The Phelps Organ at Hexham Abbey

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The Phelps Organ at Hexham Abbey was the first modern mechanical-action instrument built in the United States exported to Europe, reversing centuries-old cultural flow. It was part of the 1300th anniversary of the Abbey, an event in which Queen Elizabeth participated in during the September 1974 celebration.

The design of this instrument has some unique qualities. There are small doors in the back of the case which can be opened to allow sound into the area behind the instrument. The organ case itself is made of unfinished but highly polished oak. The tonal design is very complete and thus can accomodate a very wide range of organ literature. This instrument is a good example of what can be achieved in a two-manual specification; see the article on "Designing a Two Manual Organ". It probably has had the most commercial recordings made of any of the Lawrence Phelps & Associates instruments.

Specification

Stop List

Great (I)
56 notes
65mm wind pressure
116'Bourdon
28'Principal
38'Flûte à cheminée
44'Octave
54'Flûte conique
62'Superoctave
78'Cornet V
TC- 44 notes
81 1/3'Fourniture V
98'Trompette
104'Clairon
 
Swell (II)
56 notes, expressive
60mm wind pressure
118'Salicional
128'Voix céleste
(TC)
138'Bourdon
144'Principal
154'Flûte
162 2/3'Nazard
172'Doublette
182'Flûte à bec
191 3/5'Tierce
201 1/3'Larigot
212/3'Cymbale IV
2216'Basson
238'Hautbois
248'Cromorne
  Tremulant
 
Pedal
32 notes
70mm wind pressure
2516'Principal
2616'Soubasse
278'Octave basse
288'Bourdon
294'Octave
302'Fourniture IV
3116'Bombarde
3216'Basson
338'Trompette
344'Chalumeau

Action

  • Key action: mechanical
  • Stop action: electric

Couplers

  • Great to Pedal
  • Swell to Pedal
  • Swell to Great

Adjustable Combination Pistons

  • Eight on Great, Swell, Pedal, Generals. Great and pedal combinations coupled.
  • Full Organ, Cancel, Adjuster
  • Sequencer (added in 1998)

Articles Surrounding the 30th Birthday Celebration

HEXHAM'S famous organ provides the springtime chance to celebrate a musical tradition which encompasses a legendary American organ builder and eighth century Roman players. May marks the 30th anniversary of the installation of the magnificent Phelps organ, an instrument wound tightly into the fabric of the Abbey's history. To commemorate the organ's arrival in 1974, the internationally acclaimed concert organist Dame Gillian Weir will perform a recital on Saturday, May 8. Dame Gillian will be excused a quiet moment of reflection at the event - the man who designed the organ was Lawrence Phelps, her late husband and a colossus of the organbuilding industry. She also gave the inaugural recital on the instrument in 1974.

The installation of an American-built organ stemmed from the efforts of Ron Lane, who was assistant organist in 1972. Now chairman of the organ committee, he recalls the days of trying to find support and money for the project. "I initiated the project of a new organ for the Abbey in 1972, with the intention that the organ be installed in 1974, which was the 1300th anniversary of the Abbey's foundation," says Mr Lane. "The money to pay for it was raised by 1974 and the organ was duly installed in 1974." But the Pennsylvania workshop of Mr Phelps, already established as one of America's best, was some 3,500 miles away, so why embark on a trans-Atlantic contract? "The answer is that builders in England and in Europe and in Scandinavia were asked to submit their designs for the organ," Mr Lane explains. "The fact of the matter was that the design that Lawrence Phelps submitted was far superior to anything else that we saw." Mr Lane believes that in choosing Lawrence Phelps to build the new organ, the Abbey authorities were only following the maxim of the great Canon Savage, a key figure in rebuilding the nave in 1908. Canon Savage is reputed to have said: "I have a liking for the best and nothing but the best will do for Hexham Abbey." So the best it would be, and Mr Phelps and his artisans went to work. The new organ replaced an instrument which had been installed in 1862. The intervening 110 years had been unkind to the older organ, which had undergone extensive but ultimately ineffective repairs. "By the early 1970s the old organ was in a parlous state of repair," Mr Lane recalls. "It had been added to over the years, time and again. We did consider whether it would be economically sensible just to rebuild the existing organ, but came to the conclusion that it would be sending good money after bad." An objective review of the pipework and mechanism led to the conclusion that restoration was not an option, so the exciting project of commissioning a new instrument was begun.

