The Organ

The decision to incorporate a Guildhall into Southampton’s new suite of civic buildings was taken in 1934 and the order was placed with the John Compton Organ Company of Acton for an organ suitable for a whole range of tasks. On the one hand it was required to be of sufficient size and magnitude to accompany the vast civil ceremonies planned and to lend voice beside the top choirs of the day and on the other to have available the most modern refinements of the theatre organ; pipework suitable for the playing of popular and light music as well as the customary tuned and non-tuned percussions. The organ that was devised met these criteria and met them well - indeed John Compton was undoubtedly the ideal builder for the required instrument, having produced many great theatre organs by this time, but also having been responsible for numerous fine church and classical instruments. However the Guildhall organ was not simply a case of bolting a few ‘theatre’ ranks of pipes to a classical instrument or vice versa but was the creation of a stunning and tonally balanced dual purpose organ.

Apart from the two majestic four-manual Walnut consoles which control the forty units of pipes, the instrument is totally enclosed above the proscenium arch high up near the auditorium ceiling. The ‘classical’ console, with its illuminated push button stops, is situated stage left while the ‘theatre’ console (or ‘variety’ console as it was originally called) sits stage right. Its stops are arranged in a horseshoe around the manuals, typical of such instruments installed in cinemas and theatres in the 1930s. It is believed that the Southampton Guildhall organ is the only true dual purpose classical and theatre style organ with two distinctly different consoles for the two purposes which share most of the same body of pipes, although some are only accessible from one or other console.

While traditional care was lavished on the pipes, the most modern of technologies was employed in a number of areas: The relay system, which occupies a space the size of the average living room, the 32’ Polyphone Bourdon which uses valves to add additional resonance chambers to a single pipe, and the Melotone, an early analogue system for electronically generating sound waves. Other notable facets include the two large scale open 32’ stops – the Diaphone and Posaune, the splendid Diapason chorus, the many fine reed stops including a rare Cor Anglais and numerous mixtures. The tone of every rank of pipes is carefully crafted and the attention to detail during the installation has produced one of the finest and most versatile instruments in the country.

In recent years the organ had largely been taken out of use due to declining condition and had become totally unreliable, largely due to a lack of maintenance and infrequent playing. In 2007 the management decided to have it restored and whilst not able to fund a full refurbishment, such as complete re-leathering etc., they are committed to having the organ back on good form and to using and maintaining it. HWS Associates won the contract and since May 2008 work proceeded in returning the Compton to operational order. The project has involved a great deal of cleaning, adjusting, freeing of moving parts, some rewiring, some re-leathering, and general maintenance, together with the refurbishment of both consoles, revival of the Melotone, tuning throughout and generally getting all aspects of the organ up and running properly.