The lost chord

CHRISTOPHER MOORE
Last updated 13:34 17/07/2011
St Michael's Anglican Church, Oxford Terrace, Christchurch now has a large empty space where its historic organ once stood.
St Michael's Anglican Church, Oxford Terrace, Christchurch now has a large empty space where its historic organ once stood.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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A void stands to one side of the sanctuary in Christchurch's St Michael and All Angels; a vacant space and a poignant reminder of one of one of the city's cultural casualties in the February 22 earthquake.

While the Victorian Gothic Revival building escaped the upheaval unscathed, its historic organ suffered extensive damage, forcing it to be painstakingly dismantled and removed from the place it had occupied for 115 years.

The church has now launched a $500,000 fundraising campaign to restore and repair one of New Zealand's best 19th-century pipe organs. This is an organ transplant on a major scale.

What St Michael's possessed before February 22 was, in reality, a unique musical hybrid. The church's first organ, a small pipe instrument, arrived in the new Canterbury settlement in 1851. It was used until the present church was built in 1872 when a larger instrument was brought from the English organ builders Henry Bevington and Sons. In 1893, at the height of an economic recession, the church authorities decided against installing a larger instrument in favour of enlarging the existing organ. In an early trans- Tasman project the Melbourne firm, Fincham and Hobday, added a third manual and several stops complementing improvements made by a Christchurch builder Edgar Jenkins of Ferry Rd, a man who had previously worked for one of the great European organ builders, William Hall and Aristide Cavaille-Coll.

"Fincham and Hobday cannot be blamed for economising in their 1896 rebuild and enlargement in the middle of harsh economic times," St Michael's director of music, Paul Ellis, says.

"Many of the larger pipes were shared in the bass register and the top five notes were missing from the three keyboards. The original 56 note keyboards were replaced with 61 notes. No extra pipes were added."

Despite the Victorian economising, what emerged was an outstanding instrument which led and accompanied services in St Michael's for more than a century. But even before the earthquake, time and use had taken its toll, with worn leather, felt and low-voltage electrical components and console needing replacement. The organ's original painted front pipes, a feature of the church's interior, remained in good condition until February 22, when the quake dislodged and displaced them.

"Our current proposal is not a grandiose scheme, but an enhancement and improvement on the organ we have nurtured for many years," Ellis says.

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"Bass pipes will be added and pipes added to the top of the keyboard, so that the organist does not run out of notes as has been the case in the past. It will be an instrument that performers will be pleased to use, especially as there is likely to be a dearth of these manual pipe organs for years to come."

The church had a "duty" to ensure that the best facilities for music making were available.

"It is with a total feeling of despair that we learnt that of the 74 pipe organs in the greater Christchurch area, only 16 are playable and only four are fully intact. We used to be considered New Zealand's pipe organ capital. Until recently historical organ devotees from around the world used to spend days in Christchurch visiting churches and their outstanding organs.

"We owe it to our musical community to have St Michael's organ up and running as soon as practicable."

Meanwhile, St Michael's is using a pipe organ salvaged from the wreckage of Britain's war- time Blitz. The replacement, built using parts from instruments damaged during World War II bombing raids, was in storage in Timaru for about 20 years. It arrived in New Zealand in 1951 after being sold to the Te Awamutu Methodist Church.

For details of the appeal visit churchandschool.org.

- The Press

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