Hear the Organ
History & Specification
by R G Greening
This church, which dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, stands at the North end of St Giles Street, some distance outside the old site of the north wall of the city. The organ in the church was mentioned in a short paragraph by Mr W L Sumner in his articles on oxford organs which appeared in this periodical [The Organ] in 1947-8. The recent  re-siting of the organ at St Giles prompted me to investigate its history which, although not a long one, is interesting.
First of all, a word must be said about the shape of the church, as this has created some difficulty as to the correct position of the organ not only during the recent rebuild, but throughout its history. The organs at St Giles have been itinerant instruments, to say the least. The western section of the church consists of a nave with aisles, and the tower is at the west end over the centre aisle of the nave. The north aisle terminates at the east end of the nave, but the south aisle continues eastward through a wide arch and its east wall forms a line with the east wall of the chancel. This aisle is connected with the chancel by an unusual low round arch of the 13th century.
The first mention of a musical instrument at St Giles appears in 1837, when an organ was presented by a parishioner. No details of this instrument exist, save that it was placed in a gallery under the tower at the West end – thus displacing the Sunday-school children, who were moved into the aisles on each side of the tower. It seems likely that this was a barrel organ, for in 1849 a series of descriptions of music in Oxford churches appeared in ‘The Parish Choir’ and we find this entry: ‘St Giles. A barrel organ which plays a few psalm tunes and some Gregorian chants. A boisterous choir. When a barrel organ is admitted into a church, let us give up all prospects of improvement, and we shall never be disappointed.’ In this year (1849) the organ began its travels, and was moved into the South aisle at the west end in order to make an approach to the belfry. Also in this year the first mention of an organist appears in the accounts. We learn that one Hannah Hewitt received £8 as organist and Wm Woodward (a choirman) received a similar sum ‘for teaching the children to sing’.
This barrel organ was removed in 1856, a harmonium was provided temporarily, and a second-hand organ was erected in the east end of the south aisle, now the Lady chapel. This was probably made by Elliott in 1819, and if so, had the following specification: Open Diapason, Stopped Diapason, [Treble and Bass], Dulciana, Principal, Fifteenth and Sesquialtera, Cornet, Trumpet [Treble and Bass], an octave of German pedals and two composition pedals. This instrument was only on trial, however, and was shortly discarded in favour of another second-hand barrel organ which was discovered as being for sale by Mr Pickard Hall, the choirmaster, and which was placed in the south aisle. New barrels were purchased for this latter instrument, and total cost being about £100. It was of full compass and possessed ‘the usual keyboard for playing by hand, a general swell – and very effective it is, – German pedals and seven stops, namely: Open Diapason, Stopped Diapason, Dulciana, Flute, Principal, 15th, and Oboe.’ An extravagantly coloured case was provided later. The organ was first used on Jan. 15th, 1857 and lasted until April 14th, 1867. In order to aid the fund for the intstrument Mr Hall offered his services free for one year. In fact he received no payment for at least 3 years afterwards! He is said to have been the real founder of St Giles’ choir, which in 1857 consisted of 13 men and 12 boys.
Mr Hall’s own account of the shortcomings of his choir, taken from a letter, makes interesting reading. ‘ … the effect is altogether inadequate to the numerical strength. The reason is to be found in the thorough incompetence of nearly half the members … They are utterly incompetent to sing harmonized parts, but might be effective if all voices sing one part. Amongst the ineffectives, the worst is M–. He is utterly useless and, as he cannot attend practice, is also utterly hopeless … the really effective ones are on the right-hand [or Decani] side.’ One can only hope that Mr Hall managed to improve this state of affairs.
In 1867 a new organ was built in the church by Messrs. Harrison of Rochdale. This instrument, like its predecessor, stood on the floor of the south aisle, next to the chancel. The specification was as follows:
* Great Organ: 56 notes.
