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The foundation stone of Westminster's Byzantine-style Cathedral - designed by John Francis Bentley and covering an area of some 54,000 square feet - was laid in 1895. The building was dedicated in 1903 and consecrated on 28th June, 1910. The campanile, or bell tower, is 30 feet square and rises to a height of 284 feet. The exterior facing is of red brick broken by bands of stone - a style that is quite foreign to the English eye. Sir John Betjeman wrote of the building:
"Bentley's basilican cathedral is a series of surprises. First, when near to it, you notice the fine quality of the brickwork contrasting with the proportional bands of Portland stone. Everywhere the external detail is precise and delicate, the grouping of turrets, entrances and windows and blank spaces is carefully contrived and never dull, never fussy ... From the outside you do not expect what is the greatest surprise of all, that the cathedral looks larger inside than it looks from the outside."
The Grand Organ - A Concise History
The Willis firm had a tradition of building quality organs since the middle of the 19th century. Henry Willis III, the grandson of the founder, continued that tradition in the 20th century; building new instruments and rebuilding many of his grandfather's most famous ones, e.g. St Paul's Cathedral, Alexandra Palace, St George's Hall, Liverpool. However, of the instruments that were "pure" Willis III, the ones in Liverpool Cathedral and Westminster Cathedral are certainly his most notable.
Westminster Cathedral's architect, J.F. Bentley (1839-1902), wanted to site the organ in the galleries on either side of the Sanctuary, so it could be used for accompanying the choir to the east and the congregation to the west. In the event, the "Grand" organ was positioned at the west end, being installed between 1922 and 1932. A separate east end or "Apse" organ, by Lewis & Co., having been built in the Retro-Choir in 1910.
Although some of the Grand organ's attributes are decidedly "Willis" (e.g. the Swell organ's 17-19-22 mixture and the 16-foot Waldhorn) it has long been argued that the organ's tone is not "typical" Willis. It is perhaps interesting to note that the instrument was built in Lewis's Brixton works (also designed by Bentley), which Willis acquired when the two firms merged in 1919. Furthermore, it is probable that the organ was made largely by former Lewis staff - who, on the whole, were older than Willis's and, therefore, did not fight/get killed in the Great War. Consequently, one has to wonder whether some of the stops were Lewis "remnants".
This is not to cheapen the instrument nor to cast doubt upon its quality - indeed, the number of spotted metal ranks in it indicate high quality and considerable expense. Nevertheless, cost was always a consideration during the installation and this is why the work was spread-over 10 years. By the same token, a lack of funds in later years ensured the organ was not altered by the addition of Baroque-type stops that were the fashion in the 1960s and '70s. The result is that the instrument remains, tonally, essentially the same as when Willis left it - notwithstanding a few minor changes, most of which have now been reversed.
It's probable that a number of people had some influence upon the design of the organ. Among them were: John Courage (the cathedral's organ advisor and former owner of Lewis & Co.), Marcel Dupré (the renowned French organist and composer), and Guy Weitz (organist at Farm Street Catholic Church and personal organist to the Archbishop of Westminster). In some cases, influences are tangible but in others they are not.
The original specifications for Westminster's "Grand West End Organ to be built by Henry Willis & Sons and Lewis & Co., Ltd" were published in The Organ in July, 1921, but as work progressed alterations were made to the scheme. The initial installation consisted of part of the Pedal, part of the Great, and part of the Swell, together with the Tuba Magna on the Solo. John Courage (who, previously, had designed the organ for Southwark Cathedral) paid for this part of the work. The stop list, at the time, was:
Clarion 8
Trombone 16
Flute 8
Octave 8
Violon 16 (Swell)
Sub Bass 16
Great Bass 16
Double Open Bass 32

Clarion 4
Trumpet 8
Double Trumpet 16
Grand Chorus V
Fifteenth 2
Flute Overte 4
Octave 4
Salicional 8 (on Quint slide)
Flute Harmonique 8
Open Diapason III 8
Open Diapason II 8
Open Diapason I 8
Double Open Diap. 16
Clarion 4
Trompette Harmonique 8
Waldhorn 16
Oboe 8
Harmonics III
Principal 4
Voix Celestes 8
Echo Viole 8
Rohr Flute 8
Open Diapason 8
Violon 16
Tuba Magna 8
It was on this instrument that Marcel Dupré accompanied high mass, starting at 12 noon, on Verdun Sunday, 2nd July, 1922. That afternoon, he accompanied vespers and, the following day, he played a recital. In the late autumn of 1922, a series of concerts commenced, with the stipulation from the Archbishop that the programmes should consist "only of pure organ music". That is to say music written specifically for organ, transcriptions and the like were not permitted! Among the recitalists who performed on the instrument in its first few years were Harold Darke, Edward Bairstow, Herbert Ellingford, and Marcel Dupré. Their programmes included works by Bach, Rheinberger, Karg-Elert, Franck, Widor, Guilmant, and Vierne.
