BRISTOL BEACON CONCERT ORGAN

The pipe organ has been described as the most complex of all musical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution. Mozart called it “The King of Instruments”. Bristol is fortunate to be home to several wonderful organs, including the magnificent Harrison and Harrison organ within the Colston Hall, now known as Bristol Beacon. This symphonic organ remains largely unchanged today and has the distinction of being probably the last concert hall organ in the ‘late Romantic’ style in the UK.

In 2018, Bristol Music Trust embarked on an ambitious programme of transformation which will see it become a world class concert hall and a venue of which Bristol can be proud. The transformation presents a golden opportunity to undertake a major restoration of the Hall’s famous organ.

The Concert Hall’s Renowned Organ

The Hall’s organ forms an important part of Bristol’s history and cultural life. The first organ was installed in 1869.  It was very small, consisting of just two manuals, with only a few stops. It was not long before the need for a more substantial instrument became clear, and only a year later Messrs. Henry Willis and Sons provided an instrument of four manuals and pedals. Unfortunately, in 1898 a disastrous fire destroyed much of the Hall, including the organ.

Rebuilding of the Hall was soon under way, and Messrs. Henry Willis & Sons built another fine four manual organ, the last large instrument to be constructed under the name of “Father Willis”. The organ was used at the opening ceremony for the Hall in 1900. In 1905, under the guidance of the respected local organist Mr George Riseley, the organ was enlarged by Messrs. Norman and Beard of Norwich. The most striking feature of the design was four massive towers formed by the 32ft Open Diapason rank, connected at the sides by semi-circular bays of smaller pipes, and in the centre by flats of similar pipes fitting in with the woodwork of the case.

In 1919 the Hall was taken over by the Bristol Corporation. Seventeen years later, in 1936, it was felt that the time had come to modernise the building and rebuild the organ. Electro-pneumatic action was installed, together with an all-electric console. The old Willis stops were restored to their former quality, while the specification was enhanced to provide five manual departments, playable on four manuals. Tragically, fate struck again in 1945 when, having survived the Blitz, the Hall was hit by a second fire, this time from a stray cigarette end. The local press described “…the organ crashing into a sea of flames“.

Organ Restoration

Due to the years of post-war austerity, rebuilding of the hall had to wait until 1950, and the new auditorium was opened in 1951 to coincide with the Festival of Britain. Messrs. Harrison and Harrison Ltd., the renowned organ builders of Durham, were building the organ for London’s Royal Festival Hall, and were commissioned to build the new organ for Bristol. The specification of this organ, which is tonally unchanged to this day, may be downloaded here. It took five years to construct and is a remarkable feat of engineering. It is three storeys high (larger than an average town house) and incorporates 5,372 pipes; 4,000 electromagnets; and 300 miles of wiring.

The instrument proper is behind a grille and little of it can be seen from the body of the Hall. The organ extends upwards above the level of the panelling, and in the centre is the Great organ with the Swell behind it. The front of the Swell organ stretches across the two centre portions and has a shutter area of 102 square feet. 16ft, 8ft and 4ft Pedal Diapasons are visible to the left of the grille, with the Pedal reeds.

On the right are the basses of the Great Open Diapason I, and more pedal stops including the Open Wood I. The enclosed Choir organ is to the right, with the Solo Tubas in front. The rest of the Solo organ is above the Swell and in front on the right is the unenclosed Choir organ. To the left are the Great reeds. Below the level of the Great and Swell some of the largest pedal pipes lie horizontally along the floor of the organ chamber.

Later Improvements

The organ continued with very little major attention for over four decades. In 1995 the BDOA launched an appeal for funds to carry out a limited repair and maintenance programme at a cost of only £7,500. By 1997 the Appeal had raised around £12,000. Following the receipt of a substantial grant from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts of £14,900 it was possible to carry out more extensive works costing £21,669 and carry forward money for future repair. These next repairs were carried out in 1998 at a cost of £13,287, the City Council contributing £6,000 towards this cost.

In 2000, the BDOA committee agreed that the remaining amount of money in its Colston Hall Fund should be used to upgrade the console. The outdated and limited piston changing mechanism would be replaced by modern electronic aids to registration. The City Council agreed to find the balance of funds required and the work was carried out in August 2001 at a cost of £18,500.

Modern electronics enabled eight general pistons instead of five, with 128 channels of memory. This means that up to 1024 stop changes can be pre-set by the performer. These are activated during performance not only by the general pistons but also by a stepper. Several + and – buttons are located between the manuals which allow the performer to move to the next or previous pre-set registration change.

In addition, the Crescendo Pedal, which provides a graded increase in volume using a swell-type pedal, not only has a setting provided by the organ builder but also provision for three alternatives to be set by the performer.

Current work

Time has taken its toll on the working components of the instrument, and Harrison and Harrison, who are still responsible for the organ’s maintenance, have said that “if the organ is to perform reliably and well, a full overhaul cannot long be deferred”, and added that the present major alterations to the building offer the “perfect opportunity to undertake a full restoration”.

Works needed include: removing, cleaning and storing vulnerable pipework for the duration of the building works, cleaning and encasing the larger pipes; extending the protective screen; installing adjustable reflectors; re-leathering the wind system; overhauling and updating the console and mounting it on a new mobile platform; removing and repairing the humidifier and updating the electrics. When the renovated organ has returned and been re-assembled, the final process will be tuning and voicing to the acoustic of the new space. The budget for these works is shown alongside.

And here is a link to work in progress at Harrisons, which will be updated as the project progresses.

Item Cost
Main removal, protection, repairs and re-assembly £58,750
Complete restoration and build £930,000
Transport £15,000
Total £1,003,750

BRISTOL BEACON ORGAN APPEAL

The major capital project to transform Bristol Beacon is approaching completion. It will become an international standard concert facility and a national centre for entertainment, education and enterprise. The venue’s historic pipe organ by Harrison & Harrison needs to be restored and rehoused at a cost of £1,003,750

This project has already been generously supported by the J & M Britton Trust, but that leaves £800,000 still to be raised.

The Bristol Music Trust has now launched an Organ Appeal specifically to fund this shortfall. Please click here for the details on the Bristol Beacon website. Not only can you read about the many ways you can help as a donor, but also see pages of pictures and stories about the history of the organ and how the restoration work is proceeding.