Pulling out the stops: York Minster organ is dismantled for first time since Caruso sang

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.
A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.
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Enrico Caruso had just made his debut with the New York Met and cut a record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, the last time they pulled out the organ pipes at York Minster.

Music having moved on somewhat since then, the wholesale dismantling that got under way yesterday was described, with little exaggeration, as timely.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

The craftsmen who moved in to undertake the work were to sacred music what roadies are to rock and roll – packing the pieces into flight cases and loading them on to a lorry bound for another city.

But whereas even the largest rock rig can be struck from the stage in a few hours flat, the Minster organ will take three weeks to take apart, and then another year and a half before it is put back in place.

“There is a sadness in losing it. It’s almost a bereavement in its way,” said Robert Sharpe, the Minster’s director of music.

“But unlike a bereavement, you know it’s coming back.”

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

Dwarfed by a tower of scaffolding and the Five Sisters window, Mr Sharpe was standing in the North Transept, in a compound created for the organ pieces as the instrument is taken apart.

There are 5,403 pipes – some 16ft long, others the size of a pencil – as well as the mechanics of the keyboard.

One of the largest cathedral organs in the country, it dates from 1903 and weighs 20 tons. It replaced an earlier instrument destroyed in the first Minster fire, in 1829.

Since then it has been repaired every three decades, but a wholesale refurbishment is undertaken only 100 years. Its last major work was exactly a century ago, when a Tuba Mirabilis, for fanfares, was added by the Durham firm of Harrison and Harrison. The same company is handling the current project, which is costing £2m.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

“This has been seven or eight years in the planning, so for me it’s exciting to see the pieces finally coming out,” Mr Sharpe said. “So far everything is going to plan.”

The enormity of the job, and the shortage of musical craftsmen with the necessary skills, means that there is a “queue” of cathedrals whose organs need service. With Peterborough complete, Canterbury was ahead of York, with Salisbury to follow.

As part of the project, the keyboard consoles and the bellows system that supplies the organ with air will be rebuilt in the traditional style, and most of the 100 decorative case pipes, silent since 1903, returned to use.

The other pipes will be tuned.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

“You start by cleaning them and then each pipe has to be listened to and regulated using a voicing machine,” Mr Sharpe said. “It’s a mini organ, where the pipes are put on in individual stops and any adjustments made.

“Some of the sounds that were recreated in the 1960s in the fashion of that time are being re-done again.”

Removed from their loft and placed on the ground in front of him, they are larger than he expected, and, in some cases, more the worse for wear.

“Over time, metal can become fatigued. We knew some of the front pipes were in bad condition. In a few cases they are worse than we realised, so this project is coming at just the right time,” he said.

Music will continue to be heard in the Minster during the organ’s absence.

A borrowed concert grand piano will be used alongside a chamber organ in the Quire and a second, digital, organ will serve both the Nave and Quire.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

A major project to refurbish York Minster's Grand Organ gets under way with the removal of 5,403 pipes which will be taken to a workshop in Durham for repair.

The restoration, funded by donations and from the reserves of the Chapter of York, includes a new music library beneath the organ, inside the screen which separates the Quire and Nave.

Mr Sharpe said: “Organ music has been at the heart of worship at York Minster for nearly 1,000 years and we hope this project will allow us to continue that tradition throughout the 21st century and beyond.”