In terms of construction, there was not much progress after the initial installation, although the Suabe Flute (of triangular construction) and Piccolo Harmonique were added to the Swell organ in November, 1922. The 32-foot reed was inserted shortly before another recital by Dupré, on 2nd May, 1924. In the same year, the wooden screen that conceals the instrument's pipes was erected.
In its early years, the organ was criticised as "too brilliant" and "overdone", but Henry Willis noted: "...these critics always clustered at the west end of the Cathedral, and, if possible, in one of the galleries close to the organ, where the full power of the instrument was, and still is, of gigantic effect." Willis directed the instrument's voicing from the middle of the nave but said the best place to hear it was from the main galleries at the east end. Walter Alcock, organist at Salisbury Cathedral, preferred a point even further east, citing "behind the high altar".
It was near this location that Willis installed, in 1926, a new console to control both the Grand and Apse organs. Positioned in the Retro-Choir, between the two halves of the choir stalls and looking westwards along the building, this console had just over 100 drawstops and some 30 rocking tablets. Although the Grand organ may have sounded wonderful from this position, playing it was another matter, because the time lag from the sound leaving the pipes - some 300 feet away - and reaching the player's ears was considerable. The only recitalist known the have played a complete concert from this console is the Italian organist Fernando Germani and, reportedly, he did so because it had four general pistons that were not provided on the west end console.
When the new console was in place and working, there seems to have been discussion about scrapping the west end one, seemingly because it was considered obsolete, but Willis said he convinced the authorities to keep it. This dual arrangement did, however, create other problems, since there were two actions for the Grand organ; pneumatic for the west end console and electric for the east. The two parallel systems meant, potentially, double-trouble in maintenance terms. [The Apse console was replaced with a two-manual console - which controls all of the Apse organ and some of the Grand organ - during the rebuild by Harrison & Harrison in the mid-1980s.]
The main portion of the Solo department - originally to be a "Solo & Bombarde" organ - was installed in 1927, although the Tuba Magna and Piccolo Harmonique dated from 1922 (the piccolo was, initially, on the Swell organ, and the original 2-foot stop for the Solo was to be a Salicetina, according to the 1921 stop list). The Solo's Salicional may also date from 1922 - when it was installed temporarily on the Great, possibly at Dupré's request. The stop is, however, a dulciana-type voice that certainly does not possess the broad, string tone of the Salicional ranks built by Cavaillé-Coll, with which Dupré would have been familiar. So, perhaps the present Solo rank is not the one that was on the Great? Either way, the diminutive Solo celestes, the Salicional and Unda Maris (tuned flat), are more in line with Lewis's and Courage's tonal designs, than with Willis's (there were dulciana-type celestes on Lewis's Solo organs at Southwark Cathedral and at St Peter's Church, Eaton Square). The 'Cello Celestes was not in the 1921 scheme for the Solo, but was added later, as was the Quintaton. In the reed section, the proposed 16-8-4 tubas (in addition to the Tuba Magna!) made way for the Orchestral Trumpet, French Horn, and Orchestral Oboe stops.
