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Saving a Musical Jewel

The project to preserve the fine Hill & Son pipe organ of All Saints’ Cheltenham

Alex Fishburn was a Chorister at Durham Cathedral where he studied piano with Keith Wright and later organ with James Lancelot. Alex’s musical education continued at Chetham’s School of Music under the guidance of Christopher Stokes, during which time Alex was Assistant Organist at All Saints Church in Wigan, his hometown. He went on to study with Margaret Philips at the RCM and held posts at St Mary, Primrose Hill, Ss Peter and Paul, Bromley (where he toured with the church’s fine choir) and St John, Meopham. Alex took up the post of Director of Music at All Saints, Cheltenham in 2019. He is also a freelance organist, choral director, tutor, and composer.

The organ of All Saints’ Church was built in 1887 by renowned organ-builders Hill & Son. Designed by Adolf von Holst, father of famous composer Gustav Holst, alongside Arthur Hill and George Gardner (vicar of All Saints); the organ has withstood the test of time admirably, and still retains the excellent Hill tonal character. The organ is of significant local importance; other significant instruments in Cheltenham have not been kept in good working order and the instrument has inspired generations of musicians, including Gustav Holst of course, who sang in the choir as a boy.

When installed the organ consisted of 46 speaking stops, 50 ranks and seven couplers:

P: 16 16 16 10 8 8
C: 8 8 8 4 4 2 8 8 8
G: 16 8 8 4 4 3 2 III
S: 16 8 8 8 8 4 2 III 16 8 8 8 4
Usual six inter-department couplers.

The organ layout was unusual but well considered; All Saints is a large church, with high ceilings and a wide crossing. The organ chamber is to the north side of the chancel, and easily big enough to accommodate an organ of the size required to fill the building, but Arthur Hill chose to place the Great organ outside the chamber, in a case hung from the east wall of the north transept (seen in the photograph above). This position, combined with the fact that the back of this case consists of the solid stone wall, means that this department projects excellently into the building. This position did, however, create a problem; the Great organ couldn’t be heard well by the choir singing in the chancel, while in the nave, it drowned out their singing. This was rectified in 1896 with the addition of a Chancel Great department in a new case above the console.

Various alterations were made in the subsequent years, including the installation of tubular-pneumatic action in 1899 (later converted to electro-pneumatic in 1953), the addition of a 16ft Trombone to the pedal organ (from the Hill transept organ at Worcester Cathedral) an 8ft reed on the Great organ and a 32ft extension (as far as FFFF) to the Pedal Open Diapason.

The organ was rebuilt in 1953 by Nicholson & Co of Worcester. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, many instruments were sadly altered beyond recognition in an effort to embrace the popular neo-classical and neo-baroque trends. The All Saints instrument did not escape this, sadly, but it fared better than most instruments did; the tonal alterations mainly focusing on the choir and solo organs, leaving the characteristic Hill diapason choruses in tact.

Nicholson & Co also partially electrified the key and stop actions and replaced the original Hill console, dividing the Choir and Solo organs (providing them each with their own manual keyboard) and re-voicing the Great reed.

A few tonal alterations have been made since then, and other mechanical interventions to keep the organ playing (including the replacement of the Great and Swell under-actions with new electropneumatic units and the replacement of some of the organ’s electrical systems in the 1990s). The current specification is:

P: 32 16 16 16 16 10⅔ 8 8 8 4 16 8
C: 16 8 8 8 4 4 2⅔ 2
G: 16 8 8 4 4 2⅔ 2 III 8
S: 16 8 8 8 8 4 4 2 III 16 8 8 8 4
S: 8 8 8 4 8 8 8 8

After 130+ years, time has taken its toll on the organ. Major components are beginning to fail; the original leatherwork on reservoirs and wind trunks is perishing, with large sections held together with emergency patches and, in some cases, duct tape. The 1953 electrics are failing and the woodwork, particularly the complex internal structures of the soundboards, are showing signs of the effects of continuous changes in atmospheric conditions; including cyphers, runnings and murmurs, etc. The internal splits also affect the tuning of the instrument, as pressure is not maintained within the bars (the individual channels for each note), meaning that tuning the reeds in particular is a constant compromise, trying to ensure they are sounding as good as possible when used both alone and in larger combinations.

Swell organ pipework

The church has recently launched a huge campaign to re-build the organ. This will be a once-in-a-generation project including the removal of most, if not all, of the organ for the first time since its installation in 1887. The organ’s pipes will be cleaned and repaired, worn out mechanisms will be restored and perished leather will be replaced with new.

The console will be overhauled and the piston provision revised, taking advantage of modern technology.

Conservative tonal revisions will be made, including the provision of a new 2ft Harmonic Gemshorn stop on the Solo organ (replacing the original which was lost in the 1950s), replacement (or re-voicing) of the unsatisfactory Vox Humana stop (a Kirkland rank from Burton-upon-Trent town hall, replacing a twelfth which itself replaced the original Hill Vox Humana, sadly now lost), completing the compass of the 32ft stop to bottom C and moving the Tuba, currently located at the back of the solo box deep within the chamber, to a new location where its commanding tone will be heard more effectively within the church. Finally, a new 8/4ft diapason rank will be added to the Pedal organ to provide it with some independence and clarity.

Swell organ pipework

The public face of the fundraising appeal consists of a revolutionary approach to the popular “Sponsor-a-Pipe” idea. The website features an interactive “virtual” organ, where users can select a stop and hear each pipe (sampled over three days in the summer of 2020) by clocking on one of the virtual keys. The project needs to raise £500,000 to undertake this colossal project, and every contribution is vital. Please do visit the website: www.sponsorapipe.co.uk

While the funds are raised, the organ continues to be at the heart of the church’s music; accompanying the fine choir and featuring in concerts either alongside other instruments or as a solo instrument in its own right.

The next recital is on 31st July and features Jonathan Hope (Gloucester Cathedral). A live view of the console (featuring multiple camera angles) will be projected onto a large screen allowing audience members to see the action.

Promotional video: https://youtu.be/5Au2Nc7DnlQ

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