Why cleaning Bristol St Mary Redcliffe's organ is like working on a 4,500-piece jigsaw
Over the years the grand spire of St Mary Redcliffe must have adorned hundreds of jigsaw puzzles, but if you visit the imposing Bristol church in the next few weeks, you will find a section of the nave has been turned into an enormous life-sized jigsaw.
With 4,500 pipes, ranging in size from 32ft to a fraction of an inch, the 100-year-old organ is a spectacular feat of engineering. It took two years to install between 1910 and 1912, and is world-renowned for its unique, rich sound.
But after a century of service, the instrument has started to show its age – with 100 years of dust and grime building up inside the pipes and gently muffling the music.
If the pipes were stretched end to end, they would run for miles, but the Edwardian organ builders cleverly turned and coiled the pipes to be compactly gathered inside two voids either side of the high altar.
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Unfortunately, this means that when it comes to cleaning the instrument, it involves taking the whole thing apart.
So four experts from Harrison and Harrison – the Durham firm that built the organ a century ago – are working around the clock to clean the pipes.
"It really is an extraordinary thing to see," says Andrew Kirk, director of music at the church, as he watches the men uncoupling the enormous pipes and passing them down the scaffolding into the nave.
The project was launched back in 2007, when the church started to try to raise the intimidating £800,000 needed for the restoration.
With £720,000 raised so far, the work is now well under way. The team is three weeks into the eight-week pipe cleaning part of the job, after which they will begin the task of tuning the instrument ahead of its unveiling in November.
Half of the money needed was donated by The Canynges Society – the ancient charity that supports St Mary Redcliffe, and The Temple and Ecclesiastical Charity. The other £320,000 has been raised by the congregation, including a £100,000 anonymous bequeathment.
Andrew and his team are still working hard to raise the £80,000 shortfall.
"It is a lot of money," Andrew says. "But it will be worth it. They simply don't make organs like this anymore. To build it from scratch would cost millions of pounds. The work we are doing now will ensure that the congregation here can enjoy the organ's unique sound for at least another century.
"It is a restoration, rather than a replacement," he emphasises. "Every single part that comes off is simply being cleaned and put back.
"The only new material is replacement leather on the bellows – leather is still the best material to use for the job.
"There is also a slight nod to modernity with the refurbishment of the original keyboard, with a small new electronic panel which memorises the preferred setting for individual organists of each of the 71 stops.
"Each of the stops acts like a different instrument in an orchestra. It's this great variety that gives the instrument its distinctive rich sound, which I like to think of as the sound of Edwardian opulence," Andrew says.
Currently though the organ appears more like a piece of elaborate plumbing, with thousands of pipes laid across the floor and leaning against the walls of the church.
"It's just like a giant jigsaw puzzle," Andrew says. "The chaps have the challenge of taking it all apart and the getting it all back together again."
Organ builder Kelvin Kent, of Harrison and Harrison, explains that the cleaning itself is done with simple soap and water.
"It is simply a case of getting rid of the dust that has collected in each of the pipes, so with the smaller pipes we simply dunk them in a soapy bath. Some are too big for this. The largest, for example, is 32ft long, and it turns and doubles back on itself a number of times in order to allow it to fit into the space. With these longer pipes we have to lay them on the floor and clean them out by hand with a cloth.
"Occasionally we have to do a bit of restoration work on a pipe, mostly just knocking the metal back into shape if it is dented. But the majority of the pipes are in excellent condition, just a little grubby.
"When you do this job in big industrial areas, you find that the inside of the pipes are thick with dirt and soot, but here it's just a simple layer of dust.
"We have also cleaned and restored the shutters – the wooden panels that act like Venetian blinds within the organ to control the volume.
"With the newly restored keyboards and the new leather bellows, the organ should essentially sound as it did when it was new in 1912."
The newly refurbished organ will be dedicated at a special service on Sunday, November 21, with organist Thomas Trotter giving a recital on Saturday, November 27.
In the meantime, there will be a special concert for Easter, Via Crucis, with the Boys' Choir, the Men's Choir and the Redcliffe Chamber Choirs accompanied by Kate Watt on the harp – in the absence of the organ. This free event will be held on Sunday, March 21, at 6.30pm.
● To make a donation to the organ restoration project visit the website at www.stmaryredcliffe.co.uk or call 0117 929 1487.