Johannesburg City Hall – Tonal Observations

David Smit

© David Smit, 2001

The organ in Johannesburg City Hall is the largest on the continent, and was for many years the second largest in the Southern Hemisphere. The P/IV(VI) manual 97 Stop 6 035 (6 091 with the Chimes & Glockenspiel) pipe organ is of the Edwardian “Town Hall” School, and can be considered the builder’s magnum opus and greatest masterpiece. The organ is the culmination of the progressive ideas that Norman & Beard started forming in the 1890’s, with influences traceable to Robert Hope-Jones, George Ashdown Audsley, Joseph William Walker, Arthur Harrison and George Dixon. One might even go as far to say that in Johannesburg one sees the pinnacle of the Edwardian School of Building in its entirety.

The raison d’etre for such an instrument might seem odd today, and possibly requires some explanation. This type of organ was built for use in public venues, often where there was no orchestra, to fulfill the multiple tasks of solo instrument, accompanimental support, as part of the orchestra (i.e. in Concertos) and general entertainment.

I have singled out three organs in particular for comparison with Johannesburg in the notes below. They are the organs in:

Here credit is due to Stephen Bicknell who has knowingly, and unknowingly, supplied a vast amount of information on this subject in particular, and English Organs in general. It was he who first pointed out the connections between the St. Paul’s and Johannesburg organs to me in one of the various email discussions we had. His book The History of the English Organ has been indispensable, and is essential to any organ scholar!

I have deliberately not chosen the Sydney Town Hall organ for a few reasons: Johannesburg and Sydney are both works of art, both the magnum opus of their builder, and both English, but Sydney’s organ is almost 26 years older than Johannesburg’s and is very traditional, with light pressures and very few of the Orchestral tones, so beloved by the Lemares and Audsleys, that were supplied together with heavy pressures in profusion in Johannesburg. This does not mean that there are not many similarities. Another reason is that there were also major changes made at Norman & Beard in tonal and general matters during 1908, as can be seen by comparing Johannesburg and Cape Town City Halls. The specs may be compared for those who would like to draw parallels. I have included these and the specs of Ely, Usher Hall and St Paul’s.

The Ely organ is the critically acclaimed result of one of the numerous collaborations between Harrison & Harrison and George Dixon. The organ was recently restored (2001) by its builders, during extensive renovations to the Cathedral. There are a few “Orchestral” innovations that are new to the normal concept of a Cathedral Organ, and the result is rather successful. The Choir divisions of Johannesburg and Ely are similar in buildup – the Ely organ having a chorus of Dulcianas and Strings and Johannesburg having Gemshorns and Strings, both complete with a mixture. One difference is that there are no Reeds in this division in the Ely organ. Both have 32’ Greats with a similar disposition. Johannesburg has no 16’ Chorus Reed on the Great, to my mind the only omission in this organ that cannot be explained. The mixtures are constructed in a similar fashion, with Ely having the luxury of a second Quints and Unisons only mixture, whereas Johannesburg relies on the Grande Fourniture in the Bombarde. The Swell Reeds are almost identical (in names, etc. at least) in the two organs, with the exception of the 51/3’, which moves to the Bombarde in Johannesburg. The Solo and Orchestral divisions are very similar, with some stops being swapped around. The wind pressures are a major difference. Only the Tuba, in Johannesburg, approaches the high pressures in Ely. Dixon was involved in designing both the St Paul’s and the Ely organs, and his influences are clear. So here we can conclude that the Johannesburg organ is a “Classical” English Romantic organ with all the trimmings of a first-class Cathedral instrument of the highest caliber. This indicates that it has accompaniment as one of its major roles, and indeed, looking at the many choral concerts it partook in over the years this is very apparent.

The Usher Hall organ is an immediate precursor to the Johannesburg one. Some of the features that would be fully exploited in the Johannesburg organ emerge in the Usher Hall organ, albeit a bit more modestly. At present (2001) the organ is undergoing restoration by the firm of Harrison & Harrison. The composition of the Solo, and the emergence of the “Orchestral” concept (here married with the Choir) with its String Chorus topped with the Viol Cornet, the Orchestral Reeds, and the Carillon anticipate the final scheme of Johannesburg’s organ.

