The tale of the organ is an extraordinary survival story against great adversity, stretching over 135 years. As we see it today, the organ is being rebuilt from the ashes for the third time, but the heart of what made it such a great Victorian musical masterpiece remains.
When the great people’s palace was built in 1873 “Father” Henry Willis, arguably the greatest organ builder of the day, was commissioned to build an organ worthy of the Great Hall. It was a superb instrument, but three weeks after completion fire destroyed both palace and organ. Willis was at the palace at the time of the fire and risked his life trying to rescue parts of his masterpiece.
Willis started on plans for a new organ before the embers had cooled. This organ, completed for the opening of the reconstructed palace in 1875 was regarded as Willis’s finest concert organ, being slightly smaller than the organ that he had built in 1871 for the Royal Albert Hall, but always held to be tonally finer.
The palace was closed during the First World War and used to house refugees. After the war, troops were sent to the palace in preparation for dispersal. They broke into the organ causing terrible damage. The railway line from the palace to Kings Cross was littered with looted pipes.
In the early 1920’s some compensation was paid to the palace by the government, but such was the state of the building that no money was made available for the organ.
In 1925 the Alexandra Palace Restoration Committee came into being. A fund was launched which struggled at first. Then came the death of Queen Alexandra. It was decided that the grand organ in the Alexandra Palace would be restored as the people of North London’s memorial to the queen. King George V gave his approval and fund-raising proceeded apace. The organ was rebuilt by Henry Willis III, grandson of the builder. There was a triumphant civic opening of the instrument in 1929. The 1930’s were a golden age for the instrument. It was at this time that the famous French organ virtuoso Marcel Dupre called it “The finest concert organ in Europe”. Recordings made at this time remind us of the magnificence of the completed instrument.
During World War Two a flying bomb blew out the glass in the great rose window behind the organ, and the elements did their worst – at one point the organ was covered in snow! After the war some compensation was paid to the palace, but again no money was available for the organ, which had suffered serious weather damage. During the following decades various fundraising events for the organ came and went.
In 1971 the Greater London Council offered the organ for sale. There was national outrage and questions in Parliament. Nothing more was heard of the proposed sale. The organ was dismantled and stored at the palace, but even there more vandalism occurred. Eventually, Henry Willis 4, great-grandson of the builder stepped in to buy the organ”On behalf of the nation”. He then removed the console and all but the largest display pipes to his factory to prepare for eventual restoration. This was extremely fortunate, because the palace was once again destroyed by fire in 1980. The remaining base and frame of the organ including the huge 32’ display pipes were vaporised in the fire.
When the great hall was rebuilt from insurance money, once more, no funds were available for the organ. To many, this might have seemed the end. But such was the reputation of the instrument, the magnificence of the old recordings, and the passion that it had generated over the years, that in 1982 the Alexandra Palace Organ Trust was set up to reconstruct the instrument. Working from the very large number of surviving original pipes in store at the Willis factory and information held in the Willis archive, plans were made to start the great work.
After many years of tireless fundraising, and with the generous help of Henry Willis 4, work commenced. With assistance from a grant by The Foundation of Sports and the Arts, and many generous private donations the first phase of the reconstruction was completed in 1990, when the partly reconstructed organ sounded again in the Great Hall at the start of a series of celebrity recitals.
Half of the stops have been installed, and the organ is beginning to sound as magnificent as it did in the 1930’s. The organ trustees, in conjunction with the palace trustees organise an ongoing series of recitals and concerts to continue this mighty work.
The organ as it stands belongs to the Palace Trustees who are responsible for maintaining, tuning and insuring it. The console (the bit that the player sits at) and the uninstalled damaged pipes belong to the Organ Trust. As each rank of pipes is completed and installed in the organ, they become the property of the Palace Trustees; In return, the Palace Trustees grant the Organ Trust six free of charge evenings per year, to organise fundraising concerts.