An organ story: evolution of a grand instrument

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"167","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignleft size-full wp-image-3440","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"319","height":"149","alt":"A photograph of the St. Barnabas organ."}}]]by Wesley R. Warren

(originally published in Canticum Novum, March 2007)

The following article is a brief overview of the various musical instruments that have given service to the congregation of St. Barnabas over 100 years. It is a distillation of a much longer work called A Short History of the Organ that was written to mark the occasion of the rededication of the organ at Solemn Evensong and Benediction on the Feast of Dedication, October 18, 1998. The summer of 1998 saw the complete removal, for cleaning and revoicing, of the organ; it was shipped to Montreal for the work and was returned to St. Barnabas at the end of September.

St. Barnabas Church officially opened on January 10, 1890. Given the evidence of an early photograph, it would appear that the first instrument used to accompany services in the new building was a harmonium or reed organ. It was not long, however, before the young congregation began to think in terms of a more substantial instrument, to accommodate its growing musical needs. At the Vestry meeting that followed Easter Sunday on April 4, 1891 “it was decided to purchase an organ for $1,200, and $600 was subscribed at once.” A further five years would elapse before a contract was signed with Casavant Brothers, Organ Builders of St-Hyacinthe, Quebec. As stated in the contract, the new Casavant organ, Op. 77, was “to be delivered in the church ready for use before the first of March, 1897”. The contract also provides us with a detailed description: “The instrument is to be placed on the left-hand side of chancel…. The case to be of pine rubbed down with oils and shellac…and to have front pipes facing both the nave and the chancel. The above pipes to be tastefully decorated in colors and gold….” This small instrument of two manuals and pedals had a specification of 10 stops. The organ was removed into the new chancel when the (first) church was enlarged in winter 1912-13.

On April 29, 1929, after a lengthy meeting led by the rector, the Rev. Herbert W. Browne, the momentous decision to proceed with the building of a new church took place. The first church was converted for the purposes of a parish hall. The organ was removed a second time into the new church, which was solemnly dedicated on Tuesday, October 20, 1931. The Dedication Festival booklet states, among its other information, that the organ was rebuilt and enlarged by the Franklin-Legge Co., Ltd. Of Toronto and Montreal, and was placed in a chamber on the left side of the chancel behind the pulpit.

A note of warning appears in the Festival of Consecration booklet of October 20, 1952: “The tone of the organ is superb, but the archaic ‘Tracker action’ shows signs of decay and old age. It has stood up well, considering three removals…. We face a serious expense in the near future, when because of age and decay the organ will have to be rebuilt, and no patching up will be possible…. It is hoped that a fund may be started to be known as ‘The Ernest S. Huson Memorial Organ Fund’ as a fitting tribute to one who for nearly 25 years gave so devotedly to the Worship of this Church, through the ministry of music.”

When Canon J.W. Cornish arrived as rector on October 1, 1955, he inherited a fine choir and an active congregation, but the organ had by that time become somewhat “asthmatic”. The problem was compounded when the organist decided to leave very suddenly. Father Cornish went to his friend Dr. Healey Willan, organist of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto, and was able to obtain the services of Harry Lloyd, a former pupil of Dr. Willan’s. Gerald Wheeler, organist and choirmaster at St. Matthew’s Church, assisted Harry Lloyd and the parish in overseeing the design and installation of a new instrument in the gallery at the “west” end of the church, built by Hill, Norman and Beard, of London, England. The new instrument of two manual and 20 ranks of pipes incorporated one stop and the slider-chests from the previous organ built by Casavant Frères, and was dedicated on Saturday, October 25, 1958 at 10:00 a.m., by the Rt. Rev. E.S. Reed, Bishop of Ottawa.

While preliminary talks had taken place between the church and François Caron Inc. (authorized representative of Casavant Frères Ltée) from June 1979 concerning repairs and restoration of the Hill, Norman and Beard organ, the only outcome was the installation of a three-rank Mixture (1 1/3’) on the Great manual and some minor repairs. In August 1980, two weeks after leaving Christ Church Cathedral, Dr. Godfrey Hewitt received a call from St. Barnabas asking if he would help to find a replacement for the organist, who had just left. Dr. Hewitt suggested himself as a candidate, and was immediately accepted.

In June 1981 an organ fund committee was formed after several assessments and a cost quotation were received from François Caron. Chaired by Rosemary de Catanzaro, this committee (including Dr. Godfrey Hewitt, Audrey M. Guyer, James Broughall, Findlay Davis, Wendy Bridges, Ian Leslie and Ronald Bentley) was responsible for planning and implementing fund-raising activities, assessing the options available for the proposed contract(s), and reporting to Parish Executive.

While brief consideration was made of acquiring a new electronic instrument, a proposal for a thorough overhaul and improvement of the organ – as proposed by François Caron – to a special Vestry meeting held on September 13, 1981, was unanimously accepted at a cost of $94,060. The scheme entailed replacement of the console, the motor and blower, the defective wind-chests, and changes in the specification recommended by Dr. Hewitt. Many fund-raising activities took place over the ensuing months (including two piano recitals by Angela Hewitt) and, by mid-October 1982, the organ was installed. It was blessed and dedicated on October 24, 1982, the Feast of Dedication, by the Rt. Rev. E.K. Lackey, Bishop of Ottawa, as a memorial to those members of the congregation who gave their lives in two world wars. Dr. Hewitt personally raised the funds to pay for the new Trumpet 8’ stop on the Great manual, and the new console.

The new instrument has provided sterling service; however, three items that remained unfinished at the time have, in the interim, been completed. First, during the 1982 rebuild, the organ case was expanded to incorporate new pipework, and reconfigured so as to not obscure the rose window above it. However, no decoration was added to help blend in the rather plan brown façade with the richness of the church’s Byzantine interior. During autumn 1995, after several months of thought and study, Wesley Warren (organist and choirmaster since 1987) completed a scheme to beautify the organ case that included acquiring stylistic wooden mouldings and countless hours of careful hand-painting. Second, the original swell box mechanism, retained from the Hill, Norman and Beard instrument, which was very heavy and noisy, was replaced in summer 1997 and is now very light and quiet in action. Third, in 1982 minimal attempts had been made to match the large amount of new pipework to the sound of the existing ranks. A disparity in tonal balance and dynamic intensity remained. In summer 1998, the monumental task of removing all of the pipework and shipping it to Montreal for cleaning, adjustment and revoicing took place. The careful balancing of stops and divisions by Alan Baumgarten has accomplished a gentler, less aggressive and more homogeneous sound. Set in the majestic acoustics of the building, the organ speaks with a great vibrancy of tonal character and colour.