Here one sees the many solo luxuries, percussion and rich extravagance supplied (at great cost) to the concert organists of the day. This allowed them the opportunity to play literally anything, and most of them did! It is interesting to note that in both these organs the Orchestral and Solo divisions are similar as far as which stops are in which division. The idea seems to be that whatever is chosen as the solo combination can be accompanied by stops in the other division. This concept was extrapolated in Johannesburg, where the one was floating. The String mixture is also rather remarkable. This particular compound stops adds a general feeling of restrained power to the whole chorus, almost as if the sound is just waiting to burst forth from the confines of the swellbox and overwhelm all in its path! The Greats of both Organs are very similar, with Johannesburg’s being a bit more complete (except for the 16’ Reed).

The St Paul’s organ in even closer in design to the Johannesburg organ, with large portions being identical. The almost identical Orchestral division, similar Pedal and Great with its strong foundation, Triangular Flutes, smooth Trombas, large (for the time) Mixtures (containing a Tierce and a Septiéme at Johannesburg) and solid Diapasons bear out the fact that Alfred Hollins visited the completed instrument in 1914, with his impressions easily discernable in the work that was carried out in Johannesburg.

Of all the organs under consideration the St Paul’s Great division is the most complete (if one leaves out the 32’). The mixtures are rather traditional, and have none of the mutation “bite” of Johannesburg’s Tierces and Septiémes. It does have a very “Flutey” bias – of the 19 stops seven are Flutes. The Pedal Reeds are arranged in the same fashion in both cases, and even the flues to an extent. It is interesting to note that the mutations in the St Paul’s organ are single ranks, whereas at Johannesburg they are combined in the mixture. The Pedal stops follow a more combined form. The Swells are similar in size and composition, although the Casavant is based on a Flute Chorus, and the Norman & Beard on Gambas, with brighter Reeds and the Tierce-Septiéme mixture again. The Tuba division at St. Paul’s is basically the Bombarde in Johannesburg, except for the added flue, and the Tubas, which move to the Solo in Johannesburg. The 32’ Reed in the Norman & Beard is absent from the Casavant. It is interesting that it was originally specified as a Contra Oboe in the Swell of Johannesburg’s tender. The Echo in the Casavant is absent from Johannesburg, and the Choir of the latter instrument is far less eclectic, with the Quintatön, Zauberflöte and Viol finding a place in the Orchestral. The design for the St’ Paul’s organ is attributed to TJ Palmer, ARCO, however Dixon is mentioned often enough that his involvement is pretty certain. The inauguration took place on the 29th April 1914, with Healey Willan playing.

The Osiris file on the St. Paul’s organ says the following:

“The Chorus Reeds of the Swell, Great and Tuba were made by Harrison and Harrison of Durham, and Frank Wesson and WG Jones in England. This is probably the greatest influence by Dixon. The Great and Swell divisions are located on the (geographical) east Side of the Chancel and the Choir, Tuba and Orchestral Divisions on the West side. The Pedal is divided between the two sides. The Echo Great, Swell and Pedal are located in a case above the Gallery on the North Wall of the Nave.

The original 1914 console, which is festooned with many ventils to control not only the Reeds but strings diapasons and flutes, can be seen in the choir room.

Tonal renovations and mechanical upgrading were completed in 1956 by Casavant under the supervision of ED Northrup and Dr. Charles Peaker. Reworking the 1914 scheme, much new and useful fluework was incorporated, including some more assertive upperwork. The Reeds are untouched, and are among the best examples of English Chorus Reeds on the Continent. A new console was also installed in 1956.

In 1982 & 83, Casavant representative Alan T Jackson restored and cleaned the entire instrument and a solid state coupling action designed by Dr. Ralph Corliss was installed (16 memories). Swell flues were re regulated and additional shutters were added to the Swell division.

