Wednesday, 11 April 2018

A Revolutionary Instrument

For the past month or so I have been working on the restoration of a remarkable survivor from Revolutionary France. I have been interested in organized pianos for some time and the 1791 Erard organized piano is a particularly fine example. An almost identical model from the same year is in the Cité de la Musique in Paris (see here) and it would seem that these two instruments are the only two that survive from about fifteen that Erard made in 1790 and 1791.
This is what the piano looked like when bought by the client for whom I am doing the restoration.
The organ pipes are all in the case below the piano. We are still trying to find out the history of this instrument but it is clear that various work has been done both the piano and organ over the past century or so. However it would appear that apart from the replacement of the foot-blown bellows and reservoir by an electric blower there have been only minor repairs to the action and pipework. Remarkably, the pitch of the organ appears to be entirely original as there is no evidence for alteration of the pipe lengths. This suggests that the piano and the organ have not been played together for a very long time as the piano has suffered somewhat from excessive string tension as the pitch has been raised. There is much more to be learnt from this instrument. I will be posting updates from time to time. In the meantime here are a few photos from the early stages of the restoration.

The organ with all but the largest wooden pipes removed

The beautifully made oak sliders on a leathered table.

Part of the stop action in which the sliders are actuated either by the hand stops or by foot pedals

A bird's eye view of the pipe work. Some metal pipes laid on their side had become so deformed that they were with a pipemaker being rounded out when this photo was taken

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Art of Georgian Cabinet Making

An interesting little challenge came into the workshop recently. Part of the case of a chamber organ made by George England in about 1760 was missing. This particular case had been in storage for many years in various locations and one of the tower caps had somehow been mislaid. The tower caps are very distinctive features of organs of this period and with quite complex mouldings. The task was to make a copy of the matching tower cap.

The tower cap is made of mahogany on a pine carcass.
The side mouldings are made separately and all the profiles were made by hand using a mixture of traditional wooden moulding planes and more modern (but now discontinued) Record combination planes.
The top of the cap is solid mahogany and had to be carved by hand as the radius was far too big for my lathe. I suspect that the originals were made as a pair with a circular cap made on a large lathe and then cut in half. The rest of the carcass is covered with a mahogany veneer and smaller mouldings. There is also a pine 'roof' on the tower cap to keep out dust.

The natural mahogany colour will be stained and polished to match the rest of the case later in the restoration.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

What lurks inside a windchest

I am currently building a practice organ for a client using a compact secondhand windchest with two sets of pallets on a common grid. When I finally got wind into the chest many of the pallets leaked and there were quite a few runnings. My usual technique of applying hot glue to the tail end of the pallets in situ often fixes such problems but in this case had almost no effect. The pallets were covered with a fairly thin layer of leather on a white felt base. The tails of the pallets seemed to be covered in very thin leather that was lifting. There was nothing for it but to take the chest apart and examine the pallets carefully with a view to releatherng them. The first thing that was evident was that the tails were not covered in leather at all but in some sort of canvas or calico. Secondly the tails of the leather seemed to be fixed to a rather odd type of leather - something with lines on it and the occasional flash of colour.

When I removed the screwed-down strip many of the pallets were actually loose - not glued down at all. When I removed all of the pallets the awful truth was revealed! The tails had been 'glued' to a very Sixties-like piece of plastic table cloth.

When I took off the covering it was possible to read 'a Nairn-Williamson product' on the back. Nairn- Williamson were producing waterproof plastic table cloths and the like in the early to mid 1960s. It didn't look as if there had been any attempt to roughen the surface of the cloth before trying to attach the pallet tails. I suspect that someone had done a bodge job on this organ and it probably never worked properly. One pallet had a jointed piece of leather that was bound to leak.
So tomorrow's work is to strip all 112 pallets and recover them in a double thickness of leather, as well as replacing the loop of thread (yes really) with a properly fixed brass eye to attach the pulldowns.

Friday, 13 February 2015

An organized piano reconstruction

Organized pianos were made during the second half of the eighteenth century but by the middle of the nineteenth century had already passed into history. A few survive but almost all are unplayable. An organized grand piano (possibly unique) was recently acquired by Colonial Williamsburg and is undergoing conservative restoration (here) and an organized square piano built around in 1800 has very recently surfaced (here) but will not be restored to playing condition. An organized square in Bristol City Museum no longer has its piano mechanism but is probably a representative example of the kind of instruments made in the 1780s. A playable organized square by Erard (1791) is in a museum in Paris (here) but as some of the the restoration was carried out over 100 years ago it is difficult to know what is original. Incidentally, the use of the term 'organized' might be seen by my British readers as unutterably Amercan but this was the way it was spelled in British newspaper advertisements in the 1790s so that is what I am going with.

One way to have an historical instrument that is in playable condition so that possible repertoires can be explored is to build a copy or reconstruction. In this case my approach is to make a hybrid - use an original square piano (which are not that rare having been built in tens of thousands, particularly by Broadwood) and make a new organ part. My reconstruction will not be a copy of any particular instrument but as the basic layout of the organ seems to have been fairly standard I hope that it will be considered a fair representative of the instrument. Short of taking an historical instrument apart (highly unlikely in this case!) I will have to work out how some of the internal mechanism of the organ might have been laid out.

The first stage is to make a frame to support the piano and into which the organ part will fit. The Broadwood piano is a five-octave square dating from 1801 with a single action. The organ will have a two stops (a stopped 8' and an open 4') and wind will be supplied by a food pedal. The compass of the organ part will be C-f3 (four and a half octaves) which is the same as the Paris and Bristol instruments and seems to have been fairly standard.

