The Organ in Newcastle City Hall

The Harrison & Harrison concert organ in Newcastle City Hall is a uniquely important instrument. Nationally it is the most iconic concert organ of the 1920s – in many ways the last of its line and arguably the finest. But it stands in need of urgent help. Now nearly 80 years old, the sheer passage of time, coupled with lack of maintenance and 30 years of under-use, have rendered the organ virtually unplayable. However, it can be readily restored as nothing has been spoilt or altered, and to that end it is the subject of an ongoing initiative by NDSO.

 

The organ was built in 1928/29 by Harrison & Harrison of Durham, to a design typical of the firm, drawn up in consultation with the City Council’s Advisory Committee. The case was designed by the Hall’s architects. It has a central section inspired by 18th century classical English cases, flanked by pavilions with a wooden lattice instead. The front pipes are gilded.

 

This organ may well be the last and largest example of the superlative tubular-pneumatic action for which H & H was famed, and one of the last organs in which their unparalleled top-quality high wind pressure voicing is to be found before the winds of change blew through the organ world after the Second World War. It is also a rare example of an H & H concert hall organ. Its smaller sister, with 52 stops, was built for the Caird Hall in Dundee in 1923 and restored in 1992. New concert hall organs being built between the wars were rare things – most had been built during the great boom in town hall building in the 1860s-1890s.

 

This organ is also highly unusual in that it is unaltered. Almost all other important Harrison organs have been added to, tonally revised, or had their tubular-pneumatic action replaced by electro-pneumatic. This one stands as originally built, deterioration apart of course. It is in fact an icon of its era, and in recognition of its merits the British Institute of Organ Studies awarded it a Grade 1 Historic Organ Certificate in 2003.

 

For its time, the stop list was opulent, and it still would be. Two full-length 32ft stops, three enclosed departments, expensive orchestral reeds and flues, batteries of heavy pressure reeds, a full 61/32 note compass (quite rare on a Harrison) and more console accessories and couplers than H & H had ever provided before on a tubular pneumatic console. It represents and remains the most glorious expression of the last gasp of ‘high’ Victorian / Edwardian organ-building.

 

It has many delightful and a few rare features. Most unusually Harrisons supplied a French Horn and a Orchestral Trumpet rank (on the heaviest pressure – 20ins w.g.) on the Solo. The French Horn is a gloriously creamy stop, fully imitative of its namesake, whilst the tone of the Orchestral Trumpet (available at 16 [unique?] 8 & 4) is blisteringly brilliant – a white-hot blaze of sound which takes one’s breath away. Another delight – and just as rare if not unique in H & H’s œuvre – is the two-rank Solo Violes Célestes, both of which ranks go right down to CC. So in the Solo there are three Viole ranks of full compass. In addition there is the somewhat less rare though pretty uncommon 16ft Cor Anglais and a rare 5-rank Pedal Mixture – with two stopped ranks. These stops and all others are supreme examples of the voicing skill of a generation who died out after the Second World War and whose genius has never been reached since – anywhere in the world – let alone bettered.

 

The leading figure of this small band of pipe voicers was W C ‘Billy’ Jones, who spent large parts of his career with H & H and doubtless voiced most of the specialist ranks on this organ. A revered figure to this day, the City Hall organ forms the finest and greatest memorial to Jones and to all he and a tiny band achieved.

 

The specification can be found here: [The National Pipe Organ Register]

 

Paper by NDSO member Martin Charlton, 2002

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