World famous organ played at Selby Abbey after restoration

John Scott Whiteley playing the restored Hill organ at Selby Abbey.  Pictures: Simon Hulme.
John Scott Whiteley playing the restored Hill organ at Selby Abbey. Pictures: Simon Hulme.
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It is an experience that musical experts feared could be lost forever, causing irreversible damage to the country’s musical heritage.

Decades of masterful performances on Selby Abbey’s world-famous Hill organ were enjoyed by thousands of music lovers but its harmonies were at risk of never being heard again.

Appeal director Jeremy Gaskell pictured by the organ pipes. Mr Gaskell said the newly restored organ sounds spectacular.

Appeal director Jeremy Gaskell pictured by the organ pipes. Mr Gaskell said the newly restored organ sounds spectacular.

Four years ago the four-manual organ was, as Abbey officials put it, on its last legs and five years away from becoming unplayable. Indeed, the precious instrument was in desperate need of restoration at huge cost.

This is an organ of global repute. It was specially made for the Abbey by eminent organ builder William Hill in 1909 and was played by one of the greatest organists of a generation, Italian maestro Fernando Germani at Mr Hill’s invitation.

In the 1960s, Germani, who was the Pope’s organist at the Basilica in Rome, sat down at Selby’s Hill organ and, over the course of ten days, he recorded a trio of what would go on to become internationally-acclaimed LPs.

So when the organ fell into disrepair, given its prestige, Abbey officials could not simply sit back and do nothing.

Selby Abbey hosted a special concert last night to mark the restoration of the four-manual Hill organ and to pay tribute to Italian organist Fernando Germani who helped put the Abbey on the international map.

Selby Abbey hosted a special concert last night to mark the restoration of the four-manual Hill organ and to pay tribute to Italian organist Fernando Germani who helped put the Abbey on the international map.

An appeal was launched, raising a total of £520,000 to pay Geoffrey Coffin of York to painstakingly restore the organ, and last night, for the first time in nearly 60 years, its notes rang out at the Abbey during a hotly-anticipated, sell-out concert.

Jeremy Gaskell, director of the organ appeal, said: “We felt strongly this organ deserved to be restored and it didn’t come cheap. But thanks to the generosity of major donors, countless donations from people locally, the region and even one from America, as well as music organ enthusiasts, some of whom have never been to Selby Abbey but know the organ, its restoration has been possible.

“It was on its last legs. Experts said there was a danger of losing forever what is essentially an important part of our musical heritage and once it’s gone, it’s gone. It was getting dire. John Scott Whiteley played it fairly regularly and there was no sound coming out of some of the notes.”

Ahead of last night’s concert, which was dedicated to Germani and attended by around 400 people, Mr Gaskell said the restored organ sounded “absolutely sensational”.

“For the first time in nearly 60 years people will get the chance to hear it as Germani heard it. It sounds spectacular,” he said.

Two of the country’s leading organists, Mr Scott Whiteley, organist emeritus of York Minster, and D’Arcy Trinkwon of Worth Abbey played the organ last night during performances alongside the Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by Adrian Partington. They performed the Elgar Cockaigne Overture, Jongen Sinfonia Concertante and Guilmant Symphony No 2 in A Major Op 91.

It would have been a “tragedy” if the organ had become unplayable, according to Mr Scott Whiteley, who said: “What its restoration means to me is that we have a historic arts treasure preserved and that’s vital. Geoffrey Coffin has done an absolutely marvellous job at solving the problems. It plays better and can be heard clearly by the whole congregation.”

A restored Harrison & Harrison console built for Manchester Cathedral in the early 1950s and purchased by the Abbey also featured last night.