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the craft of organ building, thoroughly organised

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the craft of organ building, thoroughly organised

REPORTS of the death of the pipe organ have been greatly exaggerated over the years. Nobody knows this better, perhaps, than Andrew Scott, of Harrison & Harrison, the organ-builders established in 1861.

Mr Scott was apprenticed at Harrisons’ at the age of 16, and was recently appointed managing director, having been “head voicer” at Harrisons’, and a tuner for the high-profile organs at Westminster Abbey and the Royal Festival Hall.

As a board member of the International Society of Organbuilders, chairman of the Institute of British Organ Building, and head of Britain’s largest organ-building and restoring firm, he has seen the emergence of challenges facing the pipe organ over the years. These have included the cost of installing and maintaining instruments, the closure of churches that house historic organs, and the dwindling stream of young people coming into the trade.

Harrison & HarrisonAndrew Scott

“Is the future bright for organ building?” Certainly we’re very busy,” Mr Scott says. “But there are a lot of smaller firms out there who can’t handle large projects, and they’re not doing so well.”

Part of the reason some firms may be struggling is the labor-intensive nature of traditional organ-building. It’s as far from an automated industry as you can get. “Organ-building is what I would call a vocational craft. Industry is the wrong word,” Mr. Scott says. “It’s a traditional, heritage craft.”

Pipes are formed from raw sheet metal. Carpentry and carving work is all bespoke and treated with lacquer. Bellows are crafted from sheep leather. Most of the work uses the same methods and materials that have been used for centuries.

“Often, we’re doing museum-standard restoration,” he says, although he points out that contemporary organs also include modern electronics. These small components simplify settings for organists, and enable organs to play a contemporary pipe-organ repertoire of pieces that are often too fast for older, pneumatic-action organs.

Add to that complexity the long process of scoping out the interior of a church that wants a new pipe organ (sometimes using 3D mapping technology and computer models), and the consultation process required between church, organist, organ consultant, and organ builder before a final design is decided on, and you can understand why a pipe organ is an expensive prospect, either to build or restore.

“In a modest parish church, you’re looking at £700,000 to £800,000 before you even think about it,” Mr Scott says. “And, to overhaul an organ, you’re looking anywhere from £100,000 up to £300,000 just to restore. It’s a big investment, and, of course, it divides people. PCCs are divided by it.”

Some people on PCCs still see the pipe organ as “the be-all and end-all” of musical worship, he says. “They are not going to be joining in with toe-tapping ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’ with a praise band and tambourines, because they’re traditionalists.” Others, though, are understandably set against pipe organs, and say: “Just get an electronic organ for a fifth of the price.”

The real threat to this heritage craft, though, is not coming from budget constraints or changes in musical tastes, but from changing demographics and spirituality. “The biggest challenge we face is the decline in church attendance — and, because of that, churches’ closing,” Mr. Scott says.

The closure and amalgamation of churches is making many fine organs redundant. Some are even being sold abroad — for example, to German churches, where the English organ configuration is increasingly popular and uncommon in traditional German organs. The result is that there are fewer organs out there to tune and maintain.

HARRISONS’ has a staff twice the size of its nearest British rival, and, with some of Britain’s highest-profile organizations on its books, it seems likely to survive for some time. And Mr. Scott offsets the decline in church attendance with the increase in cathedral-service attendance. While many parish pipe organs get played once a week at most, and are maintained by smaller congregations with a myriad of other priorities, pipe organs are crucial to cathedrals.

Decorated organ pipes at the Harrison & Harrison works in Durham

“You walk into any cathedral in England on a weekday, you’ll find choral evensong, and generally a choir singing,” he says. “At the heart of cathedral life is the Opus Dei and at the heart of that is the organ and the choir leading the Opus Dei. In cathedrals, the organ is such a focal center-point of their outreach that, without the organs, I don’t think they would be able to do what they do.”

This is good news for Harrisons’, and for friendly but competing firms such as Nicholson & Co., and Mander, but not for smaller firms or parish bodies. “While we’ve got a revenue stream at the moment of big cathedral organs, for these smaller parishes, finding the money to just keep their organs playing is a big commitment,” he admits. “And, as an organ-builder, I worry about where we as a firm might be in the future.”

There is evidence here of old-school ethics. Harrisons’ has been known to turn down work if it feels that the project will be beyond a church’s reach. “It’s really difficult to deliver the news to a church that, actually, ‘We won’t take your money to restore this organ, because it’s not worth it.'”

For Mr. Scott and his 50-plus staff, there are some things more important than the bottom line. “There’s a famous saying we have here, that our wages are paid by coffee mornings and jumble sales. We’re working for churches, which are essentially charities.” The result is that, even with large commissions: “Profit margins for us are really, really slim, if any at all.”

ANOTHER challenge facing both the business of organ-building and the instrument itself is finding “new blood”. When Mr. Scott was young, his entry into the business was via choral music in his local church. His interest was piqued by technical organ specifications: wind pressures and stop counts that he treated like classical Top Trumps.

Today, it is hard to imagine many young people — even within formal choral contexts — trading pipe-organ cards. And, while Harrisons’ has recently taken on several young staff at the same apprentice level at which Mr Scott himself joined, places for organ musicians seem limited to cathedrals and Oxford and Cambridge colleges (and depend largely on public schools with chapels, choral traditions, and their own pipe organs).

Harrison & HarrisonPedal Open Diapason for the Greenwich organ

“Oxbridge organ scholars are only coming from the cathedral choristership traditions because choirs in parish churches, like those I grew up in, just don’t exist any more,” Mr Scott says. “There’s so many more things in the world vying for young people’s time. And it’s the exposure to the pipe organ that’s missing.” This probably explains why, according to Mr Scott, “Oxbridge colleges have struggled in recent years to find young organ scholars.”

But Mr Scott takes hope from the handful of high-profile and high-talent individuals garnering more exposure for the pipe organ. From celebrity organists (or, rather, celebrities who are also organists) such as Jo Brand, Alexander Armstrong, and Huw Edwards, to the recent installation of a public organ at London Bridge Station, there are glimmers of hope that the pipe organ may be here to stay. And perhaps the brightest of these is Anna Lapwood.

Ms Lapwood is a 27-year-old organist, musical director, and broadcaster. She is also a star, with about 360,000 followers, on TikTok, the social media app most popular with young people. And, while Mr Scott is sure that the stereotypical pipe-organ enthusiasts (which he calls “old men in anoraks with rusty carrier-bags”) are likely to disapprove of her, he believes that she is doing good for the instrument.

“She’s getting millions of views, and that’s bringing the pipe organ to another audience — dare I say, a more secular audience,” he says. In addition to Ms Lapwood’s skill as an organist, Mr Scott believes, she is bringing popular and classical organ music together. “And I think that’s what’s going to be the kind of savior of the pipe organ in many ways.”

With Harrisons’ organs in large British cathedrals, and the firm doing work from Korea to Kenya and beyond, in North America, Africa, and Scandinavia, the future for organ-builders, despite all the challenges, is looking secure.

“If you phoned me up with a blank check and said: ‘Right, Andy, we want to have a new organ,’ we would probably be saying to you: ‘Well, we can’t start until the end of 2024,’ Mr. Scott says. Mander, Nicholson, and other big organ firms would, he thinks, give similar answers. The pipe organ, it seems, has breath in it yet.

www.harrisonorgans.com

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