The Hill Organ at St. George’s Cathedral
The present instrument in St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, has a long and interesting history, which begins in the latter half of the seventeenth century. It originally stood in the church of St Margaret, Westminster, London, next to Westminster Abbey, and its earliest history goes back to 1675, fifteen years after the Restoration.
The earlier organ in St Margaret's suffered at the hands of the Puritans, as did many English organs in Cromwell's time. In 1644 organ-playing had been prohibited in divine worship by an ordinance of the Lords and Commons 'for the speedy demolishing of all organs, images and all matters of superstitious monuments in all Cathedrals [sic] and Collegiate or Parish Churches and Chapels, throughout the kingdom of England and the Dominion of Wales, the better to accomplish the blessed reformation so happily begun and to remove offences and things illegal to the worship of God'. Records of 1644 and 1645 in St Margaret's refer to parts of the organ - screen and pipes -being sold to various people and for almost thirty years there was no organ in the church.
The organ of 1675 was built by one of the most famous of all post-Restoration organ-builders, 'Father' Smith (Bernhard Schmidt, c.1630-1708). Dr Charles Burney (1726-1814) related atradition that the demand for organs immediately after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was so great that foreign organ-builders were encouraged to settle in England, as there were so few native organ-builders left. Dr Burney went on to say that 'Bernard Schmidt, as the Germans write the name, brought over with him from Germany, of which country he was a native, two nephews, Gerard and Bernard, his assistants; and to distinguish him from these, as well as to express reverence due to his abilities, which placed him at the head of his profession, he was called Father Schmidt.' There is a suggestion, however, that he was, in fact, an English organ-builder who had gone abroad during the Commonwealth for lack of job opportunities at home, and that he returned once the monarchy was restored. But, whatever his history, there is no doubt of his pre-eminence in his art and that he was responsible for many fine instruments, including those of St Paul's Cathedral, London (1697), the Temple Church (1684), the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall (1699), Durham Cathedral (1683), and the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. 'Father' Smith was evidently also a competent organist and served in this capacity at St Margaret's from the time the organ was completed until his death in 1708, his salary being ı20 a year. He was finally appointed Organ Maker in Ordinary to the King, with apartments in Whitehall allocated to him. He died on 20 February and was buried in the churchyard on the south side of the church, between St Margaret's and the Abbey wall.
So in 1675 the St Margaret's records show that the sum of 200 was paid to Mr Bernard Smith for the organ newly erected. In the notebook of one J. H. Leffler, organist of St Katherine-by-the-Tower, London, we have a record of this 'Father' Smith organ as it stood in 1800 when he saw it. It was Leffler's hobby to travel around the country examining various organs and noting down their specifications and conditions, and he wrote the details of the St Margaret's organ thus:
Three setts [sic] of keys Great and Choir, CC to C Swell, Middle C to c (never us'd)
GREAT (9 stops) CHOIR (4 stops)
Open Diapason 48 pipes Stopped Diapason 48 pipes Stopped Diapason 48 pipes Principal 48 pipes Principal 48 pipes Flute 48 pipes Block Flute 48 pipes Cremona 48 pipes Twelfth 48 pipes Fifteenth 48 pipes Sesquialter III ranks 144 pipes Cornet (from C sharp) III ranks 72 pipes Trumpet 47 pipes
Nearly one hundred and fifty years later, in 1804, the organ-builder John Avery (? - 1808) was engaged to built a new organ for St Margaret's for which he was paid 800 guineas. Not a great deal, however, is known about Avery. Hopkins and Rimbault refer to him as 'a dissipated character' , but he seems nevertheless to have been a first-class craftsman. He took the old organ, which he valued at 200, and in all likelihood incorporated some of the 'Father' Smith pipework in his new instrument, as he had done with the organ at King's College, Cambridge, which he rebuilt in the same year. The Avery instrument was placed in a gallery at the west end of the church, in a Gothic-style case with pinnacles. At a later stage, when the galleries were removed, the organ was placed in a chamber on the north side of the chancel where the present instrument now stands.
