Five facts about the Royal Albert Hall organ

A guide to the Royal Albert Hall's organ is your Breakfast Promelette for today, with both lunchtime and evening Proms giving top billing to the magnificent Willis

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Five facts about the Royal Albert Hall organ
Royal Albert Hall organ
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The Royal Albert Hall organ – five fascinating facts

 

‘The voice of Jupiter’ was how one critic described the Royal Albert Hall’s Willis organ back in the 1960s – given that the instrument was in state of decay at the time, it’s curious to imagine what he might have thought about it in its heyday.

Today’s Proms place the organ centre stage. In the morning, Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna will put it through its paces with a programme of mainly French works, with some Bach for good measure and George Thalben-Ball’s virtuosic study for the pedals, the Variations on a Theme by Paganini.

Come the evening, the organ will burst forth at the start of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, thundering over the top of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Hold on to your hats! To celebrate today’s organ feast, here are five facts about Willis’s great masterpiece.

 

The show must go on

Henry Willis was commissioned to build the Royal Albert Hall’s organ – the incomplete instrument was installed just in time for the hall’s opening ceremony in March 1871, the wind supply powered by a couple of steam engines. Work finished on the organ in July 1871, and the inaugural concert was given by WT Best.

 

King for a day

Following its £1.5m restoration in 2004, the RAH organ overtook Liverpool Cathedral’s Willis III  as the largest in the country with 9,999 pipes. For a brief spell. Liverpool, never a city to be beaten, quickly added another 488-pipe rank to its organ to regain the crown once again.

 

Little and large

The organ’s largest pipe measures two-and-a-half feet diameter and is 42 feet tall. It weighs almost a tonne. The smallest is the size of a drinking straw. But alongside the pipes, a full set of tubular bells and a bass drum can be operated by the pedals.

 

Willis or Harrison & Harrison?

By the 1970s, the organ had effectively become a hybrid of two organ builders – during the 1920s and ’30s Harrison & Harrison worked extensively on the instrument, adding stops including percussion instruments (see above) and converting the manual action to electro-pneumatic. Harrison & Harrison also placed a roof over the organ, theoretically to project the sound further into the hall. It didn’t work, and was removed during the latest restoration.

 

Restoration comedy

The final 30 years of the 20th century were the organ’s saddest years – lying neglected, untuned and unloved, the beloved Willis collected rubbish including dozens of tennis balls that had become lodged in the pipes during tournaments in the arena. A whole skip load of detritus had to be removed from the instrument’s bowels before restoration work could begin in 2002.

 

 

What's on at the Proms today?

Prom 10: Sunday 22 July, 11am

Charles‐Marie Widor Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op 42

César Franck Trois Pièces – Pièce héroïque

Gabriel Fauré Pavane (arr. Apkalna)

JS Bach Fantasia in G major, BWV 572

George Thalben-Ball Variations on a Theme by Paganini (A Study for the Pedals)

Thierry Escaich Deux Évocations
Iveta Apkalna (organ)

 

Prom 11: Sunday 22 July, 7pm

Mahler Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, 'Symphony of a Thousand'

Tamara Wilson (soprano)
Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Joélle Harvey (soprano)
Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
Claudia Huckle (contralto)
Simon O'Neill (tenor)
Quinn Kelsey (baritone)
Morris Robinson (bass)

Southend Boys’ Choir
Southend Girls' Choir
BBC National Chorus of Wales
BBC Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Chorus
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Søndergård

Both Proms will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

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