Warrington Male Voice Choir has enjoyed a long association with this fine instrument. Read former Chairman Barrie Johnson’s comments below.
Warrington’s Cavaille-Coll Organ
Some Notes By Barrie Johnson, Chairman of Warrington Male Voice Choir
The Parr Hall’s magnificent pipe organ, affectionately named the ‘Bracewell Queen’, is the only tonally unaltered instrument in the United Kingdom produced by the celebrated French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll . Possibly one of only two in such original condition in the world, it was built in Paris in 1870 as a three-manual organ of 44 stops with two enclosed divisions for the private home of John Turner Hopwood, music publisher, of Bracewell Hall, near Barnoldswick, Skipton, England. Saint-Saëns and Widor shared the first two performances on the instrument in the Paris workshop hall of Cavaillé-Coll in March 1870. A third performance was given soon after by Alexander Guilmant. Following its installation in Bracewell Hall under the supervision of the skilled voicer Félix Reinburg, the organ was inaugurated by William Sparke, on 7th November 1870. The sophistication of the French organ led to further orders for Cavaillé-Coll organs in Sheffield’s Albert Hall (1873, destroyed by fire in 1937), Paisley Abbey (1875), Bellahouston Church, Glasgow (1875), Blackburn Parish Church (1875, now Cathedral) and Manchester Town Hall (1877). All of these instruments have since been modified by others and have largely lost the unique Cavaillé-Coll sound.
The ‘Bracewell Queen’ was removed to Ketton Hall, Rutland in 1883, following Hopwood’s earlier move to the new mansion. It was enlarged by adding three pedal stops and two reservoirs, and the work was again managed by Félix Reinburg. Remarkably – perhaps uniquely – the organ was blown by three water engines supplied by a purpose built water supply system. By 1926 the hall had become the property of the Ketton Cement Company, who sold the organ to Warrington Corporation for £2,000 for installation in the Parr Hall. The efforts of Alderman A. Bennett JP, Dr. M. Darby, W.H. Payton and T. Tanner were pivotal in persuading the Council to make the purchase to replace the existing organ. Henry Willis & Sons managed the installation. The civic opening performance was given by Wilfred Sanderson on 30th September 1926, followed by a recital by Marcel Dupré of the Paris Conservatoire on 28th October 1926. Both concerts opened with Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by J.S. Bach.
By 1969 the organ had fallen into disrepair, largely caused by a lack of humidity in the hall, and a full restoration became imperative. Plans to sell the organ for its scrap value were opposed and a ‘Cavaillé-Coll Organ Retention Committee’ was formed to raise funds. The Committee received the public backing of Prime Minister Edward Heath, amongst others. Warrington Corporation added to the amount raised to bring it to the £9,000 necessary for the restoration. Henry Willis & Sons carried out the work which included removing the original pneumatic Barker lever mechanism and replacing it with a modern electric action. A manual change-over switch was also added, allowing the three manuals to be used in the normal English position. Crucially, no tonal changes were made. On completion of the restoration, a civic Inaugural Concert was given by Gilbert Kennedy and Nicholas Kynaston, with massed Warrington choirs, on 23rd November 1972.
Recently, doubt has again been raised over the future of the organ. It is currently under threat of removal as part of modernisation plans for the Parr Hall, and although interest has been expressed in rehousing the organ elsewhere, the proposal is strongly contested by the Warrington Male Voice Choir. Whether the Cavaillé-Coll organ should remain in its current location or be moved to where it would receive a wider audience remains a matter of debate.
Douglas Carrington, former editor of The Organ magazine, has written of the Parr Hall organ: “The tonal beauty and excellence of the specification and voicing is immediately apparent. Prior to 1850 the English Pedal Organ had been markedly deficient: here though, there is a suitable Pedal bass for every combination of manual stops, showing that Cavaillé-Coll had a voicing skill seldom surpassed. It is the only one in this country capable of producing the authentic tone colours created by Cavaillé-Coll and so brilliantly realised in the compositions of César Frank and all the French symphonic romanticists. Many of the Cavaillé-Coll organs in France have been altered, so Warrington can congratulate itself on having a Cavaillé-Coll envied by French organ enthusiasts. The importance to the nation of this organ cannot be overstated.”
(With acknowledgements to Douglas Carrington)