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Articles: Bach and the organs of Cambridge Anne Page

The first in a series of occasional articles by Anne Page following her performance in Cambridge of the complete organ works of Bach during 2011–2012.

The organs

Bach’s organ works as they have come down to us were composed over a period of about 50 years from 1700 to 1750, a time span extending from his schooldays to the end of his life. Through them we can trace the evolution of the composer: models were taken at first from musicians in his milieu which soon expanded from his native Thuringia to the northern town of Lüneburg where he was at school from 1700–1702. An even more extended journey was made in 1705–6 when Bach famously walked from Arnstadt (his first organ post) the 200 or so miles north to Lübeck to hear the renowned Dieterich Buxtehude (1637–1707). With an insatiable appetite for study the young organist traveled to hear other great musicians and collected scores from far and wide. Thus he mastered all the major styles of European organ music and the music of earlier times. Renowned in his time as an organ virtuoso without equal, this music offers the greatest range of forms, from intimate miniatures for private devotion to mighty edifices for public display.

In Bach’s time organs differed markedly from one country to another and within the regions of Germany there was no standard organ type. For the series in Cambridge fourteen organs were chosen to complement the extraordinary diversity of the music. Pipework in the organs dates from 1698 to the present, the instruments range from 3 stops to 4 manuals, and from historic instruments to modern designs. All of the organs use the traditional mechanical (tracker) action and pipes voiced on light wind pressures. They outline a history of organ building in Britain from the early 18th century up to the present day.

Historic organs:
Clare College Chapel (Snetzler 1755)
Great St Mary’s University organ (Smith 1698/Hill 1870 restored 1995)
Emmanuel URC (Willis 1880 restored 1991)

Historic-style organs:
Christ’s College (Bishop)*
Magdalene College Chapel (Goetze & Gwynn)
Pembroke College (Mander)*
Pembroke College chamber organ (Aubertin)
Trinity College (Metzler)*
*using historic cases and some ranks of 18th century pipes.

Modern organs:
Clare College (von Beckerath)
Emmanuel College Chapel (Kenneth Jones & Associates)
Great St Mary’s parish organ (Kenneth Jones & Associates)
Little St Mary’s (Kenneth Tickell)
Robinson College (Frobenius)
St John’s College (Mander)

Details of these organs can be found at www.npor.org.uk. Some recordings from the series are available from YouTube channel annepagecambridge or the videos section of this web site.

Historic English organs

Clare College — Snetzler organ

This instrument was made in 1755 by John (Johannes) Snetzler, one of the most renowned builders of his time. Snetzler was a Swiss immigrant who settled in London, building in a traditional English style — that is, with no pedals but a longer manual compass than their continental relatives. This is one of his typical single-manual instruments, with several stops divided between treble and bass. These include a colourful Sesquialtera/Cornet which Snetzler liked to make with “plenty of the devil” in it.

Great St Mary’s University organ — Smith 1698/Hill 1870 restored 1995

Great St Mary’s has had two organs since 1869: one in the chancel which belongs to the parish and one on the gallery at the west end which belongs to the university, originally built by the famous “Father” Bernard Smith in 1698. The case and many ranks of pipes were retained when William Hill rebuilt the organ in 1870, but by now a revolution had taken place in British organ building. This began in earnest from the 1840s, gathered pace with the Great Exhibition of 1851 and within a very few years was complete: the old-style organs with their extra notes at the low end of the manual keyboards and lack of pedals had almost completely been rebuilt or replaced with German compass instruments beginning at C (two octaves below middle c) for the manuals and full pedalboards sounding an octave lower. This is the type of organ we still use today, as the instrument has undergone no comparably radical change since. The discovery of Bach’s organ music by English organists was one of the incentives for this new type of organ design — to play the large preludes and fugues, or indeed anything with pedals, was impossible on the traditional pedal-less organs, though arrangements for two players were resorted to, or even having a double bass play the pedal line! The organ built by Hill underwent various changes over the course of time but was restored to its mid-nineteenth century style by Manders in 1995. We therefore hear Bach’s music on sounds familiar to an audience of the mid-Victorian era.

