Although originally invented about 250 BC, the first use of the organ in Christian worship is not recorded. Mozart called it ‘The King of Instruments’. It commands the widest range of both pitch and between loud and soft of all instruments. It is also one of the most complex instruments to play. Many church organs were removed by either the Puritans in the 16th century or Oliver Cromwell’s men 17th century. Therefore, the great majority of church organs date from the second half of the 19th century.

Oldest organ case

The remoteness of Old Radnor probably accounts for the survival of this rare preElizabethan organ case. The design combines a basically Gothic structure with early Renaissance decoration. It also shows the early use of ‘towers’ of bass pipes, a style that is the foundation of the architectural form of the organ case in most cultures. The organ within the case is Victorian.

St Stephen, Old Radnor

A Cromwell connection

The main organ was installed in the chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford in the 1630s. When Cromwell ordered the removal of organs from churches, he directed that the Magdalen instrument should be installed at Hampton Court Palace. The organ returned to Oxford in 1660 and moved to Tewkesbury in 1737. The other organ in Tewkesbury Abbey was made for an exhibition in 1885. It includes pioneering mechanism and pipes that were to have a major influence on organ design in the years that followed.

Tewkesbury Abbey, Tewkesbury

Fit for a queen

‘Father' Bernard Smith made this organ for the Chapel Royal at Windsor in 1704. After Queen Anne died, King George I thought the Windsor set up 'too popish'. The Vicar, Revd Sir John Dolben, became the Vicar of Finedon and paid for the organ to follow him in 1717. The central pipe in the case has the Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Anne on it and the superb carving may be by Grinling Gibbons. The jambs and stop labels of the original console survive on the front of the case. As well as the front pipes there are over 500 original inside pipes still in use.

St Mary the Virgin, Finedon

18th century giant

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s immense church houses an equally impressive organ, reputed at the time of its construction to be the largest in England. Built in 1735 by Richard Bridge, it has a superb three tower case surmounted by a crown and two bishops’ mitres. The organ remains in its original position high at the west end of the building. Neglected and out of use for many years, the organ has recently been restored to its original glory of both appearance and sound.

Christ Church, Spitalfields

Former ‘chamber organ’

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries it became fashionable for the wealthy to commission a small one manual 'chamber organ’ for the music room. Later, as the fashion changed, the organs were often given to country churches. The Bremhill organ is one, having been made by William Allen about 1810 for an unidentified location. In the fashion of the time, the organ case is made of mahogany instead of the oak usual in church furniture.

St Martin, Bremhill

An unaltered organ

The magnificent 14th century church of St John the Baptist at Thaxted houses the earliest surviving English church organ that retains all its original parts. It was built for St John's Chapel, Bedford Row, London in 1821 by Henry Cephas Lincoln. When the chapel closed in 1858 the organ was moved to Thaxted. It was little repaired or altered and, although failing, was recorded for the Historic Organ Sound Archive. It was restored in 2014 by Goetze & Gwynn. The organ now looks, sounds and plays as it did in 1821.

St John the Baptist with Our Lady & St Laurence, Thaxted

Built for the great exhibition

The original organ in this fine Hawksmoor church was destroyed by a fire in 1850 so the parish purchased the organ built by Gray & Davison for display in the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. It is a nearly unique example of an instrument built at a time of great change in organ design. One of the first organs without upper woodwork, the curved casework below the front pipes has been likened to the curved wheel covers of early Great Western Railway steam engines.

St Anne, Limehouse

Britain's largest organ

Matching the huge scale of Britain’s largest Gothic building, the organ has two consoles (one mobile), each with five rows of keys. Inaugurated in 1926 it remains incomplete, with the massive bridge at the west end of the cathedral central space still missing its planned organ case. The instrument is the magnum opus of Henry Willis III who was one of the two most prominent organ designers of the first half of the 20th century. The organ cases were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of the cathedral.

Liverpool Cathedral, Liverpool

A modernist case

The use of metal instead of wood is a feature of the case of this 1969 instrument by Grant, Degens & Bradbeer. In such august surroundings, it took real courage to choose a modernist case. This did not, however, deter George Pace, who designed it in conjunction with Frank Bradbeer. Reflections off the glass louvre shutters and cause the windows of the chapel to appear to chase one another across the front of the organ whenever the shutters are moved by the player.

New College Chapel, Oxford

A new organ for a village church

This modest village church, close to the river Thames, has a medieval tower and a Victorian nave and chancel. The organ supports the singing of a choir located in the narrow chancel. The previous organ, dating from 1901, was bulky, dull sounding and difficult to tuning. The new instrument, by Robin Jennings in 2004, is shallow and elegant and has a tone much better adapted to accompany singers.

St Mary, Streatley, Berkshire

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