Truro Cathedral has three organs. The most famous of these is the Father Willis Organ of 1887 which is widely regarded as one of the finest instruments in the country. Few people speak of this organ without the use of superlatives.
‘It is not easy, even today, to think how the magnificence of the Willis organ in Truro Cathedral could be improved’ says W L Sumner in his epic tome, The Organ (1952). Sir John Dykes Bower, organist at Truro from 1926-29, and later of St Paul’s Cathedral, called it ‘the Little Giant’, and apparently his eyes were known to water even on mention of the Truro instrument.
The organ was built in 1887 in London and arrived in Cornwall by boat. It has an almost identical specification to the organ he built a year earlier for the then parish church of St Michael, Coventry (later Coventry Cathedral). In terms of specification, both instruments revealed standard Willis hallmarks – tierce mixtures on Great and Swell, characterful gedackts on the Cathedral Choir, and a small but telling pedal division. Why then is the Truro organ so special, over one hundred years later?
There is no doubt that Willis was one of the greatest organ builders there has ever been. At Truro we see the quintessence of his art as a voicer. We are most fortunate that the instrument has survived tonally intact – in fact this is unique in any cathedral. The fine position of the instrument in its own fan-vaulted chamber certainly adds to its impact and it matches the resonant cathedral acoustic perfectly. One should remember that the nave of the cathedral was not constructed until the first decade of the 20th century, so Willis voiced the organ for a building that did not actually exist in its entirety – surely a mark of genius!
Willis built an organ of superb reliability. Apart from the addition of the electric blower in the 1920s, no major work was done until 1963, when the grandson of the original builder carried out a conservative restoration, at a cost of some £17,000. Prior to this date, the organ console was situated high up within the main case of the instrument. This meant a walk of two or three minutes up a spiral staircase in the North Transept (perhaps this explains the longevity and fitness of F G Ormond, organist from 1929-70!) The action was a mixture of Barker lever, pneumatic and tracker. There were very few playing aids and contact between the organist and choir, some forty feet below, must have been almost impossible.
In 1963, the organ committee, including Henry Willis, Guillaume Ormond, Sir John Dykes Bower and Mr Roger Yates, wisely decided to keep the original tonal scheme and voicing, and to move the console over on to the south side in a new gallery placed above the Cathedral Choir stalls to a design by the architect John Phillips. Here the organist can not only hear the instrument in its full glory, but also maintain close contact with the Cathedral Choir.