Emmanuel United Reformed Church — Willis 1880 restored 1991

The organ of Emmanuel URC was built for the church in 1880 by “Father” Henry Willis, founder of an organ-building dynasty which had great influence in the 19th and early 20th centuries, developing a “romantic”, orchestrally-oriented tonal palette. The stone chamber provided for the organ has two arches at right angles for the egress of sound, the Great division speaking across the apse while the Swell speaks down the south aisle. In 1911 the organ was enlarged to three manuals and in 1992 as part of the renovation of the building it was restored to the original scheme (with the addition of a pedal reed) by the firm of Harrison and Harrison.

Historic-style organs


Christ’s College — Bishop, using old cases and pipework

The organ was first supplied to the college in 1705. Its case bears a strong resemblance to the main case of the Pembroke College organ and like that organ it contains several ranks of historic pipework. One of the most prominent builders of the Restoration period, “Father” Bernard Smith (or Schmidt) may have had a hand in both organs, as he certainly did with two other organs heard in this series, the University organ in Great St Mary’s and the Trinity College organ. The surviving historic work at Christ’s set the style for both sound and design when the organ was rebuilt by Bishop & Son of Ipswich in 1983 with two manuals and pedal, having grown into an instrument of disproportionate size in the intervening centuries.

Pembroke College — Mander, using old cases and pipework

The organ started life in 1708 (The year Bach moved from Mühlhausen to Weimar), the second instrument to adorn the chapel of 1665. After many changes over the centuries it was rebuilt by N.P. Mander Ltd in 1980, using the old cases and some ranks of pipes to recreate an organ in historic English style. A pedal division was discreetly added out of view behind the Great and Chair cases to allow continental repertoire to be played. It uses a tuning system which distributes the “wolf” in such a way as to make some keys purer than others, allowing all tonalities to be used while retaining differences in chord colour. Bach used a similar kind of temperament in the Well-Tempered Clavier rather than our familiar equal temperament in which all keys are equally out of tune!


The chamber organ by Bernard Aubertin arrived in 2008. It has three stops, Bourdon 8, Flute 4 and Flageolet 2.

Trinity College — Metzler

The organ was built by the firm Metzler of Zürich in 1976 using the cases and some ranks of pipes from the organ Bernard Smith provided for the college in the early 1700s. In this it shares its origins with the University organ in Great St Mary’s church. Neither instrument now sounds like an organ of the Smith era but both reflect in their different ways the organ building tastes of the times in which they were built. The Metzler organ consciously looks to organ building style of the baroque period, with a northern European accent. It has a well-tempered tuning system devised by Andreas Werckmeister in the 1680s/90s which would have been familiar to Bach and the console design is modeled on historic organ types. In this it is perhaps the 20th century counterpart to organ building of the Restoration period, when builders from abroad transformed the instruments in this country, bringing in continental European features. Bernard Smith himself was from northern Europe, coming to England via the low countries. Of the organs inspired by the organ reform movement’s advocacy of a return to traditional principles the Trinity organ is recognised as one of the most successful, largely because it transcends any narrow stylistic formulae through sheer quality and beauty of sound, masterfully matching the scale of the building to produce an instrument of true integrity and stature.

Magdalene College — Goetze & Gwynn

The organ was specially made for the chapel in 2000 by the English firm of Goetze and Gwynn, replacing a much-rebuilt instrument from the 1920s. It takes the English Restoration organ-building style of “Father” Bernard Smith as its point of reference for every part of the organ: the stops, the voicing style, the key and stop actions, and the Great and Chair cases, just as the organ of Pembroke College did a generation or so before. The two concessions both instruments make to the present day are the provision of an electrically-powered blower and a pedal division, without which a programme of Bach’s music would be short indeed!

