Our beautiful 19th-century Cathedral Organ is an unique instrument with a special history. It was the largest organ on show at the 1851 Great Exhibition, and was installed in Winchester Cathedral in 1854, where it has added to the beauty of services ever since.
What is a pipe organ?
A pipe organ produces sound by driving pressurized air through sets (or ‘ranks’) of pipes selected through a keyboard (or ‘manual’). This continuous supply of wind allows it to hold notes for much longer than a piano.
Most organs have multiple ranks of pipes of differing tone, pitch and loudness that the player can employ singly or in combination by using controls (called stops’).
It is an ancient instrument, with a history dating back to Ancient Greece of the 3rd century BC, when its wind supply was created by water pressure. By the 6th or 7th century AD, this had been replaced by bellows.
By the 12th century, the organ had evolved into a complex instrument, and by the 17th century, most of the sounds on the modern classical organ had been developed. It now boasts a substantial repertoire, spanning over 400 years.
The Cathedral Organ
The first organ of which any detailed record exists was built in Winchester Cathedral in the 10th century. It was a huge machine with 400 pipes, which needed two men to play it and 70 men to blow it, and its sound could be heard throughout the city.
The core of our present-day Organ dates from the mid 19th century, and was built by the master organ maker ‘Father’ Henry Willis. His firm, Henry Willis & Sons Ltd, also built organs for many other cathedrals including Durham, Hereford, St Paul’s and Salisbury. It’s still in business today.
The Organ was put first put on public display at the 1851 Great Exhibition held at Crystal Palace in London to showcase British manufacturing. It was seen there by SS Wesley, the Winchester Cathedral organist at that time. He recommended the Dean and Chapter should buy it, and the rest is history.
A work in progress
The organ was reduced in size and installed in Winchester Cathedral in 1854, and like many organs has been extensively modified several times since then, in line with changing tastes and technology. In the years that followed, it was modified by organ firms Wills (1897), Hele (1905).
In 1937, Harrison and Harrison undertook another major rebuilding to give the Organ a more romantic sound, with stops imitating orchestral instruments. Between 1986 and 1988, they again completely rebuilt it to give it its present form of 79 stops.
A living tradition
You can hear the mighty sound of the Cathedral Organ being played at many of our services (free entry).
Although huge, it is a delicate working instrument which has now been in use for 150 years, has been substantially rebuilt several times, and needs regular upkeep today.
It contains about 5,500 pipes and costs about £7,000 a year to maintain. A specialist tuner pays a monthly visit to keep it in shape.
Find out more
Come to an organ recital
Special organ recitals for Summer Bank Holiday Mondays 2011, plus recitals on Tuesdays during May
Hear our Organ being played
Press play to listen to a sample of the organ being played
Visit our online shop
An outstanding selection of CDs and books about choral music