The organ has a reputation for being loud and brash, but it’s also capable of the most ethereal, mysterious and beautiful sounds you’ll find anywhere on earth. However, which are the world’s finest organs? Here are six for starters.
The organ at the Cathedral of St Ouen, Rouen in France
Builder: Aristide Cavaillé-Coll
Considered to be one of the most important organs in France, this huge four-manual instrument is often used to record music by Vierne and Widor. Variously neglected and rebuilt from the 17th to the 19th centuries, it was eventually completely rebuilt by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1888 and inaugurated by the great French organist Charles-Marie Widor two years later.
Today it remains almost exactly as Cavaillé-Coll intended and is considered one of the most beautiful of the French late-19th-century ‘symphonic’ period. There are two mighty en chamade ranks of pipes jutting horizontally out of the main case. And they’re loud…
The organ at Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles in the US
This instrument’s completely bonkers organ case is the result of a four-year collaboration between architect Frank Gehry and organ builders Glatter-Götz and Manuel Rosales. Suitably Disney-like – it may remind you of the cartoon Fantasia – the case has been described as looking like French fries or a game of pick-up sticks. Each of the façade pipes speak, it’s worth bearing in mind.
And despite looking odd it provides an eye-popping centre-piece for the staggering new Walt Disney Hall. But does it pass muster musically? Well, yes – it appears that the critics have warmed to its harmonic richness, powerful reeds and beautifully engineered diapasons.
The organ at Birmingham Town Hall, UK
Builder: William Hill
Of the UK’s town hall organs, it’s the mighty Hill built in 1834 for Birmingham’s town hall opening that reigns supreme. With its 32-foot façade pipes, it has the largest single organ case in Europe. It’s rumoured to be the first organ ever to be fitted with a heavy-pressure solo reed stop – the Tuba Mirabilis, installed in 1837.
But it also possesses some exquisite softer stops: its flutes and strings shimmer in the venue’s warm acoustic while its diapasons are beautifully mellow. What makes this organ particularly worthy of mention, however, is its constant use in weekly recitals given by a string of city organists since 1834. Thomas Trotter, the seventh organist, has given well over 500 recitals since 1983.
The organ at Freiberg Cathedral in Germany
Builder: Gottfried Silbermann
Freiberg Cathedral is lucky enough to possess two Silbermanns. But it’s the main organ that gets special mention here. In 1711, Freiberg Cathedral commissioned a 28-year-old Gottfried Silbermann to build a three-manual, 44-stop organ with pedals. Completed in 1714, it was restored in 1983 and remains almost exactly as the builder intended.
This is the kind of instrument JS Bach hankered after all his life – Silbermann and Bach worked closesly together, both sharing an interest and deep knowledge of acoustics. Travel to Freiberg and you’ll discover an instrument with strong reeds and silvery diapasons. Admirers of Silbermann’s craftsmanship would refer to the ‘Silberklang’ or ‘Silvery Sounds’, a play on the builder’s name. Mozart reckoned that ‘these instruments are magnificent beyond measure’.
The organ at St Pierre des Chartreux, Toulouse in France
Classified as a national historic monument, this instrument is arguably the finest French Classical organ in working order in France. Toulouse is something of a Mecca for organists, with this fine instrument on the tour path for any serious fan of Couperin, De Grigny or Raison.
Built for the convent of Les Jacobins in Toulouse in 1683 by Robert Delaunay, the organ was rebuilt and restored by various builders until its complete restoration in 1983 by Gerhard Grenzing. It has four manuals, 51 stops and 78 ranks and its sound is extraordinary and unique. Listen to the cornet stop, for example, and you get an idea of just how unique these organs are.
The organ at Lord & Taylor Department Store, Philadelphia in the US
Builder: George Ashdown Audsley
If the 33,000-pipe Midmer-Losh in Atlantic City, New Jersey still worked, it would be the largest organ in the world. Instead that crown now goes to the fully-functional 28,500-pipe Wanamaker organ in the Lord and Taylor department store in Philadelphia. It may not be the subtlest of organs, but for its sheer panache, it deserves respect.
Originally built in 1904 for the St Louis World’s Fair, the Audsley organ originally had 10,000 pipes. In 1909, John Wanamaker snapped it up for his new emporium in Philadelphia. It took two years to put in place and various pipes were added up until 1930, bringing the total to its number today. It may be massive, but underneath its skin lies a gentle giant capable of velvety, magical sounds.