Henry Leffler once again recorded the new organ at St Margaret's:
Three setts [sic] of keys:
GREAT (11 stops) SWELL (6 stops)
Open Diapason 548 pipes Open Diapason 35 pipes Stopped Diapason 58 pipe Stopped Diapason 35 pipes Principal 58 pipes Principal 35 pipes Flute or Nason 58 pipes Cornet III ranks 105 pipes Twelfth 58 pipes Trumpet 35 pipes Fifteenth 58 pipes Hautboy 35 pipes Tierce 58 pipes Sesquialtera III ranks 174 pipes Mixture II ranks 116 pipes Trumpet 58 pipes Cornet (from C ) II ranks 60 pipes
CHOIR (8 stops) PEDAL
Stopped Diapason 58 pipes One octave of large wooden pipes Dulciana (to C faut) 42 pipes Principal 58 pipes Flute 58 pipes Fifteenth 58 pipes *Furniture *Vox Humana *Cremona *prepared for Leffler also remarked: ‘There is a stop which connects the Choir organ with the Great Organ (Choir to Great coupler). The Bass of this Stopped Diapason, Principal, Flute, Fifteenth in the Choir from C faut are by communication.'
This organ had the unusual arrangement of the manuals with theSwell the highest and the Choir in the middle.
In 1842 J. C. Bishop, who had founded his organ-building firm at about the end of the eighteenth century, renovated the organ. He was one of the leading organ-builders of his day and famous for his rebuild of the 'Father' Smith organ in St Paul's Cathedral. In his rebuild he replaced the Stopped Diapason on the Choir with an Open Diapason, removed the Vox Humana and modified the Furniture stop, renaming it Mixture. This latter step meant that the Mixture stop probably lost much of its brightness and colour as Bishop introduced more and more unison and less mutation ranks in the higher compass of his mixtures. The top octave and a half in these stops is often composed almost entirely of 8, 4, and 2 fts. Then in no less than twenty-five years the organ underwent three separate rebuilds: in 1859 by Holdich, in 1868 by Hill, and yet again in 1883 as a large three-manual instrument by the latter firm.
This was the organ which the great romantic player Edwin Lemare (1865-1934) found when he was appointed organist to St Margaret's towards theend of the nineteenth century. However, what Lemare really wanted was an instrument more suited to his repertoire of orchestral transcriptions so popular at the time. So in 1897 the Hill organ was replaced by the present instrument built by the firm of Walker's in 1897. It is at this point that the connection with St George's Cathedral, Cape Town begins.
The Hill organ was bought by a Mr W. H. Baxter of Harrogate, a maker of stone-breaking machinery in Leeds who had extensive business connections in South Africa. He had originally intended the instrument to be erected in a church, for which, however, it was found to be too large, and so it was temporarily erected in the west end of St Barnabas Church, Holbeck in Leeds. When in 1902 Mr Baxter happened to read in the newspapers that a new Anglican Cathedral was being built in Cape Town, he decided that the gift of the organ would be a way of showing some tangible appreciation of the considerable profits he had derived from that part of the world. He accordingly wrote to the Bishop of London making the offer, which was enthusiastically accepted. Mr Baxter showed even further generosity by paying for the rebuilding and enlarging of the organ (with Sir George Martin (1844-1916), the organist of St Paul's Cathedral acting as adviser). In addition, a number of additional pedal stops and a solo organ were added as well as a new console and new action chests, making a total cost of something like 3000. He also paid all the shipping charges to Cape Town and for the re-erection of the organ in St George's Cathedral, leaving the Cathedral authorities to purchase only the electric blowing apparatus, which cost a mere 300.
