The 1909 George Croft organ of St Mary’s Old Anglican Cathedral, Auckland, is sited in one of the most wonderful buildings in Auckland. This spacious, wooden structure was designed by Benjamin Mountford in the Neo-gothic style andbuilt out of Kauri pine with a chancel full of warm, stained-glass windows with the organ situated on the decani side.
This organ had a very fine reputation and was widely regarded as one of George Croft’s best organs. It had also had an influential history, not only as the Cathedral organ for over 50 years but as a teaching instrument. Many people in Auckland knew and admired this organ. The basic structure is typical of any good Edwardian organ with generous scaling, solid workmanship and a build like a Dreadnought battleship. The fluework is larger scaled than its Victorian forebears and there is not quite as much upperwork, but the Edwardian reeds still have plenty of splash and fire. These organs reflected the optimism and certainty of an age yet to face a World War or the decline of an empire.
In 1982, St Mary’s was transported in its entirety,including the organwith its pipework still in the building, across the road from its previous position. In 1985, it was rebuilt by George Croft and Sons with electric action and a revised specification.
In January 2015,Iwas asked to examine the organ with a view to restoration. I met with the organist of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Philip Smith who was enthusiastic for its restoration. I found the organ almost unplayable with notes off all over the place and whole stops not working. The console had a large rectangular hole cut in the treble stop jamb and fitted with rather ordinary plastic stop knobs. The keys were still original and connected to the pneumatic coupler action at the rear of the console. This was presumably to give some type of touch or feel to the keys but this had resulted in a very spongy and indistinct feel.
It was difficult to judge the tone and sound of the organ under such circumstances. An examination of the pipework showed it was in poor condition with plenty of alterations. Just to make it all the more interesting, generations of rats had called the organ home and when running around under the rackboards, had sampled pieces of pipe feet to use as rat chewing gum or sharpen their teeth.
It would have been impossible, or at least very pedantic, to try and restore the organ to its 1909 condition with pneumatic action and replicated pipework. This was a case of returning the organ to its 1909 concept so that it had the ‘feel’ and sound of George Croft’s ‘magnum opus’. This meant we approached this organ with the same ethos as we had at other restorations, by asking the question: What was the intention of the original builder?
This was applied to the following key areas:
This was fairly straightforward as the original layout and style of the console had been faithfully recorded by John Stiller in 1981 before the organ was rebuilt. It showed the more generous spacing between the stop knobs and no separate jambs for each division. The stop knobdesign and engraving was clearly identified and we were able to have these reproduced by P & S Organ Supplies, U.K. The large panels of the stop jambs were replaced with new jambs made of solid American Walnut, matching the original timber of the console. The rest of the console timberwork was stripped and French-polished to its former glory.
The keys were original but worn and the touch spongy. The 1985 rebuild used the original pneumatic action couplers as springs, which was unsatisfactory. We opted to obtain new P & S keys, matching the key fronts to the original, and to fit them to the original keyslips. This worked very well and the keys lookgoodand play very nicely.
For conformity, it was decided to use the same setter and relay system from Taylors in St Mary’s as was being used in the new Nicholson organ in the Cathedral. This was a sensible idea as it would make life easier for organists running from one console to the other. The original console had been fitted with thumb pistons so it was not a big jump to provide the usual thumb pistons for all manuals. This compromise was necessary to make the organ able to undertake both services and recitals easily using modern aids.
The original pedalboard was refurbished and, again, the toe pistons matched those of the Cathedral.
Thus restored, the console looks very handsome and elegant. It has recaptured the feel of an Edwardian console with its dark polished timber and widely spaced ivory style stop-knobs. It gives the organist an expectation of what they should expect to hear.
In 1985, two extra bellows had been added for better wind stability, one each for the Swell and Choir. The wind pressure had also been lowered to approximately 3?(75mm) w.g. for the manual pipe wind and 4? (100mm) w.g. for the pedals. The equilibrium valve in the chamber bellows had been replaced by two roller-valves. Even worse, the bellows’ ribs had been replaced by floating frames or ‘jelly bag’ frames. These drastically reduce the controlled volume of wind and, I have always considered, its steadiness.
