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The People’s Organ

When former Mayor of Auckland Henry Brett gifted an organ to the city’s Town Hall he had two conditions: First, that the requisite space for the organ as set out in the specification be provided and, second, that a certain number of performances be given to the public free every year. While the organ has undergone major changes during the past 108 years, Brett’s wish that the Auckland community have the opportunity to experience its splendour has never faltered.

The original organ was completed in 1911 by renowned organ manufacturers Norman and Beard of Norwich, England, who were at the height of their fame at the time. Known for their solidly built organs in the grand symphonic tradition, Norman and Beard constructed the Town Hall organ in the romantic tonal style in vogue at the time.

This style of organ remained in fashion for about 50 years until the organ reform movement in the 1950s and ’60s, fuelled partly by economics and partly by an aversion to the sounds and appearance of these colossal instruments.

“The movement around the world, loosely called ‘back to Bach’, meant all the big Victorian and Edwardian organs were out of fashion. So, the best organs at the time were considered to be the type used by Bach 300 years before,” explains Kerry Stevens, Deputy Chairman of the Auckland Town Hall Organ Trust.

‘Back to Bach’ meant reverting to a baroque style with a lighter, more transparent sound. This could not be achieved with most of the existing instrument, so around 90% of Henry Brett’s organ was removed and a new organ was installed behind the original façade. The only pipes from the original that remained were those in line with the neo-baroque sound required from the new organ.

Though the new organ had more pipes and stops, it lacked the power of the original; the style and voicing of the pipes were different, with a much lower wind pressure than Brett’s organ.

“Everybody thought it was the bees’ knees at the time! Yet, it didn’t really succeed,” says Stevens. “On its own it was fine but it just didn’t have the power of the original, even though it had more clarity. Against an orchestra or a choir it just couldn’t cope, and often the conductor would ask the organist for more but there wasn’t any more to give.”

When the Auckland Town Hall underwent a restoration during the mid- to late-1990s, city organist Dr John Wells spearheaded a campaign to rebuild the organ as Brett had intended. The Town Hall Organ Trust was formed, starting a chain of events leading to the rebuilding of the organ by German organ manufacturer Orgelbau Klais Bonn.

Having never built an English-style organ before, Philipp Klais, Managing Director of the company, went to work restoring the Auckland Town Hall organ to its former glory. The remaining pipes from the original organ were sent to Germany to be analysed, ensuring the lead and tin content were as close to the original as possible. Klais’ vision was clear: “I want it to be like being in a big, warm bath. Sure, it has an English voice, but with a German accent,” he quipped. 

A special touch was added in the form of two Māori stops, an idea that came from Wells. Following consultation with Māori instrumentalist Richard Nunns, the kōauau (flute) and the pūkāea (trumpet) were chosen. Pipes for the kōauau, traditionally made of bone or stone, were crafted using scientific glass and feature Māori emblems. Resonators for the pūkāea mirror the traditional form of conical, hollowed-out wood, adorned by carvings done by Auckland’s principal Māori tribe, Ngāti Whātua.

After two years, the new organ was inaugurated on 31 March 2010 – Bach’s birthday. Today, the Auckland Town Hall Organ Trust continue to honour Brett’s wish, hosting around four free concerts a year and taking the public on behind-thescenes tours of the organ.

Says Stevens, “The organ belongs to the city and we want to make sure as many people as possible hear it at its best.”

The New Zealand Herald Premier Series: Reveries

8pm, Thursday 22 August, Auckland Town Hall

Conductor Bertrand de Billy
Organ Benjamin Sheen

Debussy Prélude à L’Apres-midi d’une faune
Poulenc Organ Concerto
Franck Symphony in D minor 

Tickets and more information.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Phil News. Download it here.

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