IT may not be something you’ve given much thought to, but in the world of church organs things have come a long way.
The complex mechanics involved in creating that impressive swell have been completely transformed by technology, altering forever a central element of the act of worship.
Back in Victorian times, someone was required to pump a set of bellows to get air moving through the pipes.
The keyboard was connected via levers to valves that would activate sets of pipes to produce the ‘wooden’ sound characteristic of the age.
It was this type of arrangement that was installed in St John’s Church at Boxmoor in 1906, but today a very different beast produces the accompaniment.
Gone is the toiling pumper, replaced by an electric ‘blower’, and the organist has been liberated from the organ itself – electrical relays mean the keyboard, or console, can be positioned away from the pipes.
The new organ has taken eight years of work. For a start, the organ was not just bought off the shelf.
There were lengthy discussions lasting years before a bespoke organ was designed and built for the church off site by Nicholsons of Malvern, one of only three organ makers in the country.
This was then taken apart and reassembled in the church by a team of craftsmen, and the workmanship can only be described as stunning.
The pipes, and there are 1,933 of them, range in size from tiddlers the size of your little finger to giants 16 feet long.
Years of fundraising, and there are more to come, have gone into covering the £360,000 cost of the machine, whose ornamental exterior belies the bewildering set of levers, pulleys and workings inside.
One of the key men behind the new instrument was director of music Nicholas King, who has been playing organ at the church for 22 years.
When asked what his feelings were when he first put his finger on the new keyboard after all those years of work, he pauses for a long time.
“I would say... great satisfaction,” he says finally.
“It’s a church with a long musical tradition. It’s a great responsibility on all of us that can be maintained for the future.”
Describing the sound of the organ he says: “It has got a very wide and warm range of sounds capable of intimacy and leading a full choir.”
But perhaps reassuringly, as much as things have changed they have stayed the same – the 16ft pipes in the new organ are the same ones that featured in 1906.
It is not the first renovation for the organ, which was overhauled in 1969, but this was done ‘on the cheap’ and the machine could not stay the course.
To tide the congregation over from the old to the new, Nicholas was forced to use an electronic keyboard to lead the choir, something he dubbed an ‘electric toaster’.
This time, however, it is expected the new instrument will last well into the next century.
“This is going to last a good many years,” Nicholas says. “We are saying this is the next 100 years for us.”
But the organ will not be complete until today, when it is to be blessed and dedicated.
That will be followed on Tuesday by an inaugural recital of a piece of music composed by Malcolm Archer, former organist at St Paul’s Cathedral, specially commissioned for the new organ.
And what better name to reflect the skill and virtuosity that has gone into the new instrument than the title of the piece: A Festival Toccata.
St John’s Church is planning on making this year’s fundraising fayre the best one yet.
The church will be decorated from top to toe in a frosty autumn theme and there will be activities and stalls from 10am to 2pm on Saturday, November 26.