* 1. Double Diapason 16 ft
* 2. Open Diapason 8 ft
* 3. Stopped Diapason Bass 8 ft [12 notes, wood]
* 4. Stopped Diapason Treble 8 ft [44 notes, metal]
* 5. Bell Gamba 8 ft
* 6. Claribella 8 ft [44 notes]
* 7. Principal 4 ft
* 8. Rohr Flute 4 ft
* 9. Twelfth 2 2/3 ft
* 10. Fifteenth 2 ft
* 11. Sesquialtera 3 Rks [168 notes]
* 12. Cremona 8 ft [44 notes]
* 13. Trumpet 8 ft
* Swell Organ: 56 notes
* 1. Bourdon 16 ft [metal & wood]
* 2. Open Diapason 8 ft
* 3. Salicional 8 ft
* 4. Voix céleste 8 ft [100 pipes]
* 5. Stopped Diapason 8 ft
* 6. Stopped Flute 4 ft
* 7. Principal 4 ft
* 8. Fifteenth 2 ft
* 9. Sesqualtera 3 Rks [168 pipes]
* 10. Mixture 2 Rks [112 pipes]
* 11. Oboe 8 ft
* 12. Cornopean 8 ft
* 13. Clarion 4 ft
* Pedal Organ: CCC – F
* 1. Grand Open Diapason 16 ft
* 2. Bourdon 16ft
* 3. Principal [Metal] 8 ft
* 4. Stopped Diapason 8 ft
* I. Great to Pedal
* II. Swell to Pedal
* III. Swell to Great
* IV. Swell 4 ft to Great
* 3 composition pedals to Great Organ.
* 2 composition pedals to Swell Organ.
* 4 compound pneumatic coupling pistons. [sic.]
* Patent pneumatic lever action to Great & Pedal
* 2 wind pressures employed. Reversed console.
Among the list of contributors was the entry: ‘Dr Stainer, 1 guinea.’ Another well-known contributor was Prince Leopold, who gave £10-10-0. Harrison’s bill was £529, plus an additional sum for two extra stops [Double Diapason and Sesquialtera] of £25. The account also contains the entry: ‘Hill, for completing the organ, £50.’
* The church authorities eventually deemed this organ unsatisfactory, and it was taken down on July 1st, 1875. In this year Mr Walter Parratt [afterwards Sir Walter Parratt], the organist of Magdalen College, became organist of St Giles, and he drew up the following specification of the new organ built by Wm Hill and Son, of London.
* [One account gives Great and Choir Organ]
* 1. Open Diapason 8 56 notes
* 2. Stopped Diapason 8 56 notes
* 3. Dulciana 8 56 notes
* 4. Principal 4 56 notes
* 5. Wald Flute 4 56 notes
* 6. Fifteenth 2 56 notes
* 7. Mixture 2 ranks 112 notes
* 8. Open Diapason 8 56 notes
* 9. Salicional [C groved] 8 56 notes
* 10. Vox Angelica[Ten C]8 44 notes
* 11. Hohl Flute 8 56 notes
* 12. Principal 4 56 notes
* 13. Oboe 8 56 notes
* 14. Clarinet 8 56 notes
* 15. Harmonic Flute 8 56 notes
* 16. [one account, probably incorrect, gives Harmonic flute 4 ft]
* 17. Gamba 8 56 notes
* 18. Posaune 8 56 notes
* 19. Open Diapason 16 30 notes
* 20. Bourdon 16 30 notes
* 21. Violoncello [wood] 8 30 notes
* I Swell to Great, II Solo to Great, III Great to Pedal, IV Swell to Pedal, V Solo to Pedal
* 3 Combination Pedals to Great
* 2 Combination Pedals to Swell
*The cost of this instrument was £678 – one hundred pounds of this being allowed for the old instrument, which was discarded. It is this 1875 organ which forms the nucleus of the present instrument.
The following observations were published by the church authorities – again the vexed question of the position of the organ was evident. ‘The plan of construction is somewhat novel. The great variety of tone is secured by means of different pressures of wind, some of the pipes being blown with nearly double the force of wind that is supplied to the others. The architectural structure of the church made it a matter of great difficulty to find a suitable place for the organ. It appeared, however, that in the present position [on the floor of the south aisle, east end] it would least interfere with the perspective of the church, and also sound with the best effect.’
On the departure of Parratt for Windsor in 1882, Herbert Brewer [afterwards organist of Gloucester Cathedral] succeeded him as organist of St Giles, and remained until 1885 when Varley Roberts became organist. Varley Roberts had succeeded Parratt at Magdalen in 1882. Together with the Vicar, the Rev. Bidder, who was an organist himself, he decided that the 1875 instrument did not give complete satisfaction, and it was rebuilt in 1891 at Bidder’s expense. This time the work was undertaken by Messrs. Gray and Davison. Jackson’s Oxford Journal published a description of the organ on Dec. 26th, 1891, which stated that 16 old stops were retained, and that the greater part of the action was converted to tubular pneumatics. The specification was as follows:
* Great Organ 3 ¼ inch wind. Old Soundboard
* 1. Open Diapason I 8 [New]
* 2. Open Diapason II 8 [old Swell open from fiddle G upwards. New bass.]
