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Making the most of what you've got

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Robert Hope-Jones, the inventor of the theatre organ, knew a thing or two when it came to making a little go a long way. Unlike the church or "straight" organ, where there is (usually) a one-to-one relationship between stops and ranks, the theatre organ uses extended ranks and clever electric switching arrangements to derive a very impressive stop list from a relatively modest number of pipes. Not everyone approves of this method of organ building, needless to say, but it's a perfectly honest approach, and every stop does exactly what it says on the label. However, there's a completely different type of organ where the "stop list" is more fiction than fact, where so much exaggeration and hyperbole is employed it would make even an estate agent blush!

The instrument I am referring to is a type of pedal harmonium made in large quantities in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When these were imported into the UK, as many were, they were always known as "American organs" to distinguish them from the "proper" harmoniums more usually manufactured in Britain and Europe. The American organ used vacuum rather than positive air pressure which gave a softer, more controllable sound than the true harmonium. I first owned one when I was a teenager, a time when I was making my earliest stumbling efforts as a church organist (as opposed to my later stumbling efforts!) I had a feeling that some of my problems might be due to having to practise on a piano at home, so when I was offered a redundant American organ - free of charge - I jumped at the chance. My piano teacher was horrified when she saw it, but I was extremely proud of what was, after all, my very first organ.

Like many of its type, my organ had ten stops, or, to be more accurate, ten draw knobs. I'm sure the makers of American organs had realised that organists are no less vain and shallow than the rest of humanity, and one of the ways they measure their status and prestige is through the number of draw knobs they preside over. Ten was perhaps seen as the absolute minimum, but how could even that number be achieved when, in order to keep costs down and appeal to a mass market, their instrument was limited to a paltry one and a half ranks of reeds? It must have seemed impossible, but the makers of American organs didn't fail to rise to the challenge.

Their first masterstroke was to adopt a divided keyboard, thereby halving the problem, since only five draw knobs needed to find employment at each end. At the bass, they were able to use some for mechanical devices. These were typically a sub-octave coupler, a Forte (equivalent to holding the knee-operated swell lever open) and a Vox Humana. Although this latter sounds like a speaking stop, it was actually a quaint air-powered revolving paddle mechanism, designed (perhaps over-optimistically) to fulfill the role of tremulant. I've come across a number of these devices on reed organs - in my experience they either fail to work at all, or if they do work, make no detectable difference whatsoever to the sound being produced!

The makers' ingenuity was tested even more when it came to the treble end. After using one draw knob for the octave coupler, they were left with the apparently insurmountable problem of using the remaining four draw knobs to control just two ranks of reeds! Did they admit defeat? Not a bit of it! Let's call the two ranks A and B. They used the first draw knob to activate rank A, but only to a limited extent, so it sounded quietly. This "stop" was given a name such as Dolce 8'. The second draw knob opened rank A fully. This they would perhaps call Diapason 8'.  The third knob activated rank B. What shall we call it? Think of a name really - why not Melodia 8' ? And now, the final masterstroke - draw knob number 4 activated rank A and rank B together.  Naturally, being honest people, they gave this fourth knob a name which accurately reflected its function, say Gamba 8'  Mission accomplished! From two unextended ranks of reeds they had apparently derived four independent speaking stops. No mean feat - especially when you remember that rank A and rank B probably sounded remarkably similar in the first place!

Yes, it was all a bit naughty, but I don't want to paint too negative a picture of the American organ. I had an enormous amount of pleasure from mine, and when it came to the quality of the workmanship, or the timber, they were absolutely exemplary. They didn't just last years, but decades, and rarely needed tuning. Any amount of them still change hands on Ebay to the present day, many in full working order. They never make much money, of course, but that is partly due to the fact they have lasted so superbly well.



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