The ideal time for a new organ to be installed was the 1300th anniversary of the Abbey's foundation by St Wilfrid in 674AD, especially as the church's musical traditions could be traced back to another saint, St Acca. It was St Acca who brought musicians from Rome in the eighth century to enhance the quality of worship in Wilfrid's beautiful church. "We were adding a treasure to the Abbey in its 1300th year and that helped to raise a lot of money," Mr Lane goes on. The 54,000 needed for the new organ was raised by parishioners, with contributions from trusts. The Prime Minister at the time, Edward Heath, and the Archbishop of York, Donald Coggan, both supported the appeal. In a letter to Mr Lane, dated February 28, 1972, the Archbishop of York wrote: "I believe that Hexham stands in a category by itself and therefore I can break my ordinary rule of not lending my name to local church appeals for help. I should be happy for my name to be added to your list." Mr Lane says: "Having awarded the contract to Lawrence Phelps, we found his contribution exceeded the highest expectations. Following the arrival of the physical components of the instrument from Erie, Pennsylvania, in early 1974, the creative tasks of voicing and sensitive regulation of the action were addressed over many weeks. "The devoted commitment shown was fully comparable with that exercised by craftsmen over the past centuries - craftsmen who made the Abbey such a treasure-house."

What is so special about the organ? "Its design was unique and it was not an off-the-peg organ; it was created especially for the Abbey," says Mr Lane. "I think it is fair to say that it was a landmark in the development of organ building." The Hexham Abbey organ was also special for Lawrence Phelps and Dame Gillian, who had married in 1972. Dame Gillian has written: "The organ for Hexham Abbey had special significance for my husband and myself. It was the first organ built in Europe by an American organbuilder, and its singing character, tonal versatility and musical flexibility, combined with an exceptionally subtle and sensitive key action, created considerable impact when it was installed in 1974." Lawrence Phelps stopped building organs in 1981 and died in 1999. Since its installation, the organ in Hexham Abbey has been played by many distinguished organists including Thomas Trotter, Wayne Marshall, Gordon Stewart, Susan Landale, David Sanger, Carlo Curley and Timothy Hone, formerly master of the music at Newcastle Catherdral. James Lancelot, organist and master of the choristers at Durham Cathedral, has said: "The Phelps organ in Hexham Abbey simply goes on getting better and better the more one gets to know it. It was an utter triumph in 1974 and it remains so 30 years later." Since Ron Lane started the Music in the Abbey series of concerts in 1986, 90 organ recitals have been performed. "One of the policies has been to feature up-and-coming organists instead of having just international celebrities," he says. Many have gone on to become well known, like Stephen Farr, organist and master of the choristers at Guildford Cathedral, who is widely regarded as one of the finest organists of his generation. Mr Lane has received countless testimonials for the organ, and says: "It superbly fulfils its basic function of contributing to the ongoing worship of the Abbey; its sensitivity makes it a valuable teaching instrument for aspiring young organists and it is a versatile and exciting recital instrument." The Abbey's director of music, Michael Haynes, agrees: "The Hexham Abbey organ is a joy to play and a delight to hear."

Just how exciting and delightful, members of the audience can judge for themselves at the 30th birthday organ recital. Gillian Weir, who was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1996, is known for the exceptional breadth and variety of her repertoire. As well as playing recitals, she is also in demand as an adjudicator for leading international competitions and as a lecturer, broadcaster, teacher and writer.
By Fiona Hewitt, Article reproduced by kind permission from the
Hexham Courant


Saturday May 8th marks the 30th birthday celebration of the Phelps Organ at Hexham Abbey.