A letter preserved in the archives of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa records Baxter's own words on the subject:
Knapping Mount Harrogate
17th June, 1909
Dear Archbishop of Cape Town,
Some years ago when it was decided to build the first portion of your Cathedral, to the Memory of British Soldiers who fell during the late War in Africa, and after a Meeting in London in which Lord Roberts and the Bishop of London took a prominent part towards furthering that object, and at which period I had on hand the Organ formerly in St Margaret's, Westminster, (the case of which alone was considered very valuable) I decided out of sympathy to Lord Roberts for the loss of his Son, and as a personal Thank Offering for the success achieved by the British Army, I would offer the Organ formerly in St. Margeret's [sic] Westminster, and undertake to have it reconstructed and erected in the new Cathedral.
I made this offer through the Bishop of London, and my offer being accepted, I selected Sir George Martin to draw up the necessary specification for the reconstruction of the Organ suitable for the Cathedral. . . .
I therefore trust you will accept the same and that it will prove itself thoroughly efficient, and that it may long remain to assist in the Services of Praise and Thanksgiving to Almighty God, to the satisfaction of both the players of it, as well as to those who join in the Services rendered in so worthy a Memorial to those whose memory the Chancel portion has been erected.
W. H. Baxter
The Cape Times Weekly Edition of 5 April 1903 gives a long account of Mr Baxter's 'noble gift':
'Mr Baxter, the well-known Leeds engineer, has made a munificent offer to the new building of an up-to-date four manual church organ of 61 stops . . . it is to have a frontage of twenty-five feet in the church, while another front, decorated in the same style will appear outside the south transept. The decoration of the organ case is particularly beautiful, being a special creation of Mr Arthur Hill, whose reputation in this direction is well-known to be unique.'
Arthur Hill (1857-1923) was one of the partners of the firm of Hill and also the author of a monumental two-volume work, Organ Cases and Organs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (1883). The case is an especially fine example of his designs with its three towers of pipes and richly carved woodwork. A particularly interesting feature are five large display pipes in the main south transept case which have elaborately embossed designs beaten into thin sheets of lead wrapped around the plain zinc of the pipes. Such embossing was a feature of Renaissance organ case design and only a few examples of this particular art survive in England, notably in the organs of Exeter Cathedral (c.1665) and Tewkesbury Abbey (c.1580).
Click here for the original 1909 specification of the organ.
In the seventies two interesting additions were made to the instrument. The first was in 1973 when St Mary's, Nottingham, disposed of its 1914 Walker organ. St George's bought the 32/19/8 pedal reed unit, the principal reason being to add a 32-foot to the existing pedal department. As such, it fulfils its function admirably, although the 16 and 8-foot pitches are less successful, mainly because the voicing of the Walker pipes is so very different from that of the Hill reeds, being somewhat bland in comparison.
Yet another interesting addition took place in 1975 when the swell 4 flute was bought from Trinity College, Cambridge, when the Harrison and Harrison organ was replaced by the present Metzler. Strangely enough, the 1909 Cape Town Hill organ lacked such a stop on the swell and, as the Trinity organ contained much original Hill pipework (it had been rebuilt by Harrisons), the flute blends perfectly with its fellows. It also adds to the distinguished history of the Cape Town instrument as it was a stop regularly used by Stanford, Alan Gray, Vaughan Williams, and no doubt by Saint Saıns when he gave a memorable organ recital in the Trinity College Chapel on the occasion of his visit to Cambridge to receive an honorary D.Mus. in 1893. The other recent addition (inspired by the one added to the St John's College, Cambridge organ) was a Cimbelstern and, although there is (as yet) no revolving star, the bells jingle enchantingly in the Bach Christmas chorale preludes.
The only other changes to the original specification (prior to 1998) were the extension of an 8 foot Octave from the pedal 16 Open Wood; the changing of the composition of the Great mixture (from 17.19.22 to 15.19.22) and to the Choir organ where the Dulciana was replaced by a Nineteenth (using as many of the original pipes as possible), and the Lieblichgedackt to a Nazard (once again using the existing pipes).
