Organ Tuning

The fiancée of a friend of mine was giving a concert this evening in the church of Saint-Pierre-en-Port on the Normandy coast, and the man playing the organ accompaniment phoned me to ask me to come and tune the organ, since the reeds were off. I went and did the job, and he held the notes for me. On the whole, the cone-tuned labial stops were in tune, apart from the odd note in the treble. The stopped flutes needed some attention, and particularly the 16-foot cromorne and the trumpet on the great. French reeds are very sensitive and unstable, so they require a lot of care and reserve.

Access for the tuner was very cramped and I got very hot and sweaty. The whole organ was contained in a mid nineteenth century case built on classical lines. I found the mechanism nicely designed and fairly well balanced, as often found in French instruments of the Cavaillé-Coll period. Unfortunately, this romantic instrument has suffered from a poor-quality re-do in the 1970’s to “baroque-ise” it, adding upperwork and removing many of the foundation stops. The swell shutters had been removed and a stop crudely added to each manual. That’s why I was particularly cramped on the passage board.

Tuning an organ this time of year reminded me of installing an old English organ (from the Methodist Church in Kettering, Northamptonshire) in the church of Bouloire near Le Mans.

bouloire_organI have already written about the brave priest Fr Pecha, and the fact of this organ installation making us become friends until his death in 2002. There too, I did most of the work in July 1992 (I was a subdeacon at the time) after we broke up from the Trinity term at seminary. The work continued into August with final regulation and two tunings before the inauguration on the Feast of the Assumption. Like today, it was very hot in the swell box with the cable lamp, reed knife and cones!

I didn’t stay very long with Harrison’s of Durham back in 1976, where I was an apprentice on leaving school, but I learned to tune organs and do repairs “in the field”. I also learned how to dismantle an organ and follow such a method as would allow me to transport all the parts in a vehicle and put it all back together in the new location. Unfortunately, in the works, I only had a few weeks in the general workshop (where I made the bellows frame for the tuba of Liverpool Cathedral), but no experience with design of new instruments, pipe-making and voicing. It is an extremely diversified trade, mostly fine woodwork but also electrical installation and many other things to learn. Many things go wrong with organs as with cars or any other complex machinery. I worked with a tuner called Tom Rennie who was very short-tempered, but an excellent tuner who taught me to lay a scale by ear and fine-tune the whole “job”. I admire craftsmen with a lifetime’s experience and who love their work.

I have moved a number of organs from England to the continent. Most of the churches I worked for looked after me well, gave me free lodgings and paid me in cash. Unfortunately, I had a bad experience with a Polish priest in France, who only paid the up-front amount needed to hire the vehicle and get the organ from England – and failed to pay me the rest. Even that amount was hard to get. He wanted me to advance the costs of doing the job, which he would not have paid unless I had told him that I don’t budge without funding. Churchmen can be just as untrustworthy as anyone else! Sad, but true. That job also keeps one away from home for weeks and is hardly compatible with priestly life. That is why I have not done any organ work since early 2001. There’s quite a lot at stake.

Technical translating is much “safer”, though less adventurous…

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2 Responses to Organ Tuning

  1. Jim of Olym says:

    When I was 16 years old I kinda apprenticed to an organ repairman in southern California. I helped restore some older organs and install some new ones there. Exciting work! Except the guy I worked for was gay and kept hitting on me. He later became an Episcopal priest. I won’t mention his name as he is probably passed on by now. Anyway, it was a bug that caught me, and I still love organ music and stop lists and all that sort of thing. I’m now in my late 70s and still bugged by pipe organs of any ilk. Thanks for posting this, Father.

    Incidentally, do you know this blog: Pipedreams.

    It is a weekly presentation. You might have to decode the url but they have some real nice stuff on there.

    Rdr. james Morgan
    Olympia wa

    We have several nice organ builders in the area.

    • Talking of stop lists, we had fun at school:

      Earthquake 64
      Double Open Concrete 32
      Bourdon/Bourdoff (by rocking tablet) 16
      Bourdstiff 16

      Double Diamond 16
      Open Diamond 8
      Stopped Diamond 8
      Principle 4
      Doublotte 2
      Mixed Grill VI
      Strumpet 8

      Geiger Counter 8
      Tibia Cassata (Ouch!) 8
      Stair Rod 8
      Döppelganger 4
      Sexquialtera V
      Double Buffoon 16
      Cornedbeef 8
      Nux Vomica 8

      Action by quantum mechanics
      Nuclear blower
      Couplers everywhere
      Pipework by Stinkbomb of Holland
      Organ built by Botchit, Grabbit & Runn, Ltd (very limited)

      * * *

      Here are some more stop names:
      Honkfarte 16′
      Contra Vile 16′
      Tubbette 8′
      Crumbyhorn 4′
      Weite Pfeife’
      Tibia Vulgaris
      Bearded Gamba
      Tromba Bastarda
      32′ Bastage
      2′ Labia Menore
      16′ Phallic Horn
      Faggotta Pomposa

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