When "Father" Henry Willis built the organ for the Royal Albert Hall in 1871, with four manuals and 111 stops, it was the largest in the world. The internal layout was similar to that even today with the tunnel of Great flues above the console and the 32ft 90 per cent tin front pipes for which the organ is so well known. The pallets were opened by trackers connected to pneumatic purses fed by large tubes. The console had 8 thumb pistons to each manual and six combination pedals for the Pedal Organ. The slides were operated by either pressure or vacuum to large purses connected to each slide. The wind pressure was provided by steam engines which worked feeders in the traditional way. The high pressure was generated by a steam operated piston of two feet in diameter which provided 30" of wind pressure on one stroke and vacuum on the return stroke.
The Durham firm of Harrison and Harrison rebuilt the organ in two stages in 1924 and 1933. The organ was augmented to 146 stops including three percussion stops provided by Premier Percussion. The key action was also converted to electro-pneumatic action. It was still the largest organ in Britain at the time. Harrison and Harrison worked on the organ again in the 1970s.
The console was refurbished, and new action switchgear was provided. Some modest alterations were made to the specification as a nod to the then current feelings about organ design. The pressures of the Great and Pedal 25" and 15" reeds were reduced to 19" and 13" respectively.
A roof was also fitted to the organ in an attempt to project the sound into the hall somewhat better. It was subsequently found that this was more detrimental than beneficial to the egress of sound and it has now been removed. In essence, the organ was essentially the Harrison and Harrison organ of the 1930s until its dismantling commenced in January of 2002.
Concert-goers had been aware for some time that all was not well with the organ. There were very audible wind noises from the myriad of leaks from the failing bellows and splits in the wind trunking. Additional blowers (bringing the total to seven) had been added in an attempt to provide more wind, but to little avail; it was not possible to use the full resources of the organ without the shortage of wind becoming painfully apparent. Things were made worse by the failing leatherwork of the actions and extensive splitting of the soundboards caused by the dry atmosphere in the hall for which the soundboards were not designed. An ever-growing number of red dots appeared on the stop-heads on the console, indicating which stops could not be used. It was only the valiant efforts of the Harrison and Harrison team that kept the organ going, and it was not possible to use the instrument without somebody from the firm being in attendance.
Consideration was given to restoring the organ to its original Father Willis specification but the alterations and enlargements made by Harrison and Harrison were so far reaching as to make this impractical. The organ, although often referred as a Willis, was by now really a Harrison instrument, and it was felt the character of the organ should remain intact as it now is. The possibility of retaining the original Willis soundboards was also investigated but their construction and deterioration was such that reliability and longevity could not be guaranteed in the hostile environment of the hall. The aim of the restoration was to restore the organ to its unique character without significant tonal change.
To this end, new soundboards were provided throughout, only the original chests being retained which are less susceptible to dry conditions. The winding was extensively remodelled with re-leathered bellows and all new trunking, most significantly with the provision of new main trunking of considerably more generous dimensions than the original one. This has probably meant that the organ has sufficient wind for the first time in its life and certainly within living memory. One of the blowers was relocated to the Swell chamber to allow the building of a shop in the base of the organ. New key and stop actions have been provided, together with an up-to-date capture system. The console was completely refurbished but every effort was made to retain its characteristic Harrison and Harrison style, the additions for the capture system being made as discreetly as possible.
However, some minor modifications were made. The roof has been removed (as mentioned above) which has considerably enhanced the egress of sound from the Swell Organ as well as the reeds on the top level. The Great reeds were restored to their original 1924 wind pressures, achieving a noticeable improvement in tone and power. Small adjustments were made to the breaks of the Choir Mixture, and more extensive re-casting of the Great Cymbale (which used to break at every octave) was undertaken. One of the alterations made in the 1970s was the splitting of the Great Organ in such a way that two different and independent Great Organs could be registered and played simultaneously on different manuals. This has been rationalised a little, effectively offering separate Willis and Harrison choruses. To further the usefulness of the Willis Chorus (the milder of the two), a Fourniture IV has been added. The addition of this stop restored the RAH organ's claim to be the largest in the UK with 147 stops and 9997 speaking pipes, reclaiming its title from the Willis organ in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. Some Pedal pipes were re-sited; the Mixture V was removed from the Solo box to the C side front, and the Harmonics VII which had been in two locations was brought together on the C# side front. The Ophicleide 32ft was moved from in front of the Orchestral Organ swell shutters to the bass end of the organ. The unenclosed Choir Organ was raised slightly from a position behind the console to behind the grills above the console to assist the egress of sound.
A gala concert re-opened the organ on the evening of 26 June 2004 with David Briggs, John Scott and Thomas Trotter at the console together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Richard Hickox; and the organ featured prominently in the following Promenade Concerts, after two years of silence.
View the Specification of the organ in the Royal Albert Hall, London (completed 2004)
Contract Administration John Pike Mander
Project Management Geoff McMahon
Technical Design Geoff McMahon (team leader)
Production Les Ross (works manager) Mike Smith (shop foreman)
Pipework Restoration Michael Köllman (metal shop foreman)
Shop Voicing and Tonal Finishing Michael Blighton (team leader)
Site Work Renato Lucatello (team leader)
Consultant Ian Bell