By 1988 numerous, recurrent problems had made it essential that something be done to keep the organ playable as all the pneumatic action was perishing. A major appeal was launched under the enthusiastic patronage of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the citizens of Cape Town responded with unstinting generosity, showing their awareness of the musical treasure in their city.
A certain degree of soul-searching inevitably took place as to whether to restore the pneumatic action to its original condition. After due deliberation and consultation it was finally decided to electrify the action, at the same time installing a solid state capture system. As a result it was possible to make a number of stops playable on other manuals, the choir and pedal organs benefiting particularly in this respect. A number of new couplers were also added, notably a choir to great, strangely absent in Hill's original 1909 specification. The addition of more thumb and pedal pistons, as well as much-needed general pistons, immediately transformed the organ into an instrument both more versatile and user-friendly. The over-riding decision had always been to make no tonal changes whatsoever; the instrument was simply to be restored, rebuilt and made more versatile and the pedantic purist need make no use of any of the recent borrowings and mechanical aids if he or she wishes to play the instrument as it sounded in 1909. Though I doubt if even in the year of its installation in St George's the speech and action was ever as prompt as it is now.
Simon Preston gave a superb inaugural recital on the rebuilt organ, memorable not only for the musicality of his playing but the sheer virtuosity of his performances of both the Elgar sonata and Liszt's Ad nos ad salutarem undam.
It is always difficult to describe the sound quality of any particular organ. As someone once quipped, 'the best stop on the organ is the building'. Here the Hill organ is fortunate to be housed in Sir Herbert Baker's fine French-style Neo-Gothic Cathedral with its sympathetic acoustic. Though how much more glorious it would doubtless sound if Baker's original design were complete, the nave still lacking several bays. Since the organ is placed in a chamber high above the south side of the choir, the sound is somewhat trapped in both the choir and transept crossing and its full power is somewhat diminished as one moves down the nave. In a sentence, however, one might very well describe it as one of the finest examples of Hill's work, the typical romantic English cathedral organ, a Rolls Royce of instruments. John Mee wrote very fully and in far greater detail than is available here in his article 'The Organ in St George's (Anglican) Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa' which appeared in The Organ, No. 161, Vol. XLI, July. 1961, and readers are referred to it. Reading it 26 years later one is very much aware how accurate his detailed description of the organ was and that many of his suggestions for its improvement were incorporated in the 1998 rebuild.
This noble Hill organ has enriched the music in Sir Herbert Baker's cathedral for almost a century and is one of the most precious musical treasures of the city of Cape Town. It has been much admired and praised by visiting organ-builders such as Noel Mander and John Norman, as well as organists Marie-Claire Alain, John Birch, Harry Bramma, Stephen Cleobury, Carlo Curley, Harold Darke, George Guest, Gerre Hancock, David Hill, Donald Hunt, Francis Jackson, Geraint Jones, Gerald Knight, Nicolas Kynaston, Simon Lole, Richard Marlow, Andrew Millington, Martin Neary, James Parsons, Simon Preston, Christopher Robinson, Barry Rose, Richard Seal, Sir George Thalben Ball, Alan Thurlow, Allan Wicks, Sir David Willcocks, Arthur Wills, and Peter Wright, amongst many other distinguished visitors to St George's.
In conclusion I would like to pay tribute to James Riadore of Cooper, Gill and Tomkins who has lovingly looked after the instrument for the past 40 years. I would also like to say how really delighted I would be to show the organ to any readers who might find themselves in Cape Town. They are very welcome to come and try this magnificent instrument for themselves.
Mee, J., 'The Organ in St George's (Anglican) Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa.', The Organ, No. 161, Vol. XLI, July. 1961, 24-30. Pearce, C. W., Notes on Old London City Churches, Their Organs, Organists, and Musical Associations (London, 1911). Sumner, W. L., The Organ: Its Evolution, Principles of Construction and Use. (London, 1958). Sumner, W. L., 'The Organs and Organists of St Margaret's Church, Westminster', The Organ, No. 179, Vol. XLV, Jan. 1966, 106-112.