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Music Making in Colchester

PUBLISHED: 08:46 15 September 2015 | UPDATED: 08:46 15 September 2015

The Moot Hall Organ in Colchester

The Moot Hall Organ in Colchester

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As Colchester's honourary borough organist since 1988, few people anticipated the restoration of the Town Hall's magnificent three manual organ which stands resplendent in the Moot Hall more than Ian Ray. Here he shares his own passion for this historic instrument and how
it has been restored to glory in Colchester

Colchester’s impressive Edwardian Town Hall, perhaps most famous as the setting for the annual October Oyster Feast, has recently been resounding to the splendid sounds of the newly-restored organ that dominates the historic Moot Hall.

As a small boy growing up in Dedham, in the heart of Constable Country, during the years following World War II, I can still remember my first sight of the organ with its elegant golden pipes encased in beautifully carved wood, as I joined in dancing around our primary school Maypole during a local schools festival of folk dance. Several years later, while singing in my secondary school choir, I remember the thrill of hearing the organ played by the late Leonard W Simpson, Colchester’s Honourary Borough Organist from 1950-1988, during one of his popular Saturday afternoon recitals. Now, half a century on and as Leonard’s successor, following 27 years of campaigning and waiting (including the last ten years during which the organ has been largely silent), I have finally had the joy of hearing and playing this remarkable instrument once again.

The magnificent three manual organ was built in 1902 at a cost of £1,000 by Messrs Norman and Beard, popularly regarded as the pre-eminent organ builders of the late Victorian/Edwardian era. Designed by Mr John Belcher, the architect of the Town Hall, the beautiful oak case was constructed by Messrs Kerridge and Shaw, with Messrs Fabrucci and McCrossan contributing the carved woodwork. Built primarily to enhance the dignity of formal civic occasions, such as the annual Mayor-Making Ceremony and the famous Colchester Oyster Feast, the specification of the organ was characteristic of the early 20th century late Romantic period.

Before the luxury of recorded and transmitted sound, as well as the considerable challenges of travelling, the provincial organ recital often included transcriptions of standard orchestral and operatic extracts. So alongside the typical fundamental diapasons, we find the clarinet, oboe, horn and flutes. The organ remained in its original form until it was overhauled in 1938 when the original zinc pipes were gilded, the old trigger-swell pedal was replaced by a balanced swell pedal and thumb and pedal pistons were added, enabling the organist to rapidly change and combine various tone qualities.

In 1952, a second overhaul saw the pitch being raised from A=435Hz to A=440 Hz, by then the accepted norm, enabling the organ to be played with other instruments. In 1964 a further overhaul took place and in 1972/3 the organ was once more overhauled and the choir organ was significantly remodelled tonally, in line with the contemporary fashion for providing registers to facilitate greater clarity in the performance of the music of JS Bach and other composers of the Baroque era.

Hill, Norman and Beard also replaced the doors in front of the choir organ with a mesh which allows the pipes to speak more freely into the hall. After this, apart from the twice-yearly regular tuning and maintenance visits carried out more recently by craftsmen from The Village Workshop following the demise of Hill, Norman and Beard, no further overhaul or refurbishment of the organ took place. Regular pleas from the borough organist and the organ tuners for increasingly urgent repairs sadly fell on deaf ears as the condition of the organ steadily deteriorated over the years.

On arriving to prepare for the 2003 Annual Mayor-Making Ceremony, the organist was informed by the town’s Serjeant-at-Arms that the organ tuners had left a message to the effect that the organ was too unreliable to be played in public.

Fortunately for posterity, this was not to become the end of the organ’s story. On May 15, 2002, exactly 100 years to the day after the Earl of Rosebery had opened the Town Hall, Nigel Chapman was elected Mayor of Colchester. One of his first acts was to vow to raise a few pounds to repair the organ during his year of office. Realising that the work required was more serious, he began a campaign to restore the organ, which gained momentum in 2009 when he and his wife Mary formed the Friends of the Moot Hall Organ, of which Nigel was appointed chairman. There followed a series of fundraising events and regular meetings of the trustees, and the borough council was persuaded to engage the well-known organ consultant Dr William McVicker, curator of the Royal Festival Hall organ, as project consultant to plan and administer the restoration of the organ.

The organ has been carefully restored by Harrison & Harrison Ltd of Durham. The pitch change made in 1952 has been retained, but the later tonal changes have been reversed to allow the organ’s broad-shouldered Edwardian musical character to be re-established. The total cost, approximately £450,000, was met by funds generously provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Friends of the Moot Hall Organ with support from The Essex Heritage Trust and The Hervey Benham Charitable Trust, as well as many individual benefactors.

In May this year an ambitious programme of events to mark the opening of the restored organ, including the performance during the opening recital of a specially composed work by Julia Usher in collaboration with Duncan Chapman, a competition for local composers to submit fresh compositions and various activities involving local school children.

Having enjoyed the chance to play the organ earlier this year at the Annual Mayor-Making in May, an Organ Fest has featured a series of four lunchtime organ recitals during July and August which will hopefully become the starting point for establishing regular opportunities for the people of Colchester and the surrounding district to enjoy once more the glorious sounds of their civic organ.

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