Hugh Macpherson writes our guest blog this month. As a treble he was given singing lessons by the local organist. This engendered a life-long love of the instrument. His background was as a sales and marketing director in the photographic industry. Over the years he became a founding trustee of the Scottish Historic Organs Trust. However, more recently, he has been Trustee and Secretary of the Alexandra Palace Organ Appeal. Here he tells us about the Ally Pally organ.
The tale of this organ is an extraordinary survival story against great adversity, stretching over 140 years. As we see it today, the organ is being rebuilt from the ashes for the third time, but the heart of what made it such a great Victorian musical masterpiece remains.
When the great people’s palace was built in 1873 “Father” Henry Willis, arguably the most eminent organ builder of the day, was commissioned to build an organ worthy of the Great Hall. It was a superb instrument, but three weeks after completion fire destroyed both palace and organ. Willis was at the palace at the time of the fire and risked his life trying to rescue parts of his masterpiece.
Willis started on plans for a new organ before the embers had cooled. This organ had 98 speaking stops, and 39 couplers etc., making a total of 139 registers, and was completed for the opening of the reconstructed palace in 1875. It was regarded as Willis’s finest concert organ, being slightly smaller than the organ that he had built in 1871 for the Royal Albert Hall, but always held to be tonally finer.
The palace was closed during the First World War and used to house refugees. The refugees used oil-burning stoves and fluffy blankets. The organ became coated in soot and fluff. After the war, troops were sent to the palace in preparation for dispersal. They broke into the organ causing terrible damage. The railway line from the palace to Kings Cross was littered with looted pipes.
In 1925 the Alexandra Palace Restoration Committee came into being. A fund was launched which struggled at first. Then came the death of Queen Alexandra. It was decided that the grand organ in the Alexandra Palace would be restored as the people of North London’s memorial to the Queen. King George V gave his approval and fund-raising proceeded apace. The organ was rebuilt by Henry Willis III, grandson of the builder. There was a triumphant civic opening of the instrument in 1929. The 1930’s were a golden age for the instrument. It was at this time that the famous French organ virtuoso Marcel Dupré called it “The finest concert organ in Europe”. Recordings made at this time remind us of the magnificence of the completed instrument.
In 1939 the pitch of the organ was raised to modern concert pitch.
During World War Two a flying bomb blew out the glass in the great rose window behind the organ, and the elements did their worst – at one point the organ was covered in snow! After the war some compensation was paid to the palace, but little was available for the organ, which had suffered serious weather damage. During the following decades various fundraising events for the organ came and went.
In 1971 the Greater London Council offered the organ for sale. There was national outrage and questions in parliament. Nothing more was heard of the proposed sale. The organ was dismantled and stored at the palace, but even there more vandalism occurred. Eventually, Henry Willis 4, great-grandson of the builder stepped in to buy the organ ”On behalf of the nation”. He then removed the console and all but the largest facade pipes to his factory to prepare for eventual restoration. This was extremely fortunate, because the palace was once again partly destroyed by fire in 1980. The remaining base and frame of the organ including the huge 32’ display pipes were vaporised in the fire.
When the great hall was rebuilt from insurance money, little funds were available for the organ. To many, this might have seemed the end. But such was the reputation of the instrument, the magnificence of the old recordings, and the passion that it had generated over the years, that in 1982 the Alexandra Palace Organ Appeal was set up us a Charitable Trust to raise funds for the reconstruction of the instrument. Working from the large number of damaged but surviving original pipes in store at the Willis factory and from information held in the Willis archive, plans were made to start the great work.
After many years of tireless fundraising, and with the generous help of the Palace Trustees, and Henry Willis 4, work commenced. With assistance from a grant by The Foundation of Sports and the Arts, and many generous private donations the first phase of the reconstruction was completed in 1990, when the partly reconstructed organ sounded again in the Great Hall at the start of a series of celebrity recitals.
Half of the 98 stops have been installed, and the organ is beginning to sound as magnificent as it did in the 1930’s.
The Restoration Appeal Trustees in conjunction with the Alexandra Palace management have recently been able to commission some important work on the organ. The Solo reeds are on twenty-five to thirty inches of wind. Most date from 1875 and have suffered over the years from the change of pitch and from their exposed position. In 2019 the four ranks were removed to the Willis organ works in Liverpool and completely restored. They now sound as thrilling as they must have done in 1875. The next stage of the project is to restore the 16 and 32’ reed ranks. They are extremely large in scale and are very heavy indeed. They are in need of workshop restoration as they are developing structural problems and cannot at the moment hold their tuning. We hope to commence this work toward the end of 2020.
In such a vast space with a glass roof there are continuing problems of temperature control and humidity. We are seeking to replace the current humidifier with a more comprehensive system.
It is our hope that in the next few years we can attract some major donors to finish this great work. The Alexandra Palace Willis is the only major concert organ in London to await restoration.
The organ appeal trustees, in conjunction with the palace trustees organise an ongoing series of recitals and concerts to continue this mighty work. A comprehensive illustrated history of the organ and a full specification of the organ can be found on our website below.
For further information on concerts, and to join the Friends of the Alexandra Palace Organ:
If you would like to write a ‘Monthly Feature’, do please get in touch. It can be about anything to do with the organ. Perhaps your experience on a course you’ve attended, buying a new organ, the day in the life of an organ builder, my favourite organ. I’d love to hear from you!