The present wind supply needed to be totally rethought. As the dimensions of the two original bellows were more than adequate for the job, I opted to return to the original system. The original bellows were easily identified by the Croft chamfering on the corners which also identified the original windtrunks.I could find no evidence of lugs for springs as would be used in Edwardian single-rise bellows, so new double-rise ribs and middle frame would be fitted to the main bellows in the blower room and for the chamber bellows. Logically, the equilibrium valve was remade and fitted into the chamber bellows.
Removing the two extra bellows also gave far more room in the chamber and easier access to the Great and Swell underactions, so this was an added benefit.
This historical return to 1909 Croft wind system would give more wind reserve and the wind-pressures could also be returned to 4? for pipe wind and 5? for the pedals and action. More on pressures later but this was a good place to start. John Stiller had recorded the pipe wind in 1982 at 100mm (4?) and these had been specified by Croft in his contract with the Cathedral.
However, this being said and done, two parts of the wind supply were altered from original when the organ was being installed for some important reasons.
Firstly, George Croft had fitted two large wind trunks per soundboard to the Great and Swell soundboards from the chamber bellows. When I measured their volume, it seemed to me that one trunk each would have been more than sufficient for each soundboard. We installed all the restored wind trunks back in the organ so it retained its original feel, butblocked one off per soundboard. After testing, there was plenty of wind reaching the Swell and Great pipework with no drawing. I rather wonder if these extra wind trunks may have caused some unsteady winding, wind going in one trunk and back to the bellows with the other. This is not unknown but they were at any rate unnecessary.
The second alteration was to the Choir windtrunk. The Choir soundboard is perched up above the Pedal pipes at the front of the chamber and had a long, wide trunk to feed it. This trunk however blocked access from one half of the organ chamber to the other and made access and tuning very difficult. The trunk itself had been cut and adapted for the extra Choir bellows so it would need to be remade in any case. Again, I felt the original trunk was oversized and I decided to remake it as a smaller off-set trunk allowing easy access to all the organ interior from behind the console, as well as a better wind supply to the Choir.
So the lungs of St Mary’s pipe organ had been returned back to 1909 Croft vision but with some minor alterations.
George Croft purchased his metal fluework and reeds from the renowned Palmers of London. He made his wooden pipes as well as most the rest of the organ, only buying in smaller, specialist component parts. This was the same practise as Whitehouse Bros and typical of the era.
We were very familiar with Palmer pipework in the workshop and what to expect from it. It was one of the reasons we were selected for this restoration as we were well acquainted with this pipework and Edwardian organs. The physical repair of the pipes and the pipe feet was simple enough. There was however a lot of it, especially as much of the pipemetal was ‘plain’ orhigh percentage lead and therefore soft. There were lots of repairs to the pipe feet where the rats had nibbled and over 40 new pipe feet were made to replace the worst of the rat attack.
The most interesting part of the restoration was when we came to set the wind-pressure for the organ. After pipes are cleaned and repaired, they are put on the voicing machine to check the pipe speech and set the pitch. We were anxious to keep the pitch as low as possible as it was reading around A450 at 25 degrees. However, the first thing was to test the Great principal chorus for the optimal wind-pressure to find its best speech.
This Palmer pipework had been voiced in the factory as was usual. You could tell by the nicks in the languid that it was standard Palmer voicing. On the soundboard, it was not usual for the organ builder to alter the voicing other than regulating the loud and soft at the foot tip. As mentioned before, the contract listed the wind-pressure as 4”(100mm)w.g. for the manual fluework but on the voicing machine, it tested far happier at 4 ½” (112mm w.g.). This was discovered by increasing the wind-pressure on the voicing machine from 3” (where we found it set in the organ) in ¼” or 6mm increments. This was undertaken when Philip Smith and the new Director of Music, Michael Stoddart, were visiting the Hemmant workshop and were to take part in the testing. We tried several ranks of the pipework including the Harmonic Flute. It was quite uncanny how they all preferred 4 ½”w.g. It was clearer sound than at 4” but started to be unsettled and overblow at 4 ¾”. The reeds were brighter and tuning right on the sweet spot of the resonator. In fact, the chorus reeds are very bright and add the spice and fire to the broad and more reserved fluework. They are a feature of the organ and give it its character. The higher wind-pressure suited them.
