More Sneezes from the Organ Loft
Variety is the spice of console life, as David Bridgeman-Sutton shows in the second of his wanderings around organ lofts
Are organ consoles less dusty when they are visible than when they are hidden in a loft or tribune? Cleaners, voluntary and paid, seem to avoid plying their dusters near instruments that are not on view. Many organists, indifferent to a high degree of muddle and even of dirt, react strongly to any tidying-up, however well-meant. On show or not, polished or dusty, consoles and their features are an endless source of interest.
Picture 1 is of the Willis organ at St Mary's, Reading - and as with most well-equipped 4 manual consoles, there is plenty to interest the organ-lover. Of particular note are the swell pedals, which appear to show that both swell-boxes are “half-closed”. They are in fact sprung to return to this neutral position in Willis's “infinite speed and gradation system” which is employed here. Forward movement of a swell-pedal opens the shutters – and vice versa – with the speed of the operation depending on the extent of these movements. A very slow crescendo from fully closed to fully opened is achieved by holding the pedal very slightly forward of its sprung position, return to which causes all movement to cease. As the position of the pedal is no guide to that of the swell shutters, a visual indicator is provided for each box. The system does all that its name claims for it – but its use requires some practice
The system was introduced to provide sensitive operation of swell-boxes in instruments where direct mechanical linkage is not practicable. The earlier “whiffle-tree” method, (still widely employed and universally so in cinema organs), has the disadvantage of opening shutters in a series of “jerks” - discrete steps that hearers may find far from discreet. The diagram below, left, shows a typical 8-stage whiffle-tree stage layout. The pneumatic motors, controlled by contacts on the swell pedal, are inflated in sequence, each moving the swell actuation rod a short distance via the series of levers.
With reversal of pedal movement, contacts are broken, motors collapse and shutters are opened by means of a spring (This arrangement is employed to ensure that shutters are left open when wind is turned off.). The adoption of 16 – and even of 32 – stage systems fails to produce absolutely smooth control. Hence the Willis system and others that have been developed more recently. General opinion seems to be that where possible, direct mechanical linkage in the best of all means.
The Willis console has that most useful accessory, a General Crescendo pedal – rather larger than the swell pedals. This brings on stops on all divisions from ppp to fff, overriding any drawn combinations. On very large instruments, the relatively short travel of the pedal and the consequent shortness of the “steps” can be a disadvantage.
Many German and Austrian – and some American – builders prefer the “rollschweller” shown – together with quantities of dust - in picture 3. The player uses the sole of the foot to revolve the cylinder forward (crescendo) and backward (decrescendo). This mechanism seems to have been introduced by the great German builder, Walcker of Ludwigsburg in 1856 for his organ at Ulm Minster (sometimes inaccurately termed the cathedral) which had 100 speaking stops. The gearing of this device enables distances between successive steps to be greater than with the General Crescendo pedal.
A few consoles cause the hardiest organ-crawler to start in disbelief. One such, in your writer's view, is that now in the gallery of St Mary Magdalen in the city of Oxford – picture 4. This was designed to give the player an unobstructed view of the church below. The stops are operated by lift-button-type light touches and appear rather too spread out for convenience. In fact the whole is reminiscent of the control desk of an interstellar space vehicle in a sci-fi film: replace the manuals with a few switches, levers and dials and no questions would be asked.
Oxford was long-called the City of Dreaming Spires – modified by some critics to the City of Screaming Choirs. If the right – or possibly wrong combination of buttons is pressed, do those spires, with their own unison screams, ascend toward the heavens?
David Bridgeman-Sutton, November 2009
Picture Credits: Thanks to Philip Wells for pic 1 and 4, Carey Moore for the diagram and picture 3 by Jenny Setchell.