THE FATHER WILLIS ORGAN IN ST MARY MAGDALENE CHURCH
For information about the Organ Renovation Project please click.
Affectionately known as ‘Old Father Willis’, in homage to its builder, the organ was opened at a ceremony on 16th February, 1882. Willis was the ‘Rolls-Royce’ brand at the time and the firm also built a trend-setting organ for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (which now forms the basis of the organ in Winchester Cathedral) and many other famous instruments including those at the Royal Albert Hall, Salisbury Cathedral, Durham Cathedral, Truro Cathedral, etc.
The instrument had cost £1400, a very large sum at the time, 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’, – this site was no doubt partially dictated by non- musical considerations! Its function (which in many ways continues in an expanded way today) was to accompany 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, thus providing a useful accompaniment to that great Victorian vehicle for religious musical expression, the oratorio; this function is again continued and extended by the organ’s wider role today in accompanying performances not just by our own choir but by other local choirs and choral societies, and some from father afield.
The display pipes of the organ form a ‘W’, its maker’s trade-mark, and these pipes are painted with handsome designs. The three manual organ is very substantially unchanged 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 remarkably continued without major overhaul to the present day. Thus the instrument is fortunate to have 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. The range of tone and possible dynamics is remarkably wide, ranging from a barely audible whisper to a full-throated roar. The blending possibilities of the colours provided are almost endless and the organ overall provides a warm and noble support to congregational singing and choral pieces which is much to be admired in an age when many English organs have been adapted to become less suited to these essential roles, perhaps in an attempt to make them more useful as solo instruments.
With many decades since the last overhaul the organ is now exhibiting many of the frailties of age, and fundraising for a total renovation which will allow it to continue providing an inspiring support to the music of worship is currently in its final stages.
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.