Philip was able to offer some justification for this. The very first Croft quote documents listed the wind-pressures as Pedal 5 ½”(137mm) and 4 ½” for the manuals.Perhaps George Croft had been worried about the somewhat dull acoustics in the building and that the sound would not reach to the back of this large wooden structure unless the organ had some extra ‘oomph’. If he ordered the pipework at higher wind-pressure, he could always drop it back a little depending on what he found. Also, perhaps the lower pressures looked more conservative on the contract.At any rate, the tone and sound of the organ is not in the slight forced with the higher wind-pressure and it is capable of filling the building. Even though Stiller documented the pipe-wind at 4”, that may have altered at some time in between. All we can do is work with what the pipework tells us.
One last stop needs to be mentioned, the Pedal Trombone. The leather on the wooden shallots of the bottom octave had been removed in 1985 and it was a rather emaciated sounding old fellow. The higher wind-pressure and the releathering of the shallots has made this stop into a smooth and versatile stop. It works just as well with the Bourdon under the Great chorus as it does with the full organ. With full organ it is like many good Pedal reeds, its power is more obvious as the stop is turned off than when it is added. It is the large scaled Great Trumpet that adds the edge to the Pedal when the organ is becoming louder.
The choice of specification, however,was not as straightforward as could be hoped. Since John Stiller’s notes, the specification had been significantly altered in 1985.
The Great 2? had been moved to the Swell and the Swell 2? to the Choir. It was obvious to move them back to their original positions. But what about the Swell Bourdon 16? which had been replaced by a Trumpet 16?? The original pipework did not survive and the Trumpet was in itself a good sound and worked well with the Swell Cornopean. In the end, as there was already a 16? flue stop on the Great, it would make a good contrast to keep the 16? reed on the Swell. It was also an acknowledgement in the specification of the 1985 rebuild.
In the same way, a Sesquialtera II had been added to the Great which really did look odd on a 1909 specification. However, it did have a straight 2 2/3? principal rank in it which would be useful on the Great and not uncommon for the era. Revoiced, the Twelfth 2 2/3? blends well with the rest of the Great chorus and is an excellent addition.
On the Choir, the Clarinet was completed to bottom C but Philip Smith had also asked for a Vox Humana to be added to the spare slide. This was a logical addition and one I felt acknowledged the Vox that had replaced the Swell Mixture early in the organ’s life. In 1985, the Choir Dulciana had been rescaled by an octave as an Italian Principal 4’. This was not a success and the Old Swell Celeste from the old organ of St Matthew’s-in-the-City, Auckland had replaced it in the meantime. As the Dulciana was no longer available to be restored, we left the Celeste where it was as a Salicet 4’ and with some slight revoicing now blends delightfully with the Viola 8’.
The most notable addition made was the addition of the Choir Tromba. It was redundant from the old organ of St Matthew’s-in-the-City, Auckland and had been saved by Philip for this organ. The old Harrison booster-blower and matching bellows had also been saved and provided the wind supply. The Tromba was the next logical step in the specification but I wondered whether new pipework would have been better for blending and matching. Happily, the reed was an excellent design and scale. It sounded fabulous when I voiced it at 8” (200mm) w.g. I was reassured. Unfortunately, in the organ it could not be heard above the Great Trumpet, so springs were added to the bellows and the wind-pressure rose and rose until it could be heard against the Swell and Great. I then added more curve to the tongue and it is a real asset to the organ. Whilst it is an addition, it is in keeping with the Edwardian style and tone of the organ.