The most notable changes to the scheme were on the Choir organ which, originally, was to be an unenclosed department of nine stops comprising an old-English Chaire-type organ, capped by a Cornet (12-15-17) and a light-pressure Trumpet. Although the Trumpet was retained in the revised stop list, the open metal Cornet was divided into three separate stops - Nazard, Octavin, Tierce - all of stopped metal construction with pierced wooden stoppers. This change was due to the influence of Guy Weitz, who had similar stops installed on the Farm Street organ during the Willis rebuild of 1926. These charming stops found favour with Willis (who went on to install them in a considerable number of instruments) and with Courage (who had an entire department of these stops added, by Willis, to his residence organ - which was left, in his will, to St George's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Southwark). Other changes to the Choir organ included its enclosure and the addition of more 8-foot stops, including the Cor de Nuit and the flat-tuned Cor de Nuit Celestes. These flutes are also of stopped metal construction, but their wooden stoppers are not pierced. Another Choir addition was the Sylvestrina. This was Willis's version of the Erzhaler (German: Storyteller), a stop designed by the American organ builder Ernest Skinner. It was intended to bind foundations, flutes, and strings together, as there were traces of each in its tone. Willis called the stop "Sylvestrina" because, he said, it suggested "Sylvan peace". It is certainly the instrument's quietest voice. The Choir organ, unlike any of the other departments, was installed complete, in one fell swoop, in 1928.
No stop changes were made to the scheme after the installation of the Choir, although the Great organ's Flute Ouverte was swapped for a Flute Couverte at some stage and a few other stops were renamed. Also, there were nine ranks still to be provided, i.e. Bourdon, Quint, Tenth, and Twelfth on the Great and, on the Pedal, the Open Diapason (16-8-4), Seventeenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Second, and the 16-foot Bombarde. These went into the instrument in the years 1928-1932, as and when money became available. The Pedal's Open Diapason, the largest of the outstanding stops, was almost certainly the last to be installed.
Great I
Great Reeds on Solo
Clarion 4
Trumpet 8
Double Trumpet 16
Grand Chorus 15-19-22-26-29
Super Octave 2
Octave Quint 22/3
Octave 4
Open Diapason II 8
Open Diapason I 8
Double Open Diap. 16

Great II
Great II on Choir
Fifteenth 2
Twelfth 22/3
Tenth 31/5
Flute Couverte 4
Principal 4
Quint 51/3
Flute Harmonique 8
Open Diapason III 8
Bourdon 16

Solo to Great
Swell to Great
Choir to Great
Swell (enclosed)
Clarion 4
Trompette 8
Waldhorn 16
Oboe 8
Vox Humana 8
Harmonics 17-19-22
Fifteenth 2
Twelfth 22/3
Suabe Flute 4
Octave Geigen 4
Viole Celeste 8
Echo Viole 8
Rohr Flute 8
Geigen Diapason 8
Violon 16
Unison Off
Sub Octave
Solo to Swell
Solo (enclosed, except tuba)
Tuba Magna 8
Orchestral Trumpet 8
French Horn 8
Orchestral Oboe 8
Corno di Bassetto 8
Cor Anglais 16
Piccolo Harmonique 2
Concert Flute 4
Unda Maris 8
Salicional 8
'Cello Celestes 8
Violoncello 8
Tibia 8
Quintaton 16
Unison Off
Sub Octave

Comb. Couplers
Great & Pedal Comb'ns Coupled
Generals on Swell Foot Pistons
Octave Trombone 8 (e)
Trombone 16 (e)
Bombarde 16 (d)
Contre Bombarde 32 (d)
Twenty-Second 2
Nineteenth 22/3
Seventeenth 31/5
Super Octave 4 (b)
Flute 8 (c)
Principal 8 (b)
Octave 8 (a)
Dulciana 16 (Choir)
Violon 16 (Swell)
Sub Bass 16 (c)
Contra Bass 16
Open Diapason 16 (b)
Open Bass 16 (a)
Double Open Bass 32 (a)
Solo to Pedal
Swell to Pedal
Great to Pedal
Choir to Pedal
Choir (enclosed)
Trumpet 8
Tierce 13/5
Octavin 2
Nazard 22/3
Nason Flute 4
Gemshorn 4
Sylvestrina 8
Cor de Nuit Celestes 8
Cor de Nuit 8
Viola 8
Open Diapason 8
Contra Dulciana 16
Unison Off
Sub Octave
Solo to Choir
Swell to Choir
See the original stop list proposed by Henry Willis & Sons
See the stop list proposed by Harrison & Harrison
