December 2, 2011 10:06 pm

When it’s time to pull out the stops

One can still be an agnostic about organ music but be thoroughly converted to the fascination of organ-building

Perhaps you either “get” organs and organ music or you don’t. I once encountered someone who said, at our first or second meeting, that organ music was high on her hate list. I thought we were destined to become soulmates. If that was not quite the way things panned out, our shared dislike of organ music remained a solid bond. If you asked me what I didn’t like about organ music, I would say I had a similar aversion to mud and gravy: things whose essence is to be thoroughly mixed-up and messy.

My friend and I are odd ones out. The organ for so many centuries was regarded as the king of instruments, by no lesser composers than JS Bach, Handel and Mozart. Prejudices are there to be tested, so I tested mine by going to visit the long-established, quietly successful British firm of organ builders Harrison & Harrison (H&H to its friends), which was founded by Thomas Harrison in Rochdale in 1861, upped sticks to Durham in 1872, but has otherwise changed rather little in its 150 years of existence. I might still be an agnostic about organ music but I am thoroughly converted to the fascination of organ-building.

Thomas Harrison, in old photographs, has the visionary look of a Victorian sage or prophet combined with the rugged toughness of a northern businessman. He embodies the part-spiritual, part-entrepreneurial genius of the Victorian and Edwardian heyday of British organ-building. Between 1904 and 1939 H&H rebuilt 19 cathedral organs, including those of Durham, Ely, Salisbury and Winchester; but the business also expanded internationally, especially in North America. All this time it remained a family firm and, if there is no longer a Harrison at the helm, the company retains its settled, collegiate, old-fashioned (in the best sense) feel; one sound-board specialist I spoke to represented the third generation of his family to work for H&H.

Making an organ is a complicated process, probably appealing to those who were good at constructing dodecahedrons and Airfix models of second world war aircraft at school. But while I learnt about the fine distinctions between electromagnetic and tracker actions, the secrets of spotted metal and mandrels, I found my attention wandering from the specifics of organs to wider questions of what constitutes a company, an industry or an economy.

Organ-building is obviously a kind of industry that contributes to the economy, but it could hardly be less like the kind of grey, abstract-sounding kind of thing – software design, financial engineering – we are all supposed to be engaged in, in desperate competition with frighteningly focused people from Asia. Organ-building is a wonderfully improbable activity, very physical, all about passion, strangeness, intricacy, obsession, beauty.

People do this kind of thing, on the whole, because they love it, not because they expect to get rich doing it. Adriel Yap, one of those frighteningly focused Asian characters, came all the way from Singapore to do it and gave up a promising academic career. “Every project is unique and calls for different ways of thinking and problem-solving,” he told me. A project to restore an organ from 1850 requires “not just mechanical but historical thinking: putting yourself into the mindset of someone from that time”.

What is inspiring is not just Yap’s enthusiasm and expertise but the far-sightedness of the company that gave him a job, on the recommendation of William McVicker, curator of the Royal Festival Hall organ at London’s Southbank Centre, whose £2.3m restoration is H&H’s biggest project. H&H, I get the impression, like looking after people in the same long-term way that they look after organs.

When the Heritage Lottery Fund contributed £950,000 to the “Pull Out All the Stops” campaign for the restoration, it stipulated a community learning and engagement programme, including free organ recitals for children and others, the provision for two new apprentices at H&H and an organ scholar placement. There is still more than £900,000 to find. You can sponsor a pipe and in so doing contribute not only to an important and historic organ but also to an inspiring and unlikely kind of economic success.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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