The first pipe organ was installed in St Paul’s in 1970-71. It was an ambitious concept to build the first three-manual organ in Canberra. But many of its pipes were cast-offs from other organs, and there were more gaps than pipes in its specification.
John Barrett was the organist at the time, and he realised that the organ would grow over the years as gifts came in. Better to start with something, however inadequate: otherwise, who could tell when there might be enough money to install a fully completed organ? Plus, showing the potential of a good large instrument would encourage more donations.
Alas, he hadn’t counted on the weather. The organ was built in the two front galleries that now look over the main altar. Above them, the roof was not properly sealed. Every rainstorm brought flooding down the walls and through the organ. Pipes were ruined, windchests irreparable harmed, and by 1986 significant parts of the organ were unplayable.
So the parish took the decision to build a rear gallery and move the organ down there. In the rebuild, the opportunity was taken to reconfigure some of the ranks, and to install a couple of extra ranks.
What emerged in 1990 was better than before, and its new location was a vast improvement in letting the sound reach the congregation. And in case church maintenance ever fell down in the future, the organ was put into a simple wooden case with its own roof, that projected the sound into the nave and protected it from any future waterfalls inside the church.
By 1999 there was money to add a much-needed trumpet: but in that year the church decided to extend the building to house the growing congregation. The extension would be at the back of the church, requiring the demolition of the existing gallery and west wall, the construction of a new larger gallery in front of the new west wall, and the transfer of the organ to the new location. That work took up the donation that might have bought more pipes.
So the church took a bold gamble. In conjunction with the Pipeless Pipe Organ Company in Sydney, they installed a large number of digital ranks to fill in the gaps in the existing pipeorgan. Compared with 1970, the technology in digital organs had improved dramatically. This was the first organ in Australia to combine a large pipe organ with a large number of digital stops. The result was astonishing. Few could tell from listening which ranks were digital and which were pipe.
However, the new stoptabs were simply tacked onto the existing old console, and while the sound improved, the ability of the organist to control the organ became much more difficult.
In 2009 Ian Brown and Associates of Ballina built a magnificent new four-manual console. The beautiful woodwork makes this one of the finest pieces of furniture in the church. From the player’s perspective, the new console is wonderful to play. All the stop knobs are arranged French-style in terraces next to their respective keyboards. The new keyboards feature high-quality actions from America, and the console is equipped with an electronic capture and piston system to make the enlarged instrument much easier to control.
However, there was not enough money to complete the work on improving the pipework inside the organ. In 2012, a donation in memory of Betty Erskine (former Director of Music at St Paul’s) provided the funds to reconstruct the Choir organ from scratch. The best of the previous pipework was retained, and new pipes ordered from Germany and England to fit onto a new 9-stop slider chest. The entre division was enclosed inside a swellbox with swell shutters across the front arranged horizontally rather than vertically. The new 9-stop slider windchest is made of red cedar and marine plywood. The Choir box is made of hardboard panels veneered with Victorian ash and given several coats of hard lacquer for good reflection of sound. The Choir shutters are solid Victorian ash.
And to complete the visual transformation of the organ, two new ranks of pipes were installed across the front of the organ. One, a new Open Diapason of polished tin, replaces the old greymetal Gemshorn pipes which have been moved inside the case.
The other is something seen on only half a dozen or so organs in Australia: horizontal trumpets of polished tin. Instead of being arranged vertically as we are used to seeing, the new Trumpets Royal fan out horizontally from the front of the case. Trumpets like these are common on Spanish organs, and have begun to be installed on organs outside the Hispanic world. They are blown on higher wind pressure than the other pipes in the organ, helping to give them enough power to be heard over the top of the whole of the rest of the organ.
The positioning of the trumpets on two diagonal rows, with corresponding wooden diagonals returning up the case, echoes the large diamond shape in the west window. For the first time, the organ looks as if it was made for St Paul’s, picking up the distinctive diamond pattern found in all the windows in the church.
After 40 years, the dream of John Barrett and his faithful donors in 1970 has finally been fulfilled. St Paul’s now has a large and impressive organ, which can rightly be called one of the most significant instruments in the country.
For detailed information on the specifications of the St Paul’s organ prior to the 2012 reconstruction please click here.