* 3. Stopped Diapason 8 [old]
* 4. Principal 4 [old]
* 5. Harmonic Flute 4 [new]
* 6. Fifteenth 2 [old]
* 7. Trumpet [plain metal] 8 [new] [removed in 1892 and replaced by Choir Posaune, according to one account]
* Swell Organ 3 ¼ inch wind. New Soundboard
* 8. Lieblich Bourdon 16 [new]
* 9. Open Diapason 8 [old bass. Treble from old great diapason, fiddle G]
* 10. Gamba 8 [old. Probably old Choir Gamba]
* 11. Dulciana [44 notes] 8 [old Salicional? one account gives Salicional. Bass from Gamba]
* 12. Vox angelica 8 [To be in tune & beat by Tremulant. From Bass G. Last 7 from Gamba]
* 13. Hohl Flute 8 [changed for a Rohr Gedeckt in 1892]
* 14. Principal 4 [old]
* 15. Harmonic Flute 4 [new]
* 16. Mixture 12,15 2 rks}
* [New & old. Prob. some pipes from old Gt Mixture]
* 17. Full Mixture 17.19.22 3 rks}
* 18. Contra Fagotto [plain metal] 16 [New]
* 19. Horn [plain metal] 8 [new]
* 20. Oboe [plain metal] 8 [old]
* 21. Clarion [plain metal] 4 [new]
* Choir Organ 3 inch wind. Old Swell Soundboard
* 22. Open Diapason 8 [new]
* 23. Salicional [Tenor C] 8 [old. One account gives dulciana – probably from old Great]
* 24. Dolce 8 [New. Conical tubes]
* 25. Harmonic Flute 8 [old]
* 26. Flauto traverso 4 [new]
* 27. Clarinet 8 [new &old]
* 28. Posaune 8 [replaced Great Trumpet in 1892]
* Pedal Organ 3 ¾ inch wind. Old Soundboard
* 29. Open Diapason 16 [old. Scale increased. CCC and CCC# added]
* 30. Bourdon 16 [old]
* 31. Violoncello 8 [old]
* 32. Trombone 16 [prepared for only. Never inserted.]
I Swell to Great, II Swell to Choir, III Choir to Great, IV Swell to Pedal, V Great to Pedal, VI Choir to Pedal.
* 2 combination Pedals to Great and Pedal.
* 3 combination Pedals to Swell.
* Manual compass CC-G. Pedal compass CCC-F.
* A Lieblich Gedeckt was added to the Choir organ later, probably in 1911, when some work was done. Hydraulic blowing apparatus was installed in 1902 at a cost of £120 – no one can envy a person required to blow so large an organ by hand! A new hydraulic blower was installed in 1911. Incidentally, it was Varley Roberts who, having engaged a deputy to commence the service at St Giles, used to rush over from playing at Magdalen in a cab hired by the Rev. Bidder. He used to reach St Giles in time to finish playing the service there.
* In 1893 Mr H B Wilsdon became organist – as a boy of 12 he had contributed one shilling towards the cost of the 1875 rebuild – and held the position until his death in 1939. During his tenure of office full cathedral services were sung, with anthems and settings of the canticles. He was responsible for the first performance in Oxford of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’; and for many years he conducted the Oxford Gleemen – a choir which took 3rd place against all England at Queen’s Hall in 1902.
* In 1931 a further rebuild was carried out by Messrs. Hill, Norman and Beard. It was suggested that the organ be moved westwards but the moving of the choir would no doubt have appeared so revolutionary that it was not even considered. Mr Wilsdon refused, and rightly, to be moved so far from the choir. The church authorities then made a mistake in causing the organ to be raised from the floor of the south aisle. It was built on a platform above the former site and so high as to necessitate a good deal of mitring. The Pedal Open was laid along the south wall. Access was difficult, and the tone of the easternmost sections had to pass through all other departments before emerging into the nave through the archway. The new console faced south and was beneath the platform in the archway connecting the chancel with the south aisle.
* The organist and choir were, to a great extent, shut off from the tone of the instrument, and this made accompanying difficult. One could not help calling to mind Mr Sumner’s words about inadequate organ chambers in his book on the organ.
* Changes in the 1891 specification were not many in number, and were as follows:
* Great Organ [additions]
* Double Diapason 16 [standing off soundboard. 3 octaves open pipes the stopped bass [Wood] being derived onto the Pedal. Metal portion leathered to smooth over the break.]
* Twelfth 2 2/3
* Dulciana 8
* The Stopped Diapason became a Claribel Flute from middle C upwards. The Trumpet was made drawable on the choir as well as on the Great, and was placed on its own soundboard.