I believe that additional work has also taken place ca1990 but cannot offer details. I do know that it was not substantial.”

As can be seen the organ was also rebuilt at about the same time as Johannesburg, but in this case the original work was respected (probably because the original builders did the work) and the additions complement the instrument.

Firstly, let me share a few details of the Johannesburg Organ itself. The instrument was originally laid out in seven divisions, consisting of the Pedal, Choir, Great, Swell, Solo, Orchestral and Bombarde, of which the last two were floating divisions available on all or any manuals, but (strangely enough) not on the Pedals. However some of the stops were borrowed to the Pedal. The Bombarde and Solo were in separate boxes operated by the same Swell pedal. The Pedal upperwork was enclosed with the Solo. When viewing the instrument the Pedal 32’s stood on the right and the 16’s on the left of the chamber.At impost level we have (f.l.t.r.) the Choir, Great & Bombarde, and on the upper level the Orchestral, Swell & Solo (with Basses of the Bombarde & Pedal upperwork). The Percussion was between the Choir & Orchestral.

One remarkable characteristic in Johannesburg is the near complete lack of duplication. Only in the Solo and Orchestral divisions are about five stops duplicated (as it seems) in name only. Contemporary documents often refer to the fact that the Orchestral work was much keener than the equivalent Solo pipes. This makes sense – if one were to play on the Orchestral Oboe, one would probably want to use strings as accompaniment and seeing as the Orchestral ones are “tied up” the obvious alternative would be those on the Solo. The same would apply for the Flute combinations, the Clarinet etc.

Audsley’s tastes come to mind when one considers the enclosed sections of the Pedal, the enclosed secondary divisions, floating departments and exotic Reeds in the Orchestral, and single examples like the Saxophone (here in name only it seems) and (in the tender) Vox Mysticus. The mammoth organ he designed for the Convention Hall in Kansas City, but which ended up in the Wannamaker Store (today Lord & Taylor’s) is three to four times the size of Johannesburg, but is similar in some of the more unorthodox portions. If one compares the Orchestral divisions particularly, and possibly some of the others, this becomes quite clear. This is another of the world’s more famous organs.

The Pedal originally consisted mainly of multiple 16’ stops that were either borrowed or extended. It is interesting to note that the 32’ is extended to the Open Wood 16’ only. The 16’ Great Bass Wood, of vast scale, was extended to the Octave 8’. The 32’ (and extension) was very robust, but was secondary in power to the Great Bass Wood 16’. The Great Bass Wood acted as the main foundation to the Pedal, much like the Contrebasse or Flûte found in Cavaillé-Coll’s work, or the large scale Open Woods of English origin. When used in full combinations with upperwork it sometimes gave the illusion of the 32’ being drawn and thereby leaving the real thing for the spectacular finale when just that little extra is needed! Judging by contemporary documents the Pedal pipes spoke on 4½” of wind for the most part.

There was a complete Chorus stretching from 32’ to 2’ with the Sub Unison, Unison, 8, 12, 15, 17, 19, b21 and 22 present. Today one can hear the Chorus pretty much as it was (less the Great Bass Wood 16’, the b21 and the bottom 7 pipes of the 32’) and it is very solid. The Reed unit is clearly intended for Full combinations, as it is designed to obliterate! It is reminiscent of the one in the Meyerson Symphony Hall for sheer magnificence and power! There was plenty of provision made for softer combinations with the Corno di Bassetto (Saxophone) and Bombarde Trombone being borrowed. Both were under expression, with the Corno di Bassetto having a haunting quality in the lower octave that allowed it to be used most effectively as a solo! The Trombone does very well as a Classical Posaune, and when used as an untersatz to the pedal flues it lends a lively clarity to the whole. Originally two of the three strings were enclosed, but now there is only the one in the Orchestral.

