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Once-a-century project to refurbish York Minster’s Grand Organ enters final phase

18 Nov, 2020

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York Minster’s once-a-century project to refurbish its Grand Organ is entering its final phase, as work to clean the newly revealed Pulpitum – known as the ‘Kings’ Screen’ – nears completion and the process to voice the instrument’s pipes begins.

During October the scaffolding which has surrounded the Grand Organ since July 2018 was removed, revealing the distinctive 15th century stone screen which separates the cathedral’s Quire from its Nave for the first time in two years.

Conservation experts are using museum grade vacuums and brushes to clean years of dirt and dust from the detailed carvings and delicate decoration of the Pulpitum, which is known as the King’s Screen because of the 15 stone statues of medieval monarchs it contains.

Work has also begun this month to ‘voice’ the instrument, a process to ensure all the organ pipes, which number more than 5,000, are playing the correct pitch, tone and volume.

The voicing is being carried out by specialists from organ builders Harrison and Harrison and will take place over several weeks between November and March, with the hope that the fully refurbished instrument will be back in use by spring 2021.

Alex McCallion, York Minster’s Director of Works and Precinct, said: “We’re thrilled the work on this once-a-century project is entering its final stages, allowing us to see the beautiful detail of the Pulpitum unveiled again and start to hear the pipes play again for the first time in more than two years.”

The process to voice the organ is the final stage in the £2m project and is done entirely by ear. Each pipe in the organ, which range from the size of a pencil to 10m long, plays an individual note, and the voicer’s job is to ensure all the pipes in each stop are playing the right pitch, tone and volume.

Andrew Scott, Head Voicer and Director at Harrison and Harrison Organ Builders, said: “Voicing is the name given to the process that happens once in a generation when an organ is given its musical personality.
“In many ways, it is a similar sounding process to regular tuning but whereas tuning is the correction of pitch, voicing alters the physical parameters of each pipe, such as the tone and volume.

“Rather like a choir director moulds the ensemble from the individual voices assembled in the choir, the voicer’s art is to ensure all of the pipes in each stop are speaking harmoniously to create the tonal architecture of the organ’s ensemble.”

Work on the once-a-century refurbishment began in October 2018, when the organ, including nearly all of its 5,000+ pipes, was removed and taken to the Harrison and Harrison organ workshop in Durham for cleaning, repair and replacement.

Parts of the instrument were returned to the cathedral at the end of 2019 and in January this year, before it was rebuilt over the summer.

It is the first time a project of this scale has been undertaken on the instrument since the last major refurbishment in 1903.

York Minster is currently closed for sightseeing and public worship but open six days a week for private prayer, from 10am – 12noon Monday to Saturday (excluding Tuesday) and 1pm – 3pm on Sundays. It is also broadcasting its worship online – see www.yorkminster.org for further details.

Work on the Grand Organ project has been able to continue during the lockdown period, in line with Government guidance.

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