each other's needs and views, and that is a very good basis for the creative process to commence.

There will in due course be feasting and celebration, at which time the adviser should melt into the background and allow everyone else to take the credit. As for the writing on the wall - well, thankfully, in organ-building circles the disembodied hand does not customarily appear during the opening festivities. Discovering the quality of a new organ takes time - sometimes decades. Where a theatre critic may review a new production on the opening night, in organ building it takes far longer to develop a proper opinion. Repeated hearing, in different circumstances and with different players at the keys, may gradually unlock the secrets of an unfamiliar instrument.

There will be some organs that are weighed in the balance and found wanting, and the story of Belshazzar indicates exactly the paradox of that judgement. The value of an organ is not measured in gold, silver, brass, iron, wood and stone - but in the less readily tangible notions of art, inspiration, creativity and faith.

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