The Choir, along with the Swell and Solo, fared the worst under the hands of Henry Willis. The original Choir, “a gem” had two Choruses based on the Strings/Gemshorns and Flutes. In the rebuild all but the Waldflute and Gemshorns were completely removed, and only the Gemshorns remained unscathed. The pipes are largely still present (however damaged). The Salicional is on the Pedal, the Bell Gamba is in the Solo Cornet and Swell Diapason, the Spitzflöte is in the Great, and the Cornopean in the Bombarde. The Mixture’s Tierce rank still survives.

The leathering of the Large Open on the Great, (and the Open on the Swell) shows the influences of JW Walker and the Ely job, and Hope-Jones in the production of the “ultra smooth” tone of the Large Open – designed to be almost pure fundamental. The CC pipe measures 195mm (± 8”) with ± 2/8 mouths and ± 1/3 cutups. CC-B are in the central flat of the façade, while the pipes from c0 are leathered. The material is Zinc for the façade, and “tickside” lead, used so often by the English masters, for the interiors. The stop can be heard over the entire Chorus, and adds remarkably to the Full Organ. As mentioned earlier the only omission from this division is the 16’ Reed. Both the organs at St Paul’s and Usher Hall have this stop, so the reason why it was omitted here will probably remain obscure. The main Chorus is built up on the 16 Geigen, Medium Open, Principal, Twelfth, Fifteenth, Sesquialtera and Mixture. This gives a complete 16’ Grand Plein Jeu, and with the Reeds, a less complete Grand Jeux. The Reeds are very smooth, and if one requires the “French” feel, one must use the Bombarde Reeds, which say “Anche” in a way that the Great Reeds, or most English Reeds for that matter, don’t. The English equivalent of the fonds d’Huit, represented by the Small Diapason, Geigen, Claribel and Stopped Diapason gives a reasonable imitation of the Cavaillé-Coll examples but, as George Dixon noted, the Flutes and Diapasons in English organs of this period should never be drawn together. If a “clean” Chorus is desired the Bombarde Grande Fourniture can be substituted for the Harmonics, yielding only Quints and Unisons. This, the loudest mixture in the organ and speaking on 12”(305mm), crowns the entire Full Organ flue Chorus, together with the Large Open to yield a sound that stretches the limits of the volume to be almost “too loud”. As was heard once: “This is not a polite organ – it DEFINITELY lets you know that it is there!”

Departing for a moment from the roar of the Full Great, let us inspect the minor choruses. There is a complete Flute chorus of 16-8-8-4 that blends well together. The 4’ stop is a very good solo stop for a more intimate combination. The Geigens at 16-8-4 contrast in an elegant fashion with the Diapasons, and could substitute them for a “thinner” Chorus. The Fifteenth is gentle enough to that it blends well in both cases, without getting lost in the Diapason Chorus. The Sesquialtera adds some body, but the Harmonics are a bit much for the Geigens. Generally one would be shouting “Step on it, Toots!” when this is added anyway!

The Bombarde is untouched except for the 32’ reed that now lives in the Great as a 16’. Apparently Henry Willis and myself agree on at least one thing! The only addition was the 2’ Clarion. This division is designed to crown the organ as a whole. The reeds are quite bold, much more so than the normal English variety. The Quint adds a solidity to the texture, with the Clarion really going all out. The Trompette Harmonique is unique in this country, having bells added to the top quarter or so of the pipes. The colour is that of a mild (authentic) Spanish Trumpet. The 8’s are a little tame in comparison, but are livelier than the Great Tromba.

The Solo retained nothing of its former self. The 16’ reed went to the Pedal only (where it had been originally as the Saxophone) with the slide on the windchest remaining empty. The 8’ reed went to the Positive, and the flues are so dispersed, as to be almost impossible to locate. A large portion of them ended up in the Swell. On this was built a very unsuccessful Cornet V made up of anything and everything. The Trompetta Real was also second-hand. It must be mentioned that if one were to restore the Soloand add an independent Cornet and Trompetta Real (scaled correctly) the result would be quite successful. This would be especially true if the Cornet were to command position of excellence in front of the Tuba, and be voiced to approach it in strength (to an extent!).