The new Swell and Great Mixtures are in no way ‘restorations’. In 1985, a new Swell Mixture was added and the Great Mixture was reconstituted in 1985 with some new pipework. The remaining original pipework was badly damaged and I resolved to replace it all with new pipework. Whilst we knew the composition of the original Great and Swell mixtures, I was happy to start with a new composition for several reasons.
To start with the Swell, a good mixture was required for the Trumpet 16’ and Cornopean 8’ to supply the 4’Clarion sound. Philip had suggested a mixture with a third and accent the reedy quality of the Swell. Whilst 1909 was a little late for a Swell ‘Sesquialtera’, it was not out of the question. It would certainly help the reed quality of the Swell but did not need to be too strong to overpower the reeds. The resulting Swell Mixture is quite a chameleon. It works with the flutes, is delightful with the reeds and adds a real edge (but does not scream) with octave coupler.
The Great Mixture now had to work against a stronger Swell so it needed to be edged up as well and scaled to give a broad support to the Great chorus. Like the Swell Mixture, it is not sharp but it successfully fills and lifts the Great.
So whilst the Mixtures were new, they fitted into the tonal scheme logically and by blending with the original Palmer pipework, enhanced and complimented the original 1909 tone.
It is quite unusual that the actions on all three manual soundboards were all slightly different. George Croft was using the exhaust pneumatic system perfected by Norman and Beard. This involves using an internal pull-down motor opening the pallet and activated by an underaction. The pulldown motors were the last piece left of the original 1909 pneumatic action, the underactions all dated from 1985.
The Great used large pull-down motors in the soundboard and therefore using pipe-wind. The Swell used slightly smaller motors in a separate chamber under the soundboard using higher pedal-wind. The Choir used ridiculously small motors but with the same location and winding as the Swell. It seems to me that it is as if he were conducting an experiment even though he had been using pneumatic action for at least five years before 1909. Perhaps he was wanting to see what would give the best speed with the simplest design as you would normally have all the action identical so that it all worked at the same time. The design of the lost original underactions might have answered this question.
We made new underactions which matched the Pedal chest actions. This replaced the 1985 underactions made from MDF and unified all the actions so they would work at the same speed. With this same idea in mind, we feed the Swell pull-down motors with pipe-wind to match the Great.The actions work very well, quickly and efficiently.
The opening recital of the newly restored organ was held on Saturday 25th March, 2017. It played to a full audience and I was pleased to hear that the St Mary’s organ’s tone and sound reached satisfyingly to the very back of the building. More than that, a well-known Auckland organist who had learnt on this organ said to me after the concert how ‘the organ sounded just as it did when she was first playing it, only clearer’. I heard other comments along the same lines. The organ has a clear, warm sound and has plenty of colour and variety. It is full of Edwardian optimism with the hint of a quick trip to Paris. Everyone said how it sounded just as it did before but…..This is exactly what I hoped to achieve.
Whilst we were restoring the interior, the showfront had been splendidly decorated by Studio Carolina Izzo and the clean and fresh sound was matched visually by the showfront.
It can be seen from my observations above that this ‘restoration’ could never hope to be a traditional restoration with so much missing from the original organ. Its aim was to achieve the restoration of the feel and sound of the original George Croft organ whilst not being held slavishly to copying the original. I have always felt that sometimes when you copy, you underestimate what was achieved. When you are inspired by something, you add to it and thus value more what was originally achieved by the original builder.
I hope that if George Croft was able to revisit St Mary’s today and was present at a recital, he would recognise and enjoy his work. I have no doubt he would approve of the Tromba (all organbuilders like heavy artillery) and the new showfront decoration. But as he sat in his pew enjoying the concert, it would only be after half way that he would begin to wonder if those mixtures did not sound just a little different or if the Choir was indeed little brighter than before. Then, perhaps a little later still, he would marvel at what a good cleaning of the pipework could achieve.