Peterborough Cathedral is re-pitching its nineteenth century Hill organ from Old Philharmonic to Standard concert pitch. Once at Standard pitch the organ can be used with other musical instruments, and choristers trained to sing at the same pitch used elsewhere. The work will be undertaken by Harrison and Harrison, organ builders, between July 2015 and spring 2017.
You can watch the fascinating journey of the organ to Standard pitch by following Pipewatch, a series of short videos featuring different aspects of the project.
Robert Quinney, former Director of Music, explains why the organ needs to be re-pitched
We take it for granted that, give or take a few marginal differences, music all around the world is ‘at’ the same pitch: where the note A above middle C vibrates 440 times a second (440 Hz).
However, until 1939 different pitch standards - i.e notes called the same thing but vibrating at different rates - existed around the world. This began to cause a problem in the late nineteenth century, as long-distance travel became more common. Most instruments were simply replaced by new ones at standard pitch but organs, so much larger and more complex than a trumpet or clarinet, are quite a different proposition.
Peterborough’s organ is tuned at ‘Old Philharmonic’ pitch which is well on the way to half a semitone sharper than standard. The organ has 5,286 pipes - essentially 5,286 individual instruments all operated by one player. It is a huge job to alter the pitch of every pipe. The Cathedral has set about the enormous task to achieve the pitch change that will bring it in tune with the rest of the world.
Currently, we cannot use the organ with orchestras or brass bands, because they all play slightly lower - just under half a semitone lower. Worse still, for the Cathedral’s day-to-day services we are asking the choir to adapt their singing to a pitch very different to that of all the music they hear and perform outside the Cathedral. That is both very difficult, causing the choir serious tuning problems and potentially damaging to young, developing voices.
We therefore regard it as a high priority and a key project within our Peterborough 900 Campaign to have every one of the organ’s 5,286 pipes slightly lengthened in order to lower the pitch to international standard. This is a huge and delicate undertaking, which will cost over £400,000, but once done it will transform both the quality and flexibility of the Cathedral’s music.
The Dean and Chapter would like to thank the numerous private charitable trusts, commercial organisations, organists’ associations and individual donors who have so generously contributed the funds to allow this work to begin.
History of Peterborough Cathedral Organ
The present instrument can be traced back to 1894 when William Hill built a new organ incorporating some pipework from previous instruments. Hill was one of the two most celebrated organ builders of the nineteenth century, and his instruments were designed in a somewhat more classical style than the more symphonic organs of his rival Henry Willis. The main organ is situated in the north triforium, behind a case designed by Dr Arthur Hill, and the Choir Organ and two pedal ranks are in the north choir aisle.
The present organ has 86 speaking stops spread over four manuals and pedals. It includes comprehensive Great and Swell Organs of 19 and 18 stops respectively, with a large palette of 8’ colours and a complete chorus from 16’ pitch to two mixtures on both divisions. Unusually, every rank in the Pedal Organ is independent (there is no extension even for the 32’ ranks), as are the two Swell Oboes and the two Solo Clarinet ranks (16’ and 8’).
The Choir, Swell and Solo divisions are all enclosed. The Solo division incorporates twelve ranks of gentler orchestral colour as well as a Tuba at 16’ and 8’ pitches in a separate box.
National Pipe Organ Register entry
Organists and Directors of Music
Of the organists of Peterborough Cathedral, few before the twentieth century would be familiar to singers or musicians, though two anthems by Thomas Mudd (1631-32) and some Psalm chants by Haydn Keeton (1870-1921) remain in the repertoire. Henry Coleman (1921-44), a pupil of Sir Sidney Nicholson, published many organ compositions and two books on choir training. Douglas Hopkins (1946-1953) went on to become organist at Canterbury Cathedral, while Stanley Vann (1953-1977) succeeded him and transformed the choir at Peterborough, contributing significantly to the choral repertory. Christopher Gower (1977-2004) directed the Choir through challenging times, instituting the Cathedral Festival which ran from 1982-1996. He was succeeded in 2004 by Andrew Reid, who has become Director of the Royal College of Church Music. Robert Quinney held the Directorship of Music for a short time from 2013-14 before going on to teach at Oxford University, but made great strides in championing the organ's re-pitching. The current Director of Music is Steven Grahl.
Among the many assistant organists and articled pupils at Peterborough were Thomas Armstrong, Malcolm Sargeant and Simon Lawford. The current Assistant Director of Music is David Humphreys (2011).