The Full Cathedral Swell is butchered almost beyond recognition. The Contra Gamba, Diapason, Gamba, Saube Flöte, Vox Humana and Horn were removed, the remaining Strings made into Principals and the mixture recast. I must note here that in the original Swell the only Principals were the 8’ Diapason and Mixture. The Strings are of a vast scale though, and as far as can be ascertained do very well as both Principally Strings and Stringy Principals! The Chorus Reeds were left alone, as was the Céleste and the Oboe.

The Orchestral remains basically untouched, with the exception of the Céleste’s second rank going to the Solo as a twelfth in the Cornet, and the Orchestral Oboe, bumped up an octave. Here one encounters an interesting phenomenon. The full String Chorus (especially when the box is shut) is at the same time amazingly powerful and delicate. This contradiction seems to be just that, but let me explain. When the full Chorus is employed there is a rather soft sound, but with a sense of restraint, almost as if there is a monster just waiting to burst forth from its confines and obliterate all in its path! With clever manipulation one can move from the Orchestral to the Swell to the Great and finally add the Bombarde without the listener realizing that you have changed registration, and thus perfecting the illusion! This is not to say that the stops sound the same in any way. It is just possible to make the changes in timbre so gradually that the listener is unaware of it. The Flutes, harmonic and otherwise, are exceptional. In moving through the various combinations they change timbre like shapes in the mist, transporting all to the realms of fantasy. Of course this is what the organ was designed for. The reeds effect a similar effect, from the ultra thin “acid” nasality of the Orchestral Oboe to the fairly robust “military” Orchestral Trumpet. The Cor Anglais is also unique to this country. The haunting “woodiness” allows it to be substituted as a Dulzian on occasion. I venture that, of all the Town Hall organs I have heard, this one is the most successful. It seems that everything just fell into place perfectly as far as the tone is concerned!

The percussion section was removed entirely.

This must have been a thrilling instrument! The tonal palette stretches the entire gamut of organ sounds – from an almost inaudible whisper to the Full Organ “pinning back your ears”. Even after the disastrous rebuild of Willis in 1975 the Full Organ gives one a glimmer into the past and is still quite a thunderous sound. However, despite the formidable sounds that it was capable of, the organ was hard put to it on occasion, as Alfred Hollins recalls:

“At a concert given by an orchestral society under the conductorship of Mr. Foote, I played the brilliant Weber-Liszt Polonaise for piano and orchestra, and the organ part at the end of Tchiacovsky’s 1912 (sic) Overture, in which, when the organ is brought in, orchestra, organ military band, cannons – if there are any – everything is going for all it is worth, FFFF. Nor must I forget an octave of tubular bells. (anything can be used to swell the din!) The Bells, close beside the organ seat, were clanging in my left ear, and the drums, cymbals, and other percussion instruments were immediately behind and below me. I put on all the organ I could get, including the 16,8 and 4 feet Tubas with octave and sub-octave couplers (he must mean the Tuba with the couplers, which indicates that they worked “through”), and yet I could hear practically nothing save the clanging of the bells and the banging and rattling of the drums. To this day I do not know how I managed to get through, for I heard scarcely a note of the actual music. Tomkins stood on my right and yelled the conductor’s beats into my ear, and as I had got up the organ part thoroughly I went by his yelling and trusted to luck for the rest. I believe we all finished together, but if we did not no-one cared. There was such a storm of applause that we had to do the last part again. It was a wonderful night.”

The ideas behind Willis’ work were to “Baroque” the organ. True to the spirit of the Orgelbewegung the nomenclature for the stops added – and even for the stops mercifully left alone – was Germanic. In the Choir (where the 8’ and 4’ for the Cornet decomposée already existed) the addition of the 12-15-17 flutes, and possibly the Cymbal and a Cromorne to the existing pipework would have produced a very complete division with two choruses, as opposed to the present single one. There is certainly space, as the percussion section, which lived above the Choir, was removed. At St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg similar additions were carried out by adding a mounted windchest in the Swell with a Mixture III with great success. The Cornopean was certainly lively enough to fill the role of a Trompette in a Classical or Romantic French Positive, and even if it were not wholly convincing, it would certainly have been better than nothing at all. The present Krummhorn (from the Solo Clarinet) is a wind-starved “stick rattling in a bucket” shadow of itself. The “tone” was obtained by drilling holes into the rear of the resonator, just above the block. If these holes are blocked, and the pipes returned to their 8” of pressure the timbre improves dramatically!