* Swell and Choir Organs No change
* Pedal Organ [additions]
* Octave 8 [Wood. From Open Diapason]
* Flute 8 [from Bourdon]
* Stopped Bass 16 [Bass from Great double. Top 12 separate pipes]
* The Violoncello 8 was discarded.
* Almost all the pipework was revoiced, and a multiplicity of couplers appeared [18 including the Tremulant]; exhaust pneumatic action was applied, and manual and pedal pistons were provided. These last three items remain unchanged [see specification below.] The manual and pedal compass were, and still are, as in 1875, although the manuals of the new console extended upwards to C. An electric blower was placed in a pit under the south aisle floor.
* This organ was opened on June 14th 1931, when Sir Hugh Allen gave a recital. The organ-building cost was £1,887-15-0, and the total cost, including all subsidiary items, £2,286-7-6.
* The organ remained in these cramped quarters until September 1952. It had been decided earlier that, as the cleaning of the instrument was long overdue, advantage might be taken of the opportunity to move it to a site where it would not block the roof of the Lady Chapel in the south aisle, and where it could speak out in an open position. Dr H K Andrews, the organist of New College, very kindly acted as adviser, and, in consultation with him, it was decided that the only reasonable site both from tonal and architectural points of view, was under the west-end tower.
* It is here that the organ has recently been erected, on the very spot quitted by one of its predecessors 104 years previously. The disposition of the instrument is now as follows:
* The Pedal open and Octave stand in the north vestry flanking the tower, the Swell is placed high up under the belfry floor, with a good speaking position through the top of the Tower arch.
* The choir box is in front of the Swell at the lower level, with the Trumpet standing on it in front of the Swell passage-board.
* The great is built in the tower arch, partly jutting out into the church, and the console faces west and is at floor level. The work has again been carried out by Messrs. Hill, Norman and Beard, who have been responsible for providing the church with a really magnificent instrument.
* Again a large amount of revoicing has been carried out, chiefly with a view to gaining in brightness of tone, though no attempt was made to produce a ‘baroque’ instrument. The mouths of the Great organ diapasons and of the Pedal open have been lowered, and the tone of the upperwork brightened. It was found that many of the stops had been voiced up to overcome the disadvantages of the cramped position at the east end; in fact the large open on the Great produced an overwhelming volume of sound when it was first set up at the West end, and the tone of it and of the whole organ seemed dull and foundational, even though no leathering had been employed save on the great double. The whole effect of the organ since the recent rebuild has been most interesting .The same pipes, wind pressures, soundboards, swell-boxes, action, and console have been employed, yet the change in position has given the impression that all the pipework must have been made new. The tone is clear, bright – but not too brilliant – and well adapted both for clarity in contrapuntal music, and for providing ‘weight’ when that is needed. In particular the Great diapason chorus, and the full swell, which latter is unaltered in specification since 1891 save for one detail, are of very fine tone. An excellent idea of the builders was the cutting-down of the great dulciana into an octave geigen 4 ft., which ‘goes as a pair’ with the Open No.2. This is a most useful, bright mezzo-forte combination. Any criticism of the specification would, I feel, be directed primarily at the large number of 4 ft. Harmonic Flutes.
* Perhaps something may be done in the future to change the one on the Swell for a 4 ft. stopped flute; and it would be well to give the Great stopped diapason its old treble, and sacrifice the claribel, which, although a particularly beautiful stop, does not blend well with the diapasons as they have been revoiced – though it did so before. Further, an all-wooden pedal organ is certain to lack some degree of clarity, and the provision of an open metal 16 ft. would be welcome. Funds do not permit any such change, however, and in any case, the greater part of the organ is beyond praise, much less criticism. The choir organ, which Mr Sumner in his article described as being of typical early 20th century type, has been transformed by only two changes in the specification. Being enclosed, its power is not great, but the tone is most bright and pleasing. The new Flautina 2 ft. is of very small power and adds the merest tinkle to the other stops.
* I here append the latest specification, with the dates of the stops:
* Pedal Organ CCC-F 4 inch wind
* 1. Open Diapason [Wood] 16 [mouth lowered 1953. In North aisle Vestry] 1875
* 2. Bourdon [stopped wood] 16 1875
* 3. Stopped Bass [stopped wood]16 [Bass from Great Double, top 12 separate pipes] 1931
* 4. Octave [wood] 8 [from no. 1. In North aisle Vestry] 1931
* 5. Flute [stopped wood] 8 [from no.2]
* I Great to Pedal
* II Swell to Pedal
* III Choir to Pedal
* Choir Organ CC-G. 4 inch wind. Enclosed
* 6. Open Diapason [metal] 8 1891
* 7. Lieblich Gedeckt [stopped wood] 8 1911?
