Father Willis Organ

The Father Willis Organ is one of three organs at Truro Cathedral. Delivered by boat and installed in 1887, it has an almost identical specification to the organ Henry Willis 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 choir, and a small but telling pedal division.

Willis is considered 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. 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. Note 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!

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 Roger Yates, wisely decided to keep the original tonal scheme and voicing and to move the console over onto 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 Truro Cathedral Choir.

In 1991, after twenty-eight years of splendid service, the organ was again fully restored, this time by the organ builders N P Mander Ltd of London. Managing Director of Mander’s, Ian Bell, summarised the aims of the 1991 rebuild:

“The work on the organ in 1991 has included the renewal of all the low-voltage electrical equipment installed in 1963, both in the console and in the organ itself. The system is now entirely solid-state, and the opportunity has been taken to upgrade the controls available to the organist, to bring the instrument into line with present-day standards. The outer cladding of the console, and all of the ivory fittings, have been retained and refurbished, but all of the internal equipment is new.”

“Up in the organ, again all electrical equipment and cabling have been renewed. All of the delicate leatherwork in the key mechanism has also been replaced, and several of the large reservoirs which store the wind pressure have also had their leatherwork renewed. The action of the stops, which was entirely operated by human power until 1963, was converted to a pneumatic system at that time. This has now been upgraded to powerful and silent electric solenoids.”

“The large soundboards which support the pipes, and supply them with wind-pressure, have all been taken back to London and completely overhauled. The access ladders and walkways have been improved, and the humidification system enhanced.”

“The organ has once more been left completely unchanged tonally; damaged pipes have been carefully repaired and cleaned, but the sound has been jealously preserved. Only one modification has been undertaken – the loudest solo stop, the Tuba, has always received criticism for being uncharacteristically modest. In a Willis organ, the Tuba normally balances the Pedal reed in power, but at Truro, this has not been the case, since the pipes were rather buried in the depths of the instrument.”

“It was therefore decided not to alter the Tuba but to move it to the front of the organ where it could be heard to rather better effect. This has resulted in a considerable improvement, but all of the original mechanism has been left in place in case anyone wishes to move the pipes back in future. In every other respect, the instrument sounds exactly as it did when first built 103 years ago.”

James Anderson-Besant is the eleventh organist of Truro Cathedral. Before him were G R Sinclair 1881-1890 (later organist of Hereford Cathedral), M J Monk 1890-1920, H S Middleton 1920-1926 (later organist of Ely Cathedral and Trinity College, Cambridge), John Dykes Bower 1926-1929 (later organist of New College, Oxford, Durham Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral), Guillaume Ormond 1929-1970, John Winter 1971-1988 (Organist Emeritus), David Briggs 1989-1994 (later organist of Gloucester Cathedral, and now International Concert Organist), Andrew Nethsingha 1994-2002 (later Director of Music at St John's College, Cambridge, and now Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey), Robert Sharpe 2002-2008 (now Director of Music at York Minster), and Christopher Gray 2008-2023 (now Director of Music at St John's College, Cambridge).