An orchestra in 60 boxes

E&T travels to the Kent countryside to hear a unique automatic organ.

As David Cranfield, capital projects manager for Canterbury Christ Church University, shows me into the Old Science Theatre at Salomons Centre near Tunbridge Wells in England, his enthusiasm for the Welte organ and the family that lived in the house originally called Broomhill is obvious.

It was home to two remarkable people who, during the 19th and 20th centuries, achieved a series of remarkable firsts. Sir David Salomons (1797-1873), a banker, became the first Jewish magistrate in England and, in 1855, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, and though not the first Jewish MP to legally take his seat, was the first Jew to speak in the House of Commons.

The second Sir David Salomons, born in 1851, eschewed the public arena to devote his life to science and engineering. As Cranfield says: "David Salomons had benches set out in the body of theatre. He would run through to friends and colleagues the experiments that he had been doing, sometimes using a magic lantern to illustrate his talks. The walls were lined with his books and science apparatus."

Near the theatre was a workshop that was, at the time, the best equipped in private hands, with 60,000 tools enabling Salomons to turn out anything in wood and metal. "Whatever he could not buy he made. There is a photograph showing the workshop full of machinery," adds Cranfield.

Forever experimenting, Salomons designed and assembled the largest electric magnet in the world and an electric motor small enough to stand on a half-crown coin. In 1870 he invented an electric exposing camera. Later, a dynamo able to power a thousand 16 candlepower lights was installed in the house, which was also equipped with an electric butter churn, sewing machine and iron, long before they were seen elsewhere. With an interest in transport, he invented an automatic railway signalling system and organised at Tunbridge Wells in 1895, a 'horseless carriage exhibition'; in effect, the first motor show in the world, preceding that of Paris by three years.

The workshop machinery is unfortunately now gone, though some of the electric fittings and switches can still be seen in the theatre. But what still remains, now beautifully restored, is the Welte pipe organ built in Germany and installed in the theatre just before the First World War. Welte organs are automatic instruments which, from the middle of the 19th century, were the choice of royalty and the very wealthy as a means of bringing music into their homes. Using wooden pinned cylinders and, later, perforated paper rolls, they were able to reproduce the sounds of an orchestra, thus becoming nicknamed 'orchestrions'.

The Welte organ purchased by Sir David in 1914 was his third, costing £4,050 with the previous styled 10 orchestrion taken in part exchange. When the 60 cases arrived from Freiburg, two weeks before war broke out, the German team departed leaving it unassembled. However, by chance Johanne Kraut, an organ builder with the needed expertise, was located. Within 12 months he assembled the instrument and was then promptly interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien.

The Welte organ - One of a kind

As Cranfield explains: "The organ is unique in size and specification and can best be described as a mechanical organ that can also be operated manually." With two roll players, it can accommodate both the more serious philharmonia and lighter orchestrion pieces, now being the only organ in the world that can play the latter. As well as the traditional organ pipes it has numerous other instruments including drums, xylophone, tubular bells and castanets. In a gallery at the opposite end of the theatre there is a second echo organ operated from the main console.

Sir David wrote in 1923 that Welte are the only "manufacturer that can produce such an organ, and… the complication is such that a similar one can never be attempted". This complexity was confirmed by John Mander, whose company was responsible for the instrument's recent restoration. He wrote, with regard to the pneumatic action, that it "was far more sophisticated than organ builders normally encounter. The tubing is of much smaller diameter and the whole mechanism is miniaturised almost beyond belief".

There were frequent recitals from guest musicians or roll players. Occasionally, Sir David, having set a piece playing, would stay behind the screen that hid the musician, emerging when it had finished to bow.

For Thomas Trotter, professor of organ at the Royal College of Music, it is the mechanical aspect of the instrument that makes it important. He says: "When it is played with the rolls there are features that can be used that are inaccessible for the player at the console so it is very impressive with the marches and the overtures.

"For the manual player it has some very colourful sounds and very ethereal effects but is most interesting as an automated instrument rather than as an instrument for the organ repertoire."

The philharmonia rolls were actually made while an organ was being played, using a machine attached to it. They remain the records of some of the players of that time such as the blind organist Alfred Hollins and Edwin Lemare, the most highly paid performer of his time. Trotter is not convinced they reflect as perfectly as modern recordings how these people actually performed but he does acknowledge that "it is fascinating to hear, as near as possible, how they played".

With the occasions on which the organ was used declining after the death of Sir David in 1925, it fell into disrepair. It was not until Canterbury Christ Church University took over the building in 1996 that restoration was considered. The Heritage Lottery Fund produced £316,425, 75 per cent of what was needed. With public appeals collecting another £25,000, the University agreed to provide the balance.

When the project went out to tender, Cranfield says: "It was soon clear that Mander Organs of Bethnal Green was one of the few companies able to undertake the work." The repair of the blower mechanisms was done by Farnborough-based specialists, while the intricate organ roll player mechanisms were sub-contracted to AC Pilmer of York, who in turn sought assistance from a German company in Mosel. Although work began in January 2003, the restoration was not fully completed until September 2006.

Restoration was celebrated with an inaugural concert in December 2006 by Nigel Ogden, presenter of BBC Radio 2's 'The Organist Entertains'. There are now three recitals a year from top organists, and it is used for weddings and other functions.

A further grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has enabled copies to be made of the 300 music rolls which were over 100 years old. Before I leave, David Cranfield plays three of these rolls, we two being the first people to hear them for many years. Trotter says: "Very few of these instruments have survived and even fewer in such good condition. It is wonderful that it has been restored."

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