* 8. Harmonic Flute [medal, stopped metal bass]8 1875
* 9. Salicet [metal] 4 [Old Salicional] 1875 & 1953
* 10. Flauto Traverso [metal] 4 1891
* 11. Flautino [metal] 2 [old Dolce bass. Semi-harmonic treble] 1891 & 1953
* 12. Clarinet [metal] 8 1875 & 1891
* 13. Trumpet [metal] 8 [Unenclosed, from Great. 6 3/8 inch wind] 1891
* IV Swell to choir
* V Swell octave to choir
* VI Swell sub to choir
* VII Choir octave
* VIII Choir sub octave
* Great Organ CC-G 4 ½ inch wind. Trumpet 6 3/8 inch wind
* 14. Double Diapason [stopped wood and open metal] 16 [metal portion leathered, stands off soundboard] 1931
* 15. Open Diapason I [metal] 8 [scale 6 7/8 inches at CC] 1891
* 16. Open Diapason II [metal] 8 [bass forms gilded front] 1875 & 1891
* 17. Claribel Flute [wood] 8 [stopped Bass. Open from middle C] 1875 & 1931
* 18. Principal [metal] 4 1895
* 19. Octave Geigen [metal] 4 [old dulciana] 1931 & 1953
* 20. Harmonic flute [metal] 4 1891
* 21. Twelfth [metal] 2 2/3 1931
* 22. Fifteenth [metal] 2 1875
* 23. Trumpet [metal] 8 [separate soundboard on Choir box] 1891
* IX Swell to Great
* X Choir to Great
* XI Swell octave to Great
* XII Swell Sub to Great
* XIII Choir octave to Great
* XIV Choir Sub to Great
* XV Great and Pedal pistons coupled
* Swell Organ CC-G. Flues 4 inch wind. Reeds 6 ¼ inch wind.
* 24. Bourdon [stopped wood] 16 1891
* 25. Open Diapason [metal] 8 1875
* 26. Rohr Flute 8 [pierced stoppers] 1892
* 27. Gamba [metal] 8 1875
* 28. Dulciana [metal] 8 [tenor C. Bass from Gamba] 1875
* 29. Vox angelica [metal] 8 [from bass G, last 7 from Gamba. Tuned flat] 1875
* 30. Principal [metal] 4 1875
* 31. Harmonic Flute 4 1891
* 32. Fifteenth [metal] 2 [from old 2-rank mixture. 12th rank discarded. 15th voiced louder 1953] 1875 & 1891
* 33. Mixture 15,19,22 [metal] 3 rks [old 17,19,22 mixture re-arranged. 2 breaks] 1875 & 1891
* 34. Contra Fagotto [metal] 16} [Harmonic trebles] 1891
* 35. Horn [metal] 8 } 1891
* 36. Oboe [metal] 8 1875
* 37. Clarion [metal] 4 [Harmonic Trebles] 1891
* XVI Tremulant [light and heavy wind]
* XVII Octave
* XVIII Sub-octave
* Action wind 6 3/8 inches, from Trumpet reservoir. Exhaust pneumatic action.
* 5 Thumb pistons to Swell organ. 4 Thumb pistons to Great organ.
* 3 Thumb pistons to Choir organ. Reversible piston to Great to pedal.
* Reversible piston to Swell to Great. Reversible foot piston to Great to Pedal.
* 5 foot pistons to Swell organ. 4 foot pistons to Pedal organ. 2 balanced Swell pedals.
* The organ was re-opened on Feb. 8th, 1953, by the Bishop of Oxford.
* In conclusion, I would add that the choir was moved from the chancel to the west end at the same time as the organ. The congregation of St Giles are to be commended for their cheerful and enthusiastic support of the scheme, which indeed meant for many of them a complete change of much that they had been accustomed to at the church. The great success of the scheme has abundantly justified their confidence in it. I would like to thank all those who have so kindly helped me by providing information for this account, in particular Messrs. Hill, Norman and Beard, Messrs. Gray and Davison, Mr W T Lilley, formerly of Gray and Davison, and Mr Hughes of the Bodleian Library. Those wishing to see the organ should apply to me at the church, where they will be gladly welcomed. Lastly, I would like to thank the Vicar, the Rev Canon Diggle, for his support and interest, not only in the writing of this account, but throughout the work of rebuilding.