St Peter's Little Cheverell

Hear the organ before... ...and after!

This small Wiltshire church has only two services a month, so the needs of the church are fairly limited; a few hymns and some simple voluntaries. The aim of the project therefore was to leave the church with an instrument capable of fulfilling these few requirements in the best musical manner possible, and to create an attractive piece of furniture in this very fine church.

The organ was held to be an 18th century chamber organ by virtue of its GG compass. It had a black-painted case with some flock wallpaper applied to the panelling, and was situated on the north side of the chancel (the first few pictures show the location and condition of the instrument) protruding some way into the field of vision from the nave; in fact, the player was seated around a third of the way across the chancel (the back of the bench reached the central carpet you can see in the first picture on the second row) - therefore, somewhat in the way liturgically and also rather over-exposed for the player, especially at funerals for example. Moreover, because sound does not travel well around corners, congregational singing tended often to be slightly hesitant.

Upon dismantling the organ, it was quickly seen that this was no genuine 18th century organ; the building techniques were much more akin to those described by W.E. Dickson in "Practical Organ Building" - all highly rudimentary, and a mixed bag of fairly mismatched pipework. The keyboard proved to be the lowest manual of a 3 manual organ. The soundboard runs to G below the tenor octave and the remaining notes are provided by small chests either side. The chest at the treble end is operated by backfalls which run the full width of the keyboard at a quite extraordinary angle. Neither of these chests had any sensible form of access.

Click on any picture to show a larger (and in most cases more complete) version in a new window.

The first stage was to get the casework in to a professional paint stripper to see what lay beneath. Meanwhile, work began cleaning the pipes and mechanism. A rather overenthusiastic heating element provided for the organists' feet had caused the paint inside the reservoir to flake over a period of years (as can be seen in the fourth picture); the soundboard and many of the pipe feet were clogged with paint flakes and a great deal of time was spent removing all traces of these. Upon reassembly, there was (as expected) a lot of running on the (rather inaccurately drilled) soundboard, and so slider seals were fitted to three of the ranks. The stop action - which previously had the 4' planted to the extreme left of the stop jamb, and an unpleasantly squelchy "short draw" of less than a centimetre - was remade entirely to give a more generous 30 millimetre draw and a more logical order of stops (still not entirely conventional, but the best that could be achieved without really major surgery). The key action was adjusted to our standard setup - a good depth of touch, light pluck and the springs evenly regulated to enable a note to be held open by identical pressure throughout the compass. Much time was spent regulating the pipework, making new tuning slides and making the 4' a little more mellow (it had at some time been revoiced to compensate for the lack of projection into the building). The wind pressure was raised to around 2.5 inches (from under 1.5) and the later bellows springs replaced with conventional weights. This eliminated the alarming "sag" experienced on playing a simple triad, as you will hear from the "before" sound file at the top of the page. Finally, the tuning was set to Kirnberger temperament, a good tuning which allows the free use of all keys but gives a distinctive sweet flavour to anything with up to three sharps/flats.

When the casework returned from the strippers, a good deal of time was spent carefully repairing it, re-fitting trims (making new ones to match where necessary), staining and waxing. Some of the wood simply wasn't up to scratch, and as a result several areas of the case were remade entirely - the music desk down to the kneeboard (not installed at the time of taking these photos) is all new, the music desk and stop jamb being of English oak and so made that no fixings are visible, and the kneeboard of pine stained to blend with the rest of the case when all were waxed and brought to a good finish. The skirting around the bottom of the case was also remade. Most importantly, the organ was erected on a platform at the west end of the church, where it could be seen and heard to much better effect. The musical benefits of this move were instantly apparent on reassembly and so, after minimal cost outlay, the parishioners of Little Cheverell now have an attractive, functional and charming small organ requiring very little future maintenance, which will serve their worship admirably for many more years to come.