Affectionately known as ‘Old Father Willis’, in homage to its builder, the organ was opened at a ceremony on 16th February, 1882. The instrument had cost £1400 and its position in the North Chapel alongside the chancel had been the source of some controversy, since the location was considered ‘ill-suited to the development of tone and resonance’. But it fitted in with the music of the church, geared to the trends of Victorian theology, with a robed choir in the chancel below the high altar leading the hymn singing, and performing anthems plus liturgical music on the cathedral model. There is much that is orchestral in the specification of the organ, so it would have provided a useful accompaniment to that other great Victorian vehicle for religious musical expression, the oratorio.
The display pipes of the organ form a ‘W’, its maker’s trade-mark, and these pipes are painted with handsome designs. The original critics bemoaned ‘such a plain case of pitch pine’, but it has stood the test of time.
The three manual organ has not changed very much from when it was first installed. In 1907 the local builder Osmond altered it slightly, at which date it had 44 speaking stops and 1838 pipes. The biggest change was in 1931 when Osmond’s changed the action from the mechanical tracker to direct pneumatic, and an electric blower was installed. It looks as if the organ was pumped by hand until this time. The console has since been made more user friendly, but essentially the £500 1931 rebuild has continued without major overhaul to the present. Thus the instrument has escaped the neo-Classical ‘improvements’ which now afflict so many other pipe organs of this period.
The quality of Willis’ work is especially evident in the harmonically rich and assertive main principal chorus, the blending reeds, the solo Corno di bassetto on the Choir manual, the sweet and fulsome Harmonic flute, and the rasp of the pedal Ophicleide.
Notable organists of St Mary’s include the church music composer Harold Jeboult, Herbert Knott, organist for over thirty years and a teacher of the great international organist Peter Hurford; and Ronald Tickner, former assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral.
With many decades since the last overhaul the organ is now exhibiting some of the frailties of age, and a total refurbishment which would allow it to continue providing an inspiring support to the music of worship is under discussion.
Full details of the St Mary’s organ history and specifications can be found on the The National Pipe Organ Register (NPOR) at the Royal College of Music ( Click on top left ‘NPOR’ and choose ‘Search by address’ and enter ‘magdalene taunton’.
Full details of the Organ renovation appeal and how you can help us by sponsoring a pipe (or pipes!) can be found on our Organ Project page.