Willis himself admits that it was the best Norman & Beard he’d seen, so the obsession with altering it in such a fashion cannot be fathomed. In his brochure his introductory words seem to indicate neglect rather than bad construction, which can surely be ascribed to the then Council’s lack of interest and knowledge. The correspondence between Cooper, Gill & Tomkins and the Council indicate that the builders were prepared to overhaul the organ in 1965! The ongoing badgering by Cooper, Gill clearly show the concerned builders getting more frustrated as time progresses, and getting no results. Mr. Tozer of Cooper, Gill wrote to JW Walker in 1973 saying that the organ was only partially playable when Henry Willis and Noel Mander were there to inspect it for tendering (one of the blowers was being overhauled), so how Willis managed to form his “…moving desire to reduce the scale of the instrument, removing some of the pompous grandeur…” whilst expecting to have the same “Grand full Organ” intact if he proceeded along this route, I cannot say. It is difficult to imagine how he was thinking, because the pipes that make up the main Choruses, are largely still exactly where they were. Those that have been swapped amongst one another, are in different combinations, but are still there! The main changes took place in the minor Choruses, where many of the changes seemed to be dictated by what was fashionable, rather than what was sensible. The overriding Classical nomenclature emphasizes this.

At this point in time the instrument is in a better state than it has been for years. The Organ was overhauled about two years ago, and thoroughly cleaned. The leatherwork of the bellows was entirely replaced, and the chests that were non-functional are again working. No tonal changes were made, so for the first time in years a thorough evaluation of the instrument can be made. It can be summed up like this: Tonally the instrument is on the brink of irreversible destruction. If work along the lines of Willis’ rebuild of 1975 is repeated the organ will be all but destroyed as an example of the work of its builders. Mechanically it is in a very sound state. If the organ is placed in the hands of responsible people who are devoted to the instrument for what it is, who understand the very specialized technicalities of the trade of organbuilding thoroughly, who are capable of maintaining the instrument and possibly having it restored according to international standards there is a real chance that it may reclaim its rightful place amongst the élite organs of the world.

Archives - Cooper, Gill & Tomkins
Archives - David Smit
Archives - Johannesburg City Council File 313/12 vols. I-VI
Archives - Norman & Beard - Birmingham City Library
Archives - Osiris Archive Homepage
Interview - AG Hill
Interview - N Mander
Interview - JS Riadore
On Site Visit
Specification - Norman & Beard
Tender Documents - 1916, 1973 #442
"A Description of the Town Hall Organ, Johannesburg"Inaugural Brochure 1916
"Organist's Review" May & August 19991999 - IAO
"Scenaria" October 19971997 Johannesburg Encore
"The City Hall Organ Johannesburg"Brochure on 1975 Rebuild
The Star "Tonight"
Bicknell S "The History of the English Organ" 1996 Cambridge CUP
Bolton JLM "Golden City Organ" DRAFT 2000 Kettering Organotes
Hollins A "A Blind Musician Looks Back" Chapter XXI 1936 Edinburgh -
Malan JP ed. "South African mUcis Encyclopædia" vol III 1984 Cape Town OUP
Troskie AJJ "Pyporrels in Suid Afrika" 1992 Pretoria Van Schaik
Willis H Information Brochure

Birch J At the Organ of the City Hall, Johannesburg LP Claribel CLA 1221
Hankinson M City Hall Organ, Johannesburg LP Claribel CLA 1216
Hankinson M & Frans G Trumpet and Organ LP Claribel CLA 1215

22 May 2001