Five facts about the Royal Albert Hall organ
A brief guide to the magnificent Henry Willis pipe organ, which takes up occupancy in London's Royal Albert Hall
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 Royal Albert Hall 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 Royal Albert Hall's 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.
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.
Oliver Condy is the former Editor of BBC Music Magazine, a post he held for 17 years. His debut book, Symphonies of the Soul: Classical Music to Cure Any Ailment, will be released in November 2021 with Octopus Books. He is also a semi-professional organist, having previously given recitals in Bach’s churches across Germany.