The organ is usually the largest item of furniture in a church. Its prime purpose is to support singing, both of a choir and of the whole congregation.

Although originally invented about 250 BC, the first use of the organ in Christian worship is not recorded. However, it is much more difficult for a large choir to sing unaccompanied than for a small one and there is documentary evidence of an organ in Winchester Cathedral before the Norman Conquest. Sadly, over 2,000 organs were destroyed when church interiors were cleansed of ‘popery’ by the Puritans in the sixteenth century. A second disaster occurred when Oliver Cromwell’s parliament issued an ordinance ‘for the speedy demolishing of all organs’. As a result the great majority of church organs today date from the second half of the nineteenth century.

Mozart called it ‘The King of Instruments’. The organ commands both the widest range of pitch of all instruments and also the widest range between loud and soft. Because the organ enables the player to make many sounds simultaneously, it is also one of the most complex instruments to play. The organ is able to produce sound continuously without the sound dying away (as in a piano), pausing for breath (as in a flute), or the bow having to be reversed (as in a violin). This has led to the organ being the pre-eminent instrument to accompany choirs.

An organ is a very large piece of furniture and some have been a focus for the decorative arts. This is perhaps less obvious in Britain than in some Continental countries, where organ cases were sometimes designed as visual ornaments in their own right. The organ also excites a strong historical interest, since it is more long-lived than most portable instruments, with its design changing considerably over the centuries.

The British Institute of Organ Studies (BIOS) exists to encourage the study of the organ and to increase appreciation and understanding of its music. It owns the National Pipe Organ Register and is the listing body for historic organs. BIOS serves as the amenity society for the British organ and lobbies Government, Historic England and other bodies on behalf of the instrument. More details can be found on http://www.bios.org.uk.

Oldest Organ Case: St Stephen, Old Radnor, Powys

Although politically in Wales, this remote church is located within the English Diocese of Hereford. It remoteness probably accounts for the survival of our only pre-Elizabethan organ case. The design combines a basically Gothic structure with early Renaissance decoration. It also shows the early use of ‘towers’ of bass pipes, a style that is the foundation of the architectural form of the organ case in most cultures. The organ within the case is Victorian.

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An Oliver Cromwell Connection: Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire

The main organ now in Tewkesbury Abbey was installed in the chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford in the 1630s. When Cromwell ordered the removal of organs from churches, he directed that the Magdalen instrument should installed in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace, allegedly for his courtiers’ entertainment. The organ returned to Oxford in 1660, moving to Tewkesbury in 1737. The case is original, as are the front pipes and some interior pipes.

The other organ in Tewkesbury Abbey was made for an exhibition in 1885. It includes pioneering mechanism and pipes that were to have a major influence on organ design in the years that followed.

Tewkesbury Abbey is open to visitors from 8.30 am - 5.30 pm every day.

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Fit for a Queen: St Mary the Virgin, Finedon, Northamptonshire

‘Father' Bernard Smith made this organ for the Chapel Royal at Windsor in 1704. After Queen Anne died, King George I thought the Windsor set-up 'too popish' and the Sub-Dean, the Reverend Sir John Dolben, was out of a job. Dolben became the Vicar of Finedon and, being wealthy, paid for the organ to follow him in 1717. The central pipe in the case has the Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Anne on it and the superb carving may be by Grinling Gibbons.

The jambs and stop-labels of the original console survive on the front of the case. As well as the front pipes there are over 500 original inside pipes still in use.

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The 18th Century's Largest Organ: Christ Church, Spitalfields, London

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s immense church houses an equally impressive organ, reputed at the time of its construction to be the largest in England. Built in 1735 by Richard Bridge, it has a superb thee-tower case surmounted by a crown and two bishops’ mitres. The organ remains in its original position high at the west end of the building.

Neglected and out of use for many years, the organ has recently been restored to its original glory of both appearance and sound.

Christ Church is open to visitors 10 am - 4 pm weekdays, and 1 - 4 pm Sundays.

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A Former "Chamber Organ": St Martin, Bremhill, Wiltshire

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it became fashionable for the wealthy to commission a small one-manual 'chamber organ’ for the music room. Later, as the fashion changed, the organs were often given to country churches. The Bremhill organ is one such, having been made by William Allen about 1810 for an unidentified location. In the fashion of the time, the organ case is made of mahogany instead of the oak usual in church furniture.

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An Unaltered Organ of 1821: St John the Baptist, Thaxted, Essex

The magnificent fourteenth-century church of St John the Baptist at Thaxted houses the earliest surviving English church organ that retains all its original parts. It was built for St.John's Chapel, Bedford Row, London in 1821 by Henry Cephas Lincoln. When the Bedford Row chapel closed in 1858 the organ was moved to the north transept of Thaxted Church. It was little repaired or altered and, although failing, was recorded for the BIOS Historic Organ Sound Archive. It was restored in 2014 by Goetze & Gwynn. The organ now looks, sounds and plays as it did in 1821.

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Built for the Great Exhibition: St Anne, Limehouse, London

The original organ in this fine Hawksmoor church was destroyed by a fire in 1850 so the parish purchased the organ built by Gray & Davison for display in the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. It is a nearly unique example of an instrument built at a time of great change in organ design. One of the first organs without upper woodwork, the curved casework below the front pipes has been likened to the curved wheel covers of early Great Western Railway steam engines.

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Britain's Largest Organ: Liverpool Cathedral

Matching the huge scale of Britain’s largest Gothic building, the Willis organ in Liverpoool Cathedral has two consoles (one mobile), each with five rows of keys. Inaugurated in 1926 it remains incomplete, with the massive bridge at the west end of the cathedral central space still missing its planned organ case.

The instrument is the magnum opus of Henry Willis III who was one of the two most prominent organ designers of the first half of the twentieth century. The organ cases were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of the Cathedral.

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A Modernist Organ Case: The Chapel of New College, Oxford

The use of metal instead of wood is a feature of the case of this 1969 instrument by Grant, Degens & Bradbeer. In such august surroundings, it took real courage to choose a modernist case. This did not, however, deter George Pace, who designed it in conjunction with Frank Bradbeer. The Pedal organ pipes are at the side, the Great organ on top and the projecting chair case houses the Ruckpositive. Reflections off the glass louvre shutters of the Swell division cause the windows of the chapel to appear to chase one another across the front of the organ whenever the shutters are moved by the player. The musical design of the organ reflects the 1960s ‘neo-Baroque’ movement.

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A New Organ for a Village Church: St Mary, Streatley, Berkshire

This modest village church, close to the river Thames, has a medieval tower and a Victorian nave and chancel. The organ is required to support the singing of a choir located in the narrow chancel. The previous organ, dating from 1901, was bulky, dull-sounding and difficult of access for tuning. The new instrument, by Robin Jennings in 2004, is shallow and elegant and has a tone much better adapted to accompany singers.

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