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.