Immanuel’s GROUND

Warwick's West Gallery Quire

Barrel organs  -  2

Experiences with Barrel organs

Juhn Budgen
Article reproduced from the BIOS REPORTER, April 1997, Volume XXI, No.2

Rather over forty years ago, Canon Algernon Wintle was to be found playing street pianos for charity in Bury St Edmunds. A radio broadcast led to a succession of small barrel organs being sent to him for repair - he in turn consulted us for the organ parts. Our experiences with successive barrel organs repairs were varied. The smallest, cigar-box size, had spaces for eleven (missing) pipes, nd we deduced the actual compass as rhythm and melody emerged. The 'Serinettes' were little table models, said to have been popular for encouraging the efforts of songbirds; there were larger drawing-room organs set on a stand with two barrels, one stored while the other was in use. They usually had nineteen notes, most tunes were in G or D major; I cannot recall ever seeing an F or an A sharp, and DD and GG were included sparingly; minor tunes were rare. A few hymn tunes were included, Adeste Fideles being the most frequent.

The Reading University Music Department barrel-organ is a 'chapel-sized' instrument, some way short of a full church instrument. On a low plinth, its barrels in a box held with a slide for security, it has twenty three notes from Tenor D to Treble G, with an inevitably light bass line. It is a church instrument, including one chant (Mornington) and this raises an interesting problem. Up to this size, such organs are blown by the turning handle and two pairs of 'cuckoo feeders'; pausing on a reciting note stops the wind supply with lamentable results; psalmodic barrel organs had a separate blower to overcome this.

The first barrel organ I dealt with was a Wood Rising Church, Norfolk (population 430 where the ruinous organ was by Flight & Robson, the latter name being scratched out in token of the dispute between these partners, or their meanness in getting new labels printed for the barrels. Lord Verulam commissioned the repairs, and I played it for a confirmation in June 1958. The original barrel had one or two tunes changed, the other was later and played some interesting Victorian tunes. A third barrel was found in the woods in the rectory gardens, a few slats held by a few strands of pinning; it is preserved in the organ case. A new barrel was ordered in 1960 for £120, and I pinned it to the parishioners' wishes - Crimond for the impending wedding of the daughter at the Hall, and some Christmas and Easter hymns. I did have a problem with the A'' in Praise my soul but the harmony moves swiftly on....

The Bryceson barrel organ at Shelland, Suffolk, has been in continuous use since installation; unusually it has a tierce. When I attended service, I stood up at the front of the congregation for the first line of Shirland and was 'left standing' while the rest of the tune played its majestic course. Currently, the parishioners at Shelland are preparing an order for a new barrel, perhaps demanding tunes which are not harmonically available.

Many organ-builders produced barrel-organs on commission. J.C. Bishop produced such miniature organs while becoming established; music houses such as Keith Prowse, the longman partnerships and others out their own names on organs without any trace of the actual makers. In the church field, Flight & Robson were prolific, as was Bryceson, closely followed by Bevington, Walker, Bates, Gray and Forster & Andrews. Most came from London, although there were provincial examples.

Some important distinctions arise between makers' uses and the types of organs. Walker and Gray mounted their three barrels in iron hoops ( a form of carousel, as pointed out by Christopher Turner) and this means no more could be added without great difficulty. Bryceson and most of the others set the barrel in a cradle which could be slid into position. Barrels are not usually interchangeable between organs, and care is needed when changing a barrel to ensure correct alignment. The 'barrel and finger' organ had the virtue of providing an invaluable live deputy organist to the one barrel, and a full chromatic compass - its size usually permitted twelve tunes to be pinned rather than ten. Two examples by bishop survive in working order, apart from his huge barrel at Churchill, with its interesting 'local' tune, Sarsden; I promised the vicar in 1958 that I would transcribe it.

The other device is the 'dumb organist'. This is a barrel attachment with 'fingers' (stickers) which press on the keys. Lamentably. a dumb organist was put on a bonfire at, above all places, Little Cornard, only twelve years ago. Bates provided dumb organists and several of his are still playable e.g. Tadlow, and soon, Lillington in Somerset.

The rapid rise in keyboard playing led to an almost vindictive sidelining of the barrel organs (many parishes might wish they had them back now) and to their destruction. Their incomplete scale militated against conversion to finger organs; others saw their pipes incorporated into new instruments e.g. at Church Knowle, within living memory.

Some we have rescued from ruinous condition and kept them up year by year; this was discontinued at Hutton after much fundraising had seen the organ back in use as the vicar 'was not paid to keep a museum'. Museums have little better to say for themselves - at Leicester, Cardiff and Bradford they have set about ruining their restored organs by placing them against radiators. The Bradford organ by Lincoln was particularly interesting with a spiral barrel playing a lengthy and manually exhausting concerto by james Hook.

Some remain in good order and much appreciated; the Steeple organ is used at every service, whether for singing or voluntary. (We had nothing to do with the design of the protective cage around the organ; funds are being raised for a proper case.)

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