organ155 - Birmingham Organists' Association

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organ 155

May 2015

2 manuals
34 speaking stops

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Lawrence Phelps
& associates, 1974


Hexham Abbey

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Hexham Abbey was the 2014 IAO Congress venue for a masterclass given by Dame Gillian Weir involving three advanced organ students - Tamsin Brown, Jack Spencer and Jemima Stephenson - playing music by de Grigny and JS Bach.

For most of the 20th century, the Abbey was served by a five-manual Norman & Beard organ, but as the 1300th anniversary of the Abbey's foundation (by St Wilfrid in AD674) approached, an entirely new instrument designed by the Pennsylvanian builder Lawrence Phelps was commissioned.  It was a landmark instrument, for even though Phelps had been involved with many organ building projects during his career, this was only the second to be built after he founded his own firm, and it was also the first modern mechanical-action organ built in the USA to be exported to Europe.

Dame Gillian Weir has a special association with this instrument, for not only did she give the opening recital in May 1974, but she was also married to Lawrence Phelps from 1972 until his death in 1999.   Following the 30th anniversary recital in 2004, also given by Dame Gillian, she announced the creation of a recital award for young organists in memory of her late husband.

The organ case is of highly polished oak and features small doors at the back of the case designed to allow sound into the area behind the instrument.  Tonally,  it was designed to support the polyphonic needs of the German baroque era but also provides the colour and grandeur required by French organ music, and this style became a hallmark of Phelps' work.  It was cleaned and a solid state capture system & sequencer added in 1998 by the Canadian firm of L├ętourneau based in Qu├ębec.

You can listen to Dame Gillian playing the organ of Hexham Abbey as May 15's Music of the Month

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