All mod cons: a rebuilt Maynooth organ passes its first test

The personality of the ‘new’ Ruffatti organ at St Patrick’s College chapel is suave, full, luxuriant and finely balanced

The keyboards have optical sensors, there are record and playback functions and Midi connections, and stop combinations can be stored digitally

The keyboards have optical sensors, there are record and playback functions and Midi connections, and stop combinations can be stored digitally

Wed, Apr 30, 2014, 01:00

Henry Wood, the founding conductor of the Proms in London, played the organ as a child. He was good enough at the age of 10 to deputise at a service and earn a half-crown. The reason I remember this fact is that in his autobiography, My Life of Music , he recounts a long-forgotten issue concerning organ practice in the days before you could assume an organ blower to be an electrically operated device. If Wood wanted to practise on an actual organ, as opposed to some other kind of keyboard, he needed someone to do the pumping for him, and that someone had to be paid.

The fact that for centuries the greatest climaxes of the king of instruments were only achievable by virtue of heaving, sweating bodies in the background, put the instrument in a new perspective for me. It is not for nothing that the king of instruments won its sobriquet. It was capable of what we now regard as an orchestral volume and a variety of sonority long before orchestras capable of that level of sound came into existence. It was also, literally in most cases, an instrument of the church.

Sunday brought the inauguration of a new Ruffatti organ in the chapel of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, although in the world of organ-building, “new” is a description that usually has to be qualified. Gerard Gillen, NUI Maynooth’s emeritus professor of music, a man whose devotion to the organ remains unflagging in his early 70s, provided the background information in the printed programme.

The original Maynooth organ was built following the most modern principles by the German firm of Georg Stahlhuth in 1890. It included an early version of electro-pneumatic action (the connection between the keyboard and the actual pipes was implemented by electrically controlled wind pressure), which allowed the playing console to be well removed from the pipes. As Gillen says, “This distance between player and instrument was an astonishing technological achievement for its time, although from the start it was hardly an arrangement likely to lead to the best musical results, either in accompaniment or in solo playing.”

The Stahlhuth instrument lasted just four decades. Organs are prone to be updated either through changing needs, changing fashions, or both. In 1928 and 1929, the instrument was enlarged by Henry Willis & Sons, in a rebuild that Gillen says “gave the instrument a romantic Anglo-French accent”.

Half a century elapsed before, in the mid-1970s, Bray company Kenneth Jones & Associates brought the instrument, says Gillen, “into line with contemporary classical principles of organ design”. Organists and organ-recital programmes had turned away from romantic repertoire and were showing an interest in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Jones’s rebuild reflected this. He also moved the console from the ground floor to the gallery.

By the end of the 20th century, wear and tear created the opportunity for another rethink. This time it was decided to “restore the organ to its original romantic character, but with an enlarged palette of colours, and in the process to make the primary action of the instrument mechanical as opposed to electro-pneumatic as heretofore”. The task was given to an Italian firm, Fratelli Ruffatti of Padova.

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