Leeds Town Hall and the tradition of the ‘Civic Organ’

This week we have a guest blog post from the City Organist for Leeds, Darius Battiwalla, who tells us about the history of the organ in Leeds Town Hall.

Even in a silent and empty hall, the organ in Leeds Town Hall demands attention as soon as you walk in. Like its cousins in Birmingham and Liverpool, it towers above the stage and provides a dramatic focal point for the entire hall. Organs like these, which until the 19th century had been almost entirely confined to churches and cathedrals, brought together three things to which the Victorians were passionately attached: music, engineering, and civic competition – and huge amounts of time and money were invested in them. Like the libraries, institutions and other buildings so common in Leeds and other cities of the industrial revolution, they are testament to a tireless dedication to ‘Improvement’ – and music was seen as a vital part of this; not just to be passively consumed, but actively participated in through instrumental and vocal groups of all forms and sizes.

1858 Engraving by O. Jewitt showing Victoria Hall within Leeds Town Hall. The organ can be seen at the back of the hall. Copyright Leodis.net

Birmingham Town Hall was one of the first of the great halls built for these activities, and of course it had an organ. But this early concert instrument, predating Leeds by over 20 years, was primarily intended to provide a thunderous accompaniment to massed choral singing – it was too cumbersome to manage for elaborate solo performances. The requirement for more sound and a powerful bass meant more wind needed to be supplied to the pipes, and until then this had been done by hand or foot-operated bellows. One early innovation at Leeds was to use the water mains to pressurise the air which fed the pipes. Higher wind pressure also meant the effort required to press the keys down became too great for the player – so systems of pneumatic relays were introduced. To control thousands of pipes in this way required a huge and complex application of technology, and towns and cities competed with each other in the size and versatility of these instruments, which were also influenced by the great organ builders of France and Germany. Manchester even went so far as to purchase a French organ for their Town Hall – at nearly three times the price they would have paid for a British one.

The original design for the organ case by Cuthbert Brodrick, the architect of Leeds Town Hall.

The Leeds Town Hall organ, by the London firm of Gray & Davison, was at the leading edge of these innovations. With over 6,000 pipes controlled from four keyboards and numerous mechanical aids for the performer, it was one of the instruments which opened up a new musical possibility: the ‘orchestral organ’. At that time orchestral music was not readily accessible outside London in any great quantity or quality, and transcriptions of orchestral music, played on organs which had an increasing variety of sounds imitating other instruments, brought the standard orchestral repertoire to a wide audience. This new role for the organ, with its great technical and musical demands on the player, also brought a new breed of highly skilled and well paid musician – the City or Municipal Organist. W T Best was the first and most famous of his day – he was appointed resident organist at St George’s Hall in Liverpool when it opened in 1855, and held the post for forty years, giving three concerts a week as well as numerous other national and international appearances. Leeds’s resident organist was Dr William Spark, who had also helped design the organ. He was paid two hundred pounds a year and his frequent recitals were hugely popular. Most of the music he played was not organ music – arrangements of popular operatic airs and overtures featured heavily, and although the recent revival of interest in Bach’s music was acknowledged, it was considered a little too serious to be played frequently.

Leeds Town Hall Organ c.1890. Copyright Leodis.net

After his death in 1897, Spark was succeeded by Herbert Fricker, who held the post until 1917. But by now the municipal organ was declining in popularity – the rise of the gramophone meant that first-class performances of orchestral music could be enjoyed at home, and there were other competing entertainments such as the cinema. Although the choral tradition remained strong, the City Organist post remained unfilled after 1917. Through the 20th century the use of the organ gradually declined, and its upkeep became neglected. This wasn’t just because of the considerable expense: the very idea of the Victorian concert hall organ had become unfashionable alongside the entire Victorian aesthetic. The highly decorated appearance of the organ, and the hall itself, were also victims of this change in fashion – the hall was repainted largely in white and the organ took on a pastel scheme in a sort of Art Deco style. Fashions in organ building had changed too, moving away from complexity and rich orchestral colours to a leaner and clearer sound thought more appropriate to Bach and earlier composers – the days of playing orchestral transcriptions were believed to be long gone. So from the 1950s the Leeds instrument became increasingly unreliable, and eventually it could only be used with an organ tuner on standby inside the instrument to rectify the all-too-frequent mechanical problems. By 1968 the instrument was abandoned and stood silent, a slightly embarrassing monument to a lapse in taste. And Leeds was not alone – a similar fate eventually befell many other concert hall instruments, and some have never recovered: Middlesbrough, Newcastle, and Bradford, among others, have halls where the organ remains a prominent visual feature but has stood unused for years.

