The Last Organ Maker of Bethnal Green

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    There is a workshop next to St Peter’s Church in Bethnal Green. Inside, it looks like a traditional eighteenth century German workshop. Here, John Mander and his team of twelve master craftsman have built an organ to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. It will be installed later  

this  

year  

in  

King  

Henry  

VII’s  

Lady  

Chapel  

in  

Westminster  

Abbey.  

 The inspiration came from the Lord Mayor, Alderman Roger Gifford, himself a keen musician.

    The  

Lord  

Mayor  

was  

delighted  

–  

not  

only  

by  

the  

finished  

organ,  

but  

by  

the  

 skills  

kept  

alive  

in  

the  

Bethnal  

Green  

workshop.  

The  

firm  

was  

founded  

in  

 1936  

 by  

 John  

 Mander’s  

 father  

 Noel.  

 It  

 was  

 a  

 difficult  

 time  

 then,  

 and  

 got  

 worse when the war began and the church housing the small workshop took a direct hit in the Blitz. But the destruction was a blessing in disguise: after the war dozens of organs needed urgent repair. The craft was then dominated  

 by  

 the  

 all-powerful  

 Federation  

 of  

 Master  

 Organ  

 Builders,  

 and  

price-fixing  

seemed  

to  

be  

the  

order  

of  

the  

day.  

Noel  

offered  

to  

repair  

 bomb-damaged organs at a fraction of the price, restoring several that the federation had written off.

    The  

firm  

flourished.  

Mighty  

organs  

were  

restored,  

cathedral  

instruments  

in  

 Portsmouth  

and  

Sheffield  

rebuilt  

and  

new  

organs  

commissioned,  

including  

 one for a bombed Wren church reassembled in Fulton, Missouri, to commemorate Churchill’s celebrated ‘Iron Curtain’ speech there in 1946. Noel’s greatest commission was St Paul’s Cathedral, where the organ, last rebuilt in 1872, was in a poor state. He refurbished it, added a new section and installed three ranks of royal trumpets above the Great West Door, completed in time to blazon out the music for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

    The new organ built for the Queen is a compact two-manual pedal organ, about three metres high and one and a half metres wide, with a total of six hundred and seventy-four pipes. The casework has been designed along the  

 lines  

 of  

 eighteenth  

 century  

 chamber  

 organs,  

 able  

 to  

 fit  

 into  

 one  

 of  

 the chantry chapels. Westminster Abbey is a royal ‘peculiar’, under the personal control of the Queen, and the Lady Chapel at the far east end, where many weddings are celebrated, does not have its own organ.

    The instrument was unveiled before Christmas. With its mahogany case, simple classical design and gold-leafed pipes, the organ nods to eighteenth century classicism and is intended also to blend in with the interior of Mansion House, where it will remain for use at concerts until the Lord Mayor  

ends  

his  

term  

of  

office  

in  

November.

    The builders have included two surprise features. There are two secret pedals.  

 One  

 is  

 a  

 nightingale  

 stop,  

 which  

 releases  

 two  

 beautiful  

 carved birds above the organ that twirl around as two pipes, dipping into a bowl of water, produce a canary-like gurgling. The other is a tonnère pedal, which causes all the lowest pipes to produce a rumbling like thunder. This theatrical effect used to be popular on organs played in France after the Revolution.

    Organs  

are  

made  

from  

scratch  

in  

the  

Mander  

workshop.  

Planks  

of  

oak  

and  

 pine, stored in the crypt of the neighbouring church, are dried for weeks in  

a  

dehumidifier  

down  

to  

a  

precisely  

calibrated  

eight  

per  

cent  

humidity,  

 to  

ensure  

that  

they  

will  

not  

crack  

later,  

however  

fierce  

the  

central  

heating  

 in the hall or church where the organ will be installed. Polished, carved and fashioned into the instrument’s frame, soundboard and casing, the components are assembled in sections in the workshop. Most organs are too big to be transported whole, so have to be taken to pieces and then reassembled at their destination.

    The  

 pipes  

 also  

 begin  

 as  

 raw  

 materials  

 –  

 ingots  

 of  

 lead  

 and  

 tin,  

 mixed  

 together in a melting pot, cast on a stone bench and then cut and formed into pipes by beating the malleable metal on a mandrel. The pipes are then ‘voiced’  

by  

a  

master  

craftsman  

who  

cuts  

into  

the  

mouths  

and  

makes  

fine  

 adjustments before regulating them on a ‘voicing’ machine. The tuning is still done by ear.

    The craft has been unchanged for generations. But modern technology does now augment the old ways. A computer programme allows the instrument’s designer to determine the dimensions precisely.

    John Mander is able to fashion from scratch all the components of an organ. He was sent at the age of seventeen as an apprentice to an organ builder  

in  

Hamburg  

–  

as  

Germany  

was,  

and  

remains,  

the  

historic  

centre  

of  

 the craft. Training standards were exacting. Mander gained his diploma (as well  

as  

fluent  

mastery  

of  

German),  

began  

working  

on  

organs  

in  

America  

 and  

 had  

 his  

 first  

 commission  

 to  

 restore  

 the  

 organ  

 at  

 Pembroke  

 College  

 Cambridge.  

He  

took  

over  

the  

firm  

in  

1983,  

and  

decided  

to  

concentrate  

less  

 on restoration and more on building new instruments. The demand remains brisk  

 –  

 schools,  

 concert  

 halls,  

 churches  

 and  

 ceremonial  

 buildings  

 still  

 want  

traditional  

pipe  

organs.  

He  

has  

sent  

his  

organs  

all  

over  

the  

world  

–  

to  

 America, Japan, Nigeria and Europe especially. Some of the commissions have been huge: in 1993 he built a four-manual organ of sixty-eight stops for St Ignatius Loyala in New York, an organ that stands thirteen metres high  

and  

weighs  

around  

twenty-five  

tonnes.

    Competition  

among  

organ  

builders  

is  

fierce.  

There  

are  

about  

ten  

companies  

 remaining in Britain manufacturing organs, and others who just tune or refurbish them. Mander is not the largest. And prices can range from around £50,000 for a small chamber organ to over £2.5 million for the largest. Mander does not play himself, but relies on professional organists to put his instruments through their paces.

    ‘If I have tears in my eyes when I hear it played, then I know it’s a good organ,’ says the last organ maker of Bethnal Green. The Queen, he hopes, will one day be moved in a similar fashion as she listens to his latest creation in Westminster Abbey.