Progress thus far has been the fabrication of a building frame in pine. The frame will eventually be covered by removable mahogany panels to allow access for tuning and adjustments. The stack of partially completed bass pipes underneath gives some idea of how much volume these already take up. A bellows and reservoir will be fitted underneath the right hand side.

Further posts will give updates on the project.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A restoration/reconstruction almost complete..

In the spring of 2013 Martin Renshaw and I began to restore an organ that used to be in Aylesford Methodist Church. The organ almost certainly started life as a house organ built some time around 1780 as a one-manual instrument in a quite ornate Gothic case. A short compass Swell was added later and sometime during the 19C the compass was extended to C by the addition of extra notes at each end of the windchest. By the 1890s further modifications were made including the addition of a clamp on the Swell. With all of these changes it was decided to reconstruct the organ as a two-manual instrument with it's original G-compass manual as the Great with a C-compass Swell. The Great windchest had retained a second set of sliders for a piano mechanism with the ends of the sliders simply sawn off in the open position. By splicing new ends onto these sliders the piano mechanism could be reconstructed. The organ was being built for the parish church in Villabarou near to Blois in France. The church is used regularly as it is the focus of a 12-church united benefice. As far as was known the church had never had an organ before.

The entire organ, except for the case, was assembled in the workshop at Birling, Kent and then taken down and reassembled in Villebarou in April 2014.
Early stages of rebuilding the organ in the Kent workshop
A new building frame was constructed to allow the Swell to be in its modern position at the rear of the Great.

The new console
New keyboards were made and a new console was made of solid oak. The key action was new (but using some recycled parts) and the Great and Swell stop actions were entirely new in oak. The original three-rank Sesquialtra/Cornet was reconstructed with new pipework. As a compromise to more general use of the organ a pedal bourdon (with new mechanical action) was added using a recycled rank and chest. Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped and Gt/Ped couplers were also made. The only playing aids are a hitch Swell pedal and a piano pedal which takes off all ranks above 4' on the Great.

The casework was restored by French artisans who re-established the original imitation rosewood finish and matched this finish on additional new panels required for the sides of the reconstructed organ that was deeper than the original one-manual house organ. The facade pipes (both speaking and 'flatback') were regilded. Missing finials and mouldings were made to match the remaining originals. This project was an opportunity for me to work with my brother Robin, a carpenter who lives in Germany, who
Robin Shuker and Martin Renshaw at an
 early stage of erecting the case on-site
was able to solve the problems of stabilising the rather rickety case. Robin has built many houses in his career but this was his first organ case.

The organ in Villbarou before
 the restoration of the case

By November 2014 the organ was fully assembled awaiting final regulations and adjustments once everything had settled down.

The organ at Villebarou with its fully decorated case and regilded pipes.
The stop knobs have paper labels in 18C style

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Trottiscliffe Barrel organ

The Trottiscliffe Barrel Organ has come into my workshop for restoration in preparation for a British Institute of Organ Studies (BIOS) one-day meeting on Saturday 13 July 2013. This barrel organ was once in regular use to accompany the singing at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Trottiscliffe, Kent. It has been in storage in pieces for more than 50 years so it will a bit of a challenge so see if I can bring it back to life!
 St Peter and St Paul Trottiscliffe is recorded in the Domesday Book. A word on pronunciation: villagers pronounce the name of their village either as written or as 'Trosley'. However, other variants exist and one account reports that local inhabitants in 1900 referred to their village as 'Trowsley'.
 The barrel organ was made by T C Bates in the first half of the 19C and was installed, second-hand, in Trottiscliffe in 1865 from the nearby church of Meopham.
This gives an idea of how the barrel organ looked as I had a chance to temporarily erect the case outside my workshop in mild weather a couple of weeks ago - it is one of the larger ones made by Bates and has six stops.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Organ Archaeology

Martin Renshaw and I are currently restoring an organ that was taken out of Aylesford Methodist Church when it closed a number of years ago. Like may organs it has been moved around and modified quite a bit over the years and its early history is as yet unknown. We have had to strip it right back to almost its basic components in order to rebuild it to something like its original state whilst recognising that some later additions can be usefully retained. Along the way we are coming across intriguing signs of its early history that may or may not tell us something interesting about the origins of the organ. Here are a few of them.

1. When the organ was first stripped down the covering of the rear of the bars on the Great soundboard was found to be pieces of parchment (the traditional material) from several legal documents. Some of the ink had been transferred to the bars and parts of the documents are thus 'offset printed'. The legal documents appear to related to land transactions in the early 18C.

2. It is relatively uncommon to find layouts of the actions marked up in old pipe organs. In many cases it appears that if such layouts were made they were then erased by planing and it may have been considered 'bad form' to leave such information. On this organ - by chance - we noticed traces of marking out lines on the underside of the Great pallet box that indicated the position of the backfall beam and backfalls. On removing the layer of jeweller's rouge and glue 'paint' the layout could be clearly and something that will aid us greatly in the restoration - the exact position of the notes taken off to the other end of the chest using a rollerboard.

 3. Finally, a real surprise - the intake valves of the reservoir were found to be seated upon parts of sheets of printed music that looked quite early. The music seemed to be a basso continuo part printed using movable type.
Fortunately, one of the sheets came from the title page which, even though it corresponded to less than a quarter of a page with three large holes drilled through, could be unequivocally identified as a piece published in Amsterdam in 1701. Not as early as we first thought but interesting nonetheless.
None of the above pieces of information sheds any direct light on the maker of the organ but might fit into place when other evidence come forward. Our best guess is that the organ was probably built as a one manual instrument in the late 18C or early 19C which then had a short compass Swell added. The Great has the sliders for a 'piano' action (i.e. as second set of a sliders operated by a pedal to take off the upper registers). The Swell was then at some point extended to the same compass as the Great. The organ was moved to Aylesford from an unknown location in 1900 when other work was done.