Salisbury Cathedral Father Willis Organ dismantled

The time has finally come to remove Salisbury Cathedral’s Father Willis organ for restoration.

The last time such a comprehensive restoration was undertaken was 50 years ago.

The Father Willis organ was put into the Cathedral in the 19th Century at cost of £3500, a sum gifted by Miss Chafyn Grove. The organ case cost £1000 to build, and the blowing apparatus an additional £800-1000. By comparison, the bill for the work being done this time round is likely to top £700,000 and will put the organ out of action until the start of 2020.

John Challenger, Assistant Director of Music is one of the Cathedral’s organists and plays at all the major services and for daily worship. He was there to witness historic moment when the huge pipes that sit above the Quire were removed:

“It is really exciting to see the restoration work begin on our beloved Father Willis Organ after years of planning – and probably the only time in my life that this sort of overhaul will take place. It’s also sad to think that the organ will be silent for the next fourteen months, but this is brief moment in the life of the organ, and it deserves restoration work of the highest quality. When the ‘Father Willis’ returns, clear of the accumulated dust and grime of half a century, it will sound all the brighter and hopefully be good for another 50 years.”

The restoration work is being carried out by Harrison and Harrison, renowned organ builders and restorers from Durham. They have cared for the organ since 1978. Their team, led by Ian Bruce, who has around 30 years’ experience working with pipe organs, will spend around three weeks dismantling the organ, after which the pipes will be either taken for cleaning or cleaned on site, and the mechanics, the bellows and reservoir will be repaired.

Ian Bruce from Harrison and Harrison said: “Salisbury Cathedral’s Father Willis is one of our flagship organs. We work on a lot of his organs but this one is really top of the tree musically, and very well respected. I think it is the high-quality workmanship and the way it is all put together. Removing it has its challenges though, because the components and pipes are packed into a very small space. But also it’s such a pleasure to be part of the organ’s history.”

It’ll take around three weeks to remove the organ and over a year to clean it and reassemble it again but by January 2020 everything will be back in position, and over the first three months that year each pipe will need to be voiced and tuned individually.

The organ’s creator, Henry Willis, was famous for building remarkable instruments, which can be found in many notable places such as the Albert Hall and St Paul’s Cathedral. The Albert Hall organ was, at one time, the largest in the world, with 9,997 pipes. Our Salisbury organ is somewhat smaller, with just under 4,000 pipes, ranging in size from pipes as small as a matchstick to others that stand 32ft high.

Salisbury’s instrument is regarded by many as one of the finest pipe organs in the country, and even Willis himself is said to have considered it to be his best. As with so many of his great organs, the Salisbury instrument is perfectly designed for the building, and has an immense vivacity of sound which is always arresting, exciting and alive. Over the years Cathedral musicians responsible for the organ have always been very protective, preventing it from undergoing potentially harmful ‘improvements’. The aim has always been to allow the public to hear it was intended, a Victorian masterpiece.

Organs have been around since Roman Times but the first record of an organ in Salisbury Cathedral was in 1480 when Thomas Fleege, the smith, was paid 8d for ‘repairs to an organ in the Quire’. Father Willis is, by comparison, modern. Today it is used for daily worship at the Cathedral, as well as for recordings, broadcasts, weddings, funerals, recitals, concerts and outreach work, an irreplaceable part of the Cathedral’s and this country’s musical heritage.

Whilst being without an organ is a challenge to any Cathedral, the restoration offers the Visitor Experience team a golden opportunity to share the secrets of this extraordinary instrument. In February the Cathedral will be launching an interactive exhibition entitled Pulling out the Stops that will explore the history of the organ and make ‘visible’ the organ’s construction, as well as taking visitors through the restoration process being carried out.