Taken at face value, the scheme is a fairly typical Willis organ, but there are some curiosities, e.g. the 8-foot Flute Harmonique on the Great. Willis was not fond of harmonic flutes at this pitch, saying: "To my ears the stop fails blend with the Diapason structure." Of course, on Westminster Cathedral's Great there is little for it to blend with except diapasons! However, both Dupré and Courage would have approved of this stop. Courage - following Lewis's frequent practice - had specified a Flute Harmonique 8' for Southwark Cathedral's Great organ, built by Lewis (it is reported that "Father" Willis congratulated Lewis on his ability to voice harmonic flutes that blended with diapasons). Also on the Great at Westminster is the Grand Chorus mixture (composition: CC-tenor D 15-19-22-26-29; tenor D#-tenor A 8-12-15-19-22; tenor A#-c2 5-8-12-15-19; c#2-c4 1-5-8-12-15). This is a stop that bears little resemblance - either on paper or in tonality - to a "typical" Willis mixture which, almost invariably, would include a third-sounding rank. The Grand Chorus should certainly not be thought of as merely providing harmonics for the diapason chorus; it is full-bodied and integral part of it and widely recognised as being in the Lewis style. Ernest Skinner was entranced by the stop, suggesting that hearing it was his greatest ever organ experience in England. Upon his return to the U.S. he developed his "English Mixture" stops, a tribute to the Grand Chorus. The anomaly was, of course, that Westminster's Grand Chorus was far from typical of an English mixture at that time. The inclusion of two twelfths and two fifteenths on the Great is also unusual (even the huge Liverpool Cathedral organ has only one twelfth on the Great), and it has been suggested that the Octave Quint and Super Octave can be considered the Lewis-type, whilst the Twelfth and Fifteenth are Willis's.
Some people, however, believe all of the instrument's diapasons possess a tone quality usually associated with Lewis. A handful of other stops - the Swell organ's Rohr Flute, for example - have also been noted by some as having more in common with Lewis than Willis. However, what makes the Westminster Cathedral organ a "Willis" are the wind pressures, which are rather higher than Lewis generally employed. For example, the Swell chorus reeds speak on 15-inch pressure; that's 10 inches higher than the department's other stops. Their output is positively ferocious, louder even than the Great organ's reeds, on 12 inches.
Also on the 12-inch pressure is the Great organ's Open Diapason 1, which has double languid pipes. This method of construction was invented by Vincent Willis (Henry III's uncle) for the purpose of retaining brightness in a pipe's tone, as flue stops can sound flute-like when voiced on high-pressure wind. Double languid stops are very rare and whether such a stop was necessary at Westminster is a matter for debate. However, the reason for its presence may have something to do with the Liverpool Cathedral organ - which, at that time, was in storage awaiting completion of the chancel, where it was to be sited. Although much of the Liverpool instrument had been built some years prior to its installation, construction of the more unusual stops - like the double languid ranks and the heavy pressure reeds - may have been deferred pending experimentation. Could it be, therefore, that the number one diapason at Westminster was a prototype for Liverpool? The Great organ's stopped Quint is also, in part, a double languid rank with pipes that bear a noticeable similarity to the case pipes at Liverpool. Also, the 32-foot reed at Westminster was, originally, to be voiced on 20 inches of wind but its pressure was raised to 30, like the Contre Bombarde stop proposed for the Pedal organ at Liverpool. Again, was Westminster's 32-foot reed - the first in the U.K. to be blown by 30 inches of wind - a prototype for its Liverpool counterpart? The answer is that, at present, it's impossible to say for sure. As to the verdict on whether the instrument is a Willis or a Lewis or a bit of both: Officially, it's a Willis but, tonally, it seems the jury will be considering the evidence for some time.
Either way, Westminster Cathedral's Grand organ is undoubtedly one of the world's finest pipe organs. With 75 ranks and 4,353 pipes, it affords a degree of flexibility and an astonishing variety of tone colours in a scheme that it is not overly large. Consider, for example, the fact that its eight ranks of mixtures provide more clarity and brightness than can be heard from many other instruments with more mixtures! Curiously, and despite its outstanding tonal quality and its versatility, the Grand organ seems to be one of London's best-kept musical secrets. In this author's opinion, it deserves more publicity, more attention, and more recognition for what it is; a work of art that should be considered nothing less than a national treasure.
© 2011–2022, Stephen D. Smith
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