The instrument: what, where & how
Where is the organ?
The main case with its gold ‘front’ (façade) pipes sits atop the screen that divides the Chapel. Only some of the organ’s pipes are located in this case, though, with many of the pipes located inside the screen on the south side. Some of the largest pipes are laid horizontally across the screen. Much of the wind system as well as the console (where the organist sits) is located in the screen on the north side. The main blower is located in a side chapel in the Chapel exhibition on the north side of the Chapel.
How old is the organ?
The organ in its current location on top of the screen dates back to a two-manual organ built by Thomas Dallam in 1605. It is thought, however, that only a few decorative components date from this time, and that the case is more likely to originate from the 1660s. Over the centuries the organ has undergone numerous restorations and re-buildings. Read more about the history of the organ.
How much of the organ is electronic?
All the (musical) sounds made by the organ are made by the flow of air through pipes. Electric current is used in control systems, such as in the console and the wind system. The actions are electro-pneumatic.
How many manuals (keyboards) are there?
Four 61-note manuals control four different divisions of the organ: Choir, Great, Swell and Solo. There is also a 32-note pedal-board.
How big are the pipes?
Some of the smallest pipes can be measured in millimetres, while the largest 32’ basses which run horizontally inside the screen are big enough for a fully-grown person to climb inside.
Do the gold pipes at the front of the organ make any noise?
In recent years, the ‘front’ (façade) pipes have not been operational, but it is hoped that, following the restoration, some of them may again become speaking pipes.
Does it need tuning?
Yes! Changes in temperature and humidity greatly affect the tuning of the organ, so it is tuned one day a fortnight throughout the year. As there are so many pipes, it’s only possible to tune parts of the organ each day of tuning. Sunlight through the large south window above the organ screen means that pipes in this area need to be tuned more often!
What happens if it goes wrong?
Thanks to the hard work of the organists at King’s and the tuners of Harrison & Harrison, the organ is rarely heard having problems. Occasionally though, as with mechanical pipe organs, things do go wrong. One example is called a ‘cipher’, which is when a note continues to sound despite the organist releasing the key. For major events, such as A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, experts from the organ builders Harrison & Harrison are on-call in the Chapel. The 2016 restoration will greatly improve the reliability of the organ.
Playing the organ
Who plays the organ at King’s?
There are three organists at King’s: The Organist and Director of Music (Stephen Cleobury) and two Organ Scholars. Day-to-day playing at choral services and at concerts is generally undertaken by the two Organ Scholars, who are undergraduate students at the College. Recitals take place regularly during term time, which are often played by visiting organists.
Where does the player sit?
The player sits at the console in the upper north side of the screen. The console consists of four manuals (keyboards), a pedalboard, stops and pistons. There are audio and video systems as well.
How does the organist keep in time with the choir?
The organist has a number of video cameras at their disposal so that it’s possible to follow the conductor or to take cues from other aspects of a Chapel service. However, since the organist sits quite a distance from the choir stalls, it can be quite a challenge to accompany a choir: the organist is required to play ahead of what he or she can hear from the choir in order for the organ and choir to sound together; something that can take years of practice.
What technical aids does the organist have?
The challenges of playing the Chapel organ as part of an ensemble are largely as they were a hundred years ago. With advances in technology though, a small number of technical aids have been added to make the rehearsal process in particular a little easier. A remote-control video system allows the organist to view both the main Chapel and the Ante-chapel. A wireless microphone worn by the conductor allows the organist to listen during rehearsals, and a ‘talkback’ system allows the organist to talk back to the conductor. The organist also has an at-console audio recording and playback facility linked into the Chapel’s recording system, used for reviewing a play-through during rehearsals. While it is possible for the organist to use a live-monitoring facility through headphones to overcome time delays between ensembles and the organ, King’s Organ Scholars do not use this facility for Chapel services.
How can I listen to the King’s organ?
If you’re not able to visit the Chapel in person, you can hear the organ on many of the Choir’s CDs, as well as specific recordings of the organ. It can also be heard on the Chapel webcasts in choral services and recitals, and on national and international broadcasts.
How can I become an Organ Scholar?
See our pages on Organ Scholarships for information about becoming an Organ Scholar at King's.