After decades of neglect, the unique Welte Philharmonic Organ at Salomons Campus, Canterbury Christ Church University, has been restored to its full playing glory. The restoration work was made possible by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but the task was a complex one...
General Manager at Salomons, Matthew Salomonson, recalls how much the working parts of the organ had decayed before work on it began:
"The blowers were just heaps of rusty metal, lying there in bits. I just could not believe they could be re-engineered to get them back into working order. That was one of the first things that was done, because without the blowers providing both pressure and suction, nothing could be done to restore the actual mechanics of the organ."
Today, the twin cylindrical blower units in their gleaming green and red livery give little clue to their sad state prior to restoration. Powered by a new electric motor, they are almost certainly better able now to meet the considerable demands the organ makes on them in full voice than they were when first installed, ninety years ago.
Every aspect of the organ's working mechanism needed attention, and much of the intricate pipe work behind the console linking it to the thousand-plus organ pipes and other musical instruments - including xylophone, drums and tubular bells - had to be replaced.
From this picture of the interior of the organ immediately behind the console, the complexity of the pipe work can be clearly seen. Most of the narrow bore lead piping originally used had deteriorated so badly it had to be replaced. The extent of this task can be seen here, with the new piping routed in bundles bound with white tape. Lead piping of this type is not made in the UK and it had to be imported from specialist German suppliers.
Whilst working on the restoration of the two punched roll player mechanisms, staff from A.C.Pilmer travelled to Germany to seek the assistance of specialists there. In doing so, they learned more about the
original installation of the organ back in 1914.
By the time war was declared in August, the makers of the organ, Welte & Söhne of Freiburg, had shipped the component parts of the organ to England, but the commencement of hostilities halted the assembly and testing of this, the most complex instrument they had ever made.
By good fortune, Sir David Lionel Salomons was able to locate a German organ builder in this country, Herr Johann Kaut, who was about to be interned as an enemy alien. Although he was not a Welte and Söhne employee, he had the necessary expertise and Sir David was able to arrange for him to supervise all of the installation work.
There is no photographic record of Herr Kaut's work on the assembly and installation of the organ, but he completed it successfully before being interned on the Isle of Man for the duration of the war. He died in 1961. A headstone commemorating his life and work was traced by members of the restoration team from A.C.Pilmer who travelled to Germany in the course of their work on the Welte organ. It is to be found in the cemetery at Waldkirk, near Freiburg.
Today, the magnificent instrument that Johann Kaut saw through to completion over ninety years ago is restored to its full playing glory and the Science Theatre at Salomons again rings to its unique sound.
On the evening of Thursday 21st September, 2006, Nigel Ogden, musician and presenter of the BBC Radio 2 programme The Organist Entertains, gave the inaugural concert celebrating the completion of the restoration project. So impressed was he by the organ's capabilities that he hopes to broadcast a complete edition of his popular radio programme from the Science Theatre at some time in 2007.
Among its many capabilities, the organ can be played using the extensive library of music rolls that Sir David Lionel Salomons acquired in his lifetime. Thanks to the painstaking restoration process, the organ is able to bring to life the virtuoso skills of many of the most notable organists of the early years of the twentieth century.
Appropriately, the organ will also find regular use providing music at weddings and other functions in the busy calendar of events throughout the year at Salomons.
Nigel Ogden, 21st September 2006
Salomons is part of Canterbury Christ Church University (Registered Number 4793659)
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