The Phelps organ is unique in a number of respects. It was the first organ built in the United States for England, a reversal of the prevalent cultural flow. By the time the Hexham instrument was built, American organ builder Lawrence Phelps had been involved with hundreds of organ building projects in his career and had just established his own firm in Erie, Pennsylvania. With his own company and group of equally dedicated associates, he was free to build organs as he wished. The organ at the Abbey, while a modest-sized instrument in terms of keyboards and numbers of pipes, has a completeness to its design that enables it to capably perform organ works from many countries and time periods. The organ reform movement which started in Europe after World War II brought an emphasis on using historic organ building techniques as a guide with which to build new instruments. Lawrence Phelps had found a way to build instruments that could properly support the polyphonic needs of music from the German baroque era and also provide the color, grandeur and power that French organ music needed. The Hexham organ is a successful example of this cohesive, rather than merely eclectic, combination of various schools of historic organ building; this became a hallmark of Phelps' work.

The Abbey organ was the second instrument built by the firm in Erie, and is perhaps the most well-known. The opening recital, with Queen Elizabeth in attendance, was part of a celebration of the Abbey's 1300th Anniversary. This programme was performed in September 1974 by Gillian Weir, who was married to Lawrence Phelps from 1972 until his passing in 1999. A number of recordings have since been made there by several organists, the most recent being Dame Gillian Weir's Organ Master Series Volume 2. That series spotlights organs built by her late husband and now includes Volume 3 which features another beautiful instrument in Fort Collins, Colorado, the first instrument built by the firm.

The upcoming birthday celebration marks 30 years of delightful music in Hexham, and will be presided over by Gillian Weir. A recital of marvelous music by Bach, Buxtehude, Franck, de Gringy, Couperin, Widor, Duruflé, and Lanquetuit will be followed by a reception with wine, soft drinks and birthday cake. In attendance will be some of Phelps' original associates from his company in Erie, as well as friends from the company's Opus One organ in Fort Collins. A similar recital by Gillian Weir when the organ turned 21 was performed in front of a standing-room-only crowd, so it promises to be a popular event. Tickets are available from the Abbey Gift Shop.

Steve Thomas; This article appeared in hexhamnet.co.uk


ANNIVERSARY CONCERT PROVES POPULAR Published on Friday, May 14th 2004 in the Hexham Courant

Hugh Morris

IT WAS heartening indeed to see an audience in excess of 200 gather in the Abbey on Saturday for a concert celebrating the 30th birthday of the famous Phelps organ.

At the helm for the occasion was the international concert organist Dame Gillian Weir. She has enjoyed a long association with Hexham and the organ since giving its opening recital in 1974.

As she said after the concert, she and her late husband, who built the organ, came to regard it almost as a child of theirs.

Gillian Weir is an organist who prides herself on playing organ music from across a wide section of music history and styles, and her choice of programme certainly showed this.

A substantial serving of German baroque music began the recital, with two chorale preludes and a trio sonata by Bach, and a chaconne by his elder contemporary, Buxtehude.

Such repertoire certainly works well on the organ here, and in turn we were treated to emotions of exuberance, pleading, tenderness and colour. Dashing dexterity was certainly in evidence, and by the Buxtehude, Dame Gillian had fully hit her stride.

The first half concluded with Cesar Franck's Choral no. 1, which showed beautiful pacing across an extended piece which can easily sound rather disjointed.

The second half was exclusively music from France. A trio of 18th century movements showed well the colours that can be found on the organ here, wedded as they are to the musical style of these pieces. Flamboyant joy was followed by telling intensity, and then by Dandrieu's humourous Noel de Saintonge, all played with panache.

We then reached the virtuoso showpieces in the programme. Widor's variations that open his fifth symphony are something of a tour de force, and we were given a performance with pace, urgency and a sense of organic growth.

Scarcely less testing, if perhaps less obviously so from the listener's point of view, is Durufle's ethereal Scherzo, which showed great poise and control.

To end the programme was Lanquetuit's exciting Toccata, played with a real sense of rhythmic drive - I could see people sat in my row tapping their feet in time, a rare occurrence in audiences for organ music!

After the concert Dame Gillian announced the creation of a recital award for young organists in memory of her late husband, to be known as the Lawrence Phelps Recital Award. It was certainly given a fittingly joyous inception.