Willis Pedal Bassoon

(From an article in Twyford Parish Magazine, May 2011, Colin Harvey)

A number of people mentioned they listened to the BBC Radio 4 Programme "Loud Organs His Glory", which explored the life and work of the celebrated Victorian organ builder Father Henry Willis. The programme visited the organ at Winchester Cathedral, formed from the seminal Willis organ of the Great Exhibition in 1851, which represented a milestone in British organ building at the time.

What some may not know is the organ at Twyford contains an interesting Willis stop, the Pedal Bassoon. Shortly after the restoration of the organ in 2006, Eric Shepherd, an organ builder in London, wrote to me with this stop's story.

The story starts in 1857, when Father Willis built a new organ for the Surrey Chapel, a large non-conformist circular building, on Blackfriars Road, South London. This organ was notable for having Willis's first double manual reed stop on a 2-manual organ, a stop that sounds an octave below the note played. This stop was to become a distinctive feature of later Willis organs and English organs in general. It is also this stop which survives in the Twyford organ today. In 1867 (the year Walker built the Twyford organ), Willis moved the Surrey Chapel organ to the Manor Methodist Church in Chapel Lane, Bermondsey, where it was admired greatly. The organ commentator Cecil Clutton wrote about this organ in "The Organ" before the Second World War. He singled out the reeds for praise - including the Swell Contra Fagotto and Cornopean.

The early Willis organs of the 1850s were quite different from his later, more distinctive, work. The earlier organs were built on more traditional lines: It was only in the 1860s that Willis started to "force" the tone more loudly to produce his unique sounds and pioneered the successful use of higher wind pressures and pneumatic actions. The contributions of his sons and nephews should not be overlooked: Vincent Willis invented a succession of extremely clever pneumatic actions (his floating lever pneumatic action is still regarded as one of the finest and certainly one of the most ingenious assisted actions ever devised), while his nephew George Willis's work developed the distinctive Willis reeds, which are highly regarded today. The Swell Contra Fagotto for the Surrey Chapel Organ was one of his first attempts at this type of stop. It is an unusual experimental stop, being made entirely of wood and, although the longest pipes are 16 feet long, it is mitred to take up just eight feet of head room.

The Surrey Chapel organ was damaged when the Manor Methodist Church was bombed during the Second World War. J.W.Wallace used usedus the surviving pipework in the replacement 1950s organ but his son recounted the Swell Contra Fagotto made its way to Twyford, where Richard Boston installed it in the Twyford organ in 1956. Boston trained as an organbuilder under Charles Whitely of Chester in the late 1940s and it is likely he spent much of his early days rebuilding war-damaged organs, either by himself, or in collaboration with other builders. This style of organ building was to form the basis of Richard Boston's approach to organ building throughout his career. During the work by Bishop and White in 1989, the bass pipes survived as the Pedal Bassoon but the treble pipes were lost.

When the plans were being drawn up for the new Harrison and Harrison organ in 2006, we were pretty convinced the Pedal Bassoon was a Willis stop. Several features (such as the unusual wooden construction and mahogany reed blocks) dated it as an early and unusual example. However, we could not be entirely sure of its provenance. Although it was not by Walker and it was on the small side for a pedal reed, we decided it was a good stop and it would fit in well, so we kept it. I'm glad we did: In practice it has proved to be a curiously clever and versatile stop, with lots of unexpected and intriguing uses. However, it was not until Eric Shepherd visited at the inaugural recital we were able to fully establish its provenance.