Not since I was in school in Somerset have I set foot in Wells Cathedral which I hate to consider let alone write is 44 years ago. In those days my organ tutor David Ponsford was the assistant at Wells Cathedral and so I managed to get an hour or so at the organ console limited of course to playing on a few quiet stops.
Not a lot has changed in the intervening time which is really only the blink of an eye in the near 1000 year history of the building. The famous astronomical clock was still ticking away and the magnificent and unusual stone scissor arches still dominate the crossing, installed in 1338 as a repair to stop the tower collapsing due to its inadequate foundations. I seem to remember seating in the Nave which on the day of our visit was empty helping to show off the scale of this vast building.
Pipe Organ in need of repair
Over 40 years ago the organ was substantially Willis but it was rebuilt by Harrison in the late 1970’s long after I left school. Normally a visit like this for me would be a result of a rare privilege to play the pipe organ, invitations I have never been known to turn down. This trip however was the result of an SOS from assistant organist Jeremy Cole to provide a hire instrument. The organ blower had failed and an important Advent service was looming.
That call came in at about 3.30 on a Monday afternoon and I am delighted to say we had the temporary instrument installed and playing by 12.30 the following day, well in advance of the scheduled evensong later that afternoon.
Speaker placement and configuration
Placing speakers on temporary jobs is always a matter of compromise between what is practical and what will work. Before arriving, this was discussed with Jeremy and locations to the North and South of the pipe organ on the screen looked ideal. The south location is actually the organ loft, possibly one of the smallest cathedral lofts in the UK unless any of you reading this can point me to a smaller one.
The north location could only be reached by ladder and required putting speakers on top of a wind reservoir so choice 2 for both reasons but such a large building would benefit from a spread of the sound source and I was not anxious to give up that location unless forced to.
On arrival it was decided we would set up in the easy ’loft’ location first and add speakers to the location on the north side only if needed. We managed to get just 4 speaker cabinets into the organ loft. So small is the loft that a trap door ‘drops down’ to cover the stairs up and thus provide a bit more space for any assistant required. It really is minute. With the trap door down one is left with a small space that you can limbo through to get above this door. We had to do that a few times to connect our cables to the speakers that were placed 2 on the organ bench and 2 on the trap door. We also placed a large bass speaker on the floor directly below the loft.
This was not a promising space or number of speakers to use for a satisfactory result. The speakers were too close and were speaking almost into a chimney formed by organ case and south quire wall. Much to our delight the effect was quite amazing and the sound projected well into the nave as well as the quire.
Volume was also remarkably good considering that there was only 300 watts for the main instrument underpinned by 500 watts for the bass which was in fact initially too much until we turned it down. It was also not evident that the sound source was so concentrated compared to the vast size of the pipe case and so we decided that for a temporary set up needed for only a few weeks there was no necessity to add more speakers or try to get better separation of the speakers we did use.
The Viscount Instrument
Given the urgency of the requirement we could only provide a 23-stop instrument (Envoy 23-S) so there was not a great deal to voice. About 45 minutes working with Jeremy we tamed the 2ft on the great that was too dominating when drawn and also changed the 8ft diapason to one with a bit more edge.
On the swell Jeremy preferred a more rounded oboe and this was also quickly found and substituted. Finally, the great department volume was reduced slightly so that full swell cut through a little more strongly and we were able to sign off on the finished job shortly after 2.00 pm, less than 24 hours after the request for the hire was made.
We have some very significant other planned hires coming up in 2018 on which we shall be reporting in detail. Look out for some of the most challenging requests we have ever had!
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Viscount Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.