Pedals & pipes

The king of instruments

by John Norman, The British Institute of Organ Studies

Mozart called it ‘the King of Instruments’.

Although originally invented about 250 BC, the first use of the organ in Christian worship is not recorded. However, it is much more difficult for a large choir to sing unaccompanied than for a small one and there is documentary evidence of an organ in Winchester Cathedral before the Norman Conquest.

Sadly, over 2,000 organs were destroyed when church interiors were cleansed of ‘popery’ by the Puritans in the 16th century. A second disaster occurred when Oliver Cromwell’s parliament issued an ordinance ‘for the speedy demolishing of all organs’. As a result the great majority of church organs today date from the second half of the 19th century.

The organ commands both the widest range of pitch of all instruments and also the widest range between loud and soft. Because the organ enables the player to make many sounds simultaneously, it is also one of the most complex instruments to play. It is able to produce sound continuously without dying away (as in a piano), pausing for breath (as in a flute), or the bow having to be reversed (as in a violin).

The organ is usually the largest item of furniture in a church. Some have been a focus for the decorative arts. It also excites a strong historical interest, since it is more long lived than most portable instruments, with its design changing considerably over the centuries.

Huw Edwards

Church and chapel organs are a direct link with previous generations.

I learned to play the organ from the age of 16. My piano teacher, Idris Griffiths, was an excellent organist who refused to introduce me to the organ until I had passed my Grade 6 piano. My greatest mistake was not switching entirely to the organ at that point. I kept my focus on the piano and squeezed in some organ lessons when I could.

I regret that decision to this day, but I have still enjoyed playing the organ over the years.

Read Huw's full story in our Annual Review

In 2022 Huw narrated Organ Stops: Saving the King of Instruments on the BBC. Organ Stops follows a handful of eccentric devotees rescuing and restoring abandoned pipe organs from closing churches. A poignant documentary about loss and rebirth, and the role music plays in our lives. 

Watch on iPlayer here


Oldest organ case

The remoteness of St Stephen 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.

PowysOLDRADNORSt Stephen(alanmurrayrustCC-BY-SA2.0)6

A Cromwell connection

The main organ at Tewkesbury Abbey was originally installed in the chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford in the 1630s. When Cromwell ordered the removal of organs from churches, he directed that it should be installed at Hampton Court Palace. The organ moved to Tewkesbury in 1737. The other organ in Tewkesbury Abbey was made in 1885 and has a pioneering mechanism and pipes that were to have a major influence on organ design. Listen to Carleton Etherington play organs of Tewkesbury Abbey.

Tewkesbury Abbey

Fit for a queen

‘Father' Bernard Smith made the organ at St Mary the Virgin Finedon for the Chapel Royal at Windsor in 1704. After Queen Anne died, King George I thought the Windsor set up 'too popish'. The Sub-Dean, 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.



18th century giant

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s immense church of Christ Church Spitalfields, in London, 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.



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 organ at St Martin Bremhill 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.

Built for the great exhibition

The original organ in the fine Hawksmoor church of St Anne Limehouse, in East London, 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 organ cases 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.


Britain's largest organ

Matching the huge scale of Britain’s largest Gothic building, Liverpool Cathedral, the organ has two consoles. Inaugurated in 1926 it remains incomplete, with the massive bridge at the west end of the cathedral central space still missing its 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. Listen to Ian Tracey play the Henry Willis organ.

Liverpool Cathedral

An unaltered organ

The magnificent 14th century church of St John the Baptist 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.

Pipe up

A weekly podcast hosted by David Pipe, Leeds International Organ Festival’s Artistic Director, who is joined by guests to chat about the online recital series. Guests include some of the recitalists themselves, alongside composers, conductors and music journalists.

View Leeds International Organ Festival online recitals on YouTube

A new organ for a village church

The modest village church of St Mary Streatley on 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 access for tuning. The new instrument, by Robin Jennings, is shallow and elegant and has a tone much better adapted to accompany singers.

A modernist case

The use of metal instead of wood is a feature of the case of a 1969 instrument by Grant, Degens & Bradbeer. In such august surroundings at New College Chapel Oxford, 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 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.


The British Institute of Organ Studies

BIOS exists to encourage the study of the organ and to increase appreciation and understanding of its music. It owns the National Pipe Organ Register and is the listing body for historic organs. It serves as the amenity society for the British organ and lobbies Government, Historic England and other bodies on behalf of the instrument.

National Pipe Organ Register

The register is a free of charge online directory containing the details and history of 35,000 organs in the UK, with over 10,000 pictures and 260 sound recordings. It also contains an index to the British Organ Archive at Birmingham University.

Pipe Up for Pipe Organs

Pipe organs across the UK are being lost as churches close and musical tastes change. Pipe Up for Pipe Organs is a new charity that aims to stem this tide of losses. One of their projects has been to install a pipe organ at London Bridge station that anyone can play. The Henry Jones Organ is the first organ in the UK to be placed on a station concourse.