Modern organs


Clare College — west gallery organ

The organ was built by the Hamburg firm of von Beckerath in 1971, one of the first arrivals in Cambridge of a fully-fledged representative of the organ reform movement, or Orgelbewegung. This had started in Germany early in the 20th century, spearheaded by Albert Schweitzer for whom Bach’s organ music was the touchstone for organ design. It arrived in Britain in the 1950s, the Festival Hall organ being a major ambassador for the style as it had evolved by that time. The organ world was undergoing something of a reaction against the perceived heavy, ponderous tone of the pre-war Edwardian instruments and the chapels of Cambridge and Oxford were in the vanguard of change toward a neo-baroque emphasis on bright, high-pitched stops on light wind pressures and mechanical key actions, responsive to the performer’s touch in a new and exciting way. The organs they commissioned often came from abroad, and indeed this still happens frequently today. The Clare instrument combines the centuries-old north German practice of housing each division of the organ in its own case (so-called Werkprinzip) with modern styling. The large towers at each side house the pedal, the central large case the Great and the division above the player’s head in the position of a Brustwerk has Swell shutters to accommodate later repertoire.

Emmanuel College — Kenneth Jones

The organ in its present form dates from 1988 and is by Kenneth Jones and Associates of Bray, Ireland. Like the Pembroke organ it uses the old Great and Chaire cases (c.1686) with an added division for Swell and Pedal behind, but inside is an instrument of three manuals and pedal which is eclectic in its design. The traditional chorus-work and solo stops are still present as well as some more romantic voices, and there is a modern stop-changing system.

Great St Mary’s Parish organ — Kenneth Jones

The parish organ was built in 1991, also by Kenneth Jones and Associates. There are three manuals and pedal, the manuals being Great, Swell and Solo. This last is provided with a range of “mutation” stops which express the partials of the harmonic series other than the notes which are in octaves to the fundamental pitch. These stops have exotic-sounding names such as “Nazard” and “Tierce” which can be combined to create some of the traditional registrations used by organists since at least the 18th century. The Solo division is also designed to augment the pedal when higher pitched stops are required.

Little St Mary’s — Kenneth Tickell

The present organ dates from 2007 and is by Kenneth Tickell. It is the second organ to use the case designed by Lawrence Bond for the organ built in 1978 by Bishop & Son, the pipes of which will begin a new life in Westleton, Suffolk — an example of recycling frequently found in the world of pipe organs. Tickell’s two-manual and pedal scheme uses space within a chamber behind the case for the Swell, whose more delicate voicing contrasts with the forthright Great. The three pedal stops are also in the case which helps their sound to carry down the church.

Robinson College — Frobenius

The organ was commissioned for the new chapel from the Danish organbuilding firm Frobenius and installed in 1981. It combines traditional features (mechanical key action and stops arranged in choruses) with electrically-assisted stop action and a modern system of registration aids for rapid stop changing. Typical of its date is its “neo-baroque” voicing inspired by the 17th century organs of northern Europe, with a very bright sound emphasising the higher harmonics, and its arrangement in three separate cases (Pedal, Great, Swell/Positive) to give a spatial dimension to the sound as well as an individual character to each division. This so-called “Werkprinzip” is also employed in the design of the Clare college organ built in 1971. Both organs have a Swell, or part of the organ enclosed in a box, which at Robinson is provided with clear shutters to allow the lines of the case their visual logic.

St John’s College — Mander

The organ was built by the British firm N.P. Mander Ltd in 1994, using the cases designed by J. Oldrid Scott in 1889. It has four manuals and pedal and is well equipped with a palette of colours to accompany the choir in daily sung services and to perform a broad range of repertoire. With mechanical key action and electric action to the stops allowing a full range of registration aids for the player it brings the late romantic English organ ideal into the modern era.

Anne Page ©2012