Keyboard of the Town Hall Organ, 1956. Copyright Yorkshire Post Newspapers.

Leeds might have gone the same way, but for the City Council’s commitment to music and the arts. Although the option of replacing the organ with an electronic instrument was considered, leaving only the façade pipes intact, in the end a local firm, Wood, Wordsworth & Co, was contracted in 1971 to completely rebuild the instrument – albeit in a more streamlined modern style – and they achieved this in only six months, with the contractors working around the clock as the deadline of the Leeds Festival approached. Time and budget constraints meant that not all the mechanical parts could be replaced, and many of the new parts and pipework were bought in from an assortment of suppliers, but the resulting instrument – though smaller and shorn of its Victorian richness and colour – has been hugely successful and is one of the most heavily used concert instruments in the country. At the opening recital it was also announced that the City Organist post would be revived – having been dormant for over 50 years – with the then director of music at Leeds Parish Church, Donald Hunt, being appointed to the post.

The organ after restoration, image from 1979.

In 1976 Simon Lindley was appointed City Organist, and began the weekly recital series which continues today. Under his direction, and with the support of the City Council, it became hugely successful with audiences in the hundreds every week, who could enjoy, free of charge, leading recitalists from this country and abroad. In addition to the weekly organ recitals, the instrument is used regularly in the orchestral concert series, and in numerous other concerts with choirs and brass bands. Nearly fifty years on from its last major rebuild, the complex mechanism has become increasingly unreliable. Many components weren’t replaced in 1972 and do not cope well with extremes of humidity and temperature caused by modern heating systems, and some electronic components from the 1970s are now obsolete. Access for maintenance has never been easy, and the increasingly frequent faults can be complex and expensive to rectify. The closure of the hall from 2021 to 2023 has provided an opportunity to ensure the organ has a secure future. Rather than continue to work with a patchwork of technologies and musical approaches from different eras, a more radical approach has been adopted: everything will be newly manufactured except for many of the pipes themselves. Even the building frame which holds the whole three-storey structure up (about 40 tonnes) will be new. This will enable some of the colours and richness of sound lost in 1972 to be regained, but retaining the clarity and excitement in an instrument of real musical integrity.

The work will be done by one of the UK’s leading organ builders, Nicholson & Co of Malvern, and many of the new pipes needed will be manufactured in Leeds, which is home to the last two remaining organ pipe manufacturers in the UK. Pipes are still made in the same way as they have been for hundreds of years, and exported round the world, so it’s particularly exciting that we’re able to keep the link with local and traditional industry.

In a separate development, a grant the Heritage Lottery Fund has enabled us to restore the original decorative scheme of the organ and do some major redecoration of the interior of the hall itself.

The £1.6m cost of the organ restoration project has been guaranteed by the City Council which has established an independent Trust to raise and repay the money. Funds will also be raised through public appeals at concerts and events as well as applications to charitable trusts. I believe that the public of Leeds and those further afield who support the Town Hall and the organ will recognise the commitment the council have shown and support the project in any way they can, and I’m confident that the funds can be raised.

While the hall is closed, St Anne’s Cathedral are kindly hosting our weekly Monday lunchtime organ concerts, so please support us there if you can.

If you’d like to donate to the organ project to keep this iconic instrument at the centre of Leeds musical life for many years to come, you can do it here: https://www.leedstownhall.co.uk/support-us/donate/

One Comment Add yours

  1. Charles Cowling says:

    Fascinating, marvellous…and I can’t wait to hear it. Great post.

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