Written by David Pether, The Berkshire Organists' Association
The organ in the Concert Hall of Reading Town Hall was was originally built in 1864 for the 'Small Town Hall' (now the Victoria Hall) by ‘Father’ Henry Willis. This most-famous British organ builder of the Victorian era was also responsible for enlarging the instrument when it was moved to the new Concert Hall in 1882, placing its 3,000 pipes in an iconic new case to harmonise with the elegant surroundings.
Since that date, Father Willis’ creation has been fortunate to avoid any significant change, which is so often inflicted on organs in line with passing musical fashion. It is now regarded as a unique survival from the 19th century, there being very few remaining unaltered organs of any size by any builder in the UK dating from before the Second World War. Described as 'arguably the finest Victorian concert organ in the land', it is officially one of Reading Museum’s exhibits, having an acquisition number as part of their collection, and is sought out by organists from around the globe.
The organ as built in 1864 for the original Georgian Town Hall, now the Victoria Hall. BOA collection, source unknown
The early history of Reading's Father Willis
The organ’s inaugural concert on the 6th October 1864 did not go to plan, not least because work had run behind schedule and the instrument was far from complete. When the celebrity recitalist Dr S. S. Wesley attempted to play those parts which had been installed, the pipes barely made a sound. It was found that the weight of 200 musicians assembled on the stage was pressing down on the mechanical action parts of the organ hidden below, preventing them from moving freely to admit air to the pipes. A further attempt to launch the completed instrument a few weeks later was a success musically, but drew a disappointingly small audience.
It was an inauspicious start, and the Town Hall’s organ has had its ups and downs over subsequent decades, including at least two extended periods when it was effectively silent.
It is clear from articles in early editions of The Berkshire Organist, published by the Berkshire Organists’ Association (BOA) annually since 1948, that the Father Willis organ had not been played regularly in recitals since at least the start of World War II, and possibly not since 1933. Indeed, by then it was viewed as something of a white elephant, if it was mentioned at all; frightfully out of date, Victorian, and unable to cope with fashionable modern organ repertoire. It also suffered from regular mechanical problems, no doubt due in large part to its neglect by both organists and the authorities.
The organ standing in the Concert Hall at its centenary in 1964. Photo: Peter Grugeon
Revival in the 1950s
It was not until 1959 that the tide started to turn, when Mr A. L. Warman, organist of St Michael’s Church, Tilehurst, mounted a staunch defence in print of the Town Hall instrument’s 'really fine organ building' and 'beautiful tonal qualities', and counselled against writing it off just because it did not have the latest 'gadgets' on the console. He was rewarded in 1962 by being appointed Reading’s Honorary Borough Organist, in recognition of his 'unofficial services to the Corporation [...] in connection with the Town Hall organ', which it seems mostly involved playing the instrument for groups of visitors. This appointment was key to the establishment of a regular series of recitals, organised by the BOA. They started tentatively on the afternoon of 26 January, 1963, with a substantial programme given by Mr Thomas E. Reed, a blind organist from Sunninghill.
A concert was held to mark the centenary of the organ on 4 November, 1964, bringing together the Reading Symphony Orchestra and the New Elizabethan Singers with the Father Willis. A pattern of two recitals a year soon developed, with large audiences being entertained by a remarkable roster of high-profile performers from the UK, Europe and the USA. These included Pierre Cochereau, Fernando Germani, Marie-Claire Alain, Francis Jackson, Gillian Weir and Carlo Curley. Monthly lunchtime recitals were later added to the mix, providing a showcase for more modest local talent.
Photo: David Pether
Photo: David Pether
Photo: David Pether
From resistance, to restoration
The mid-1970s saw the start of a protracted debate over the future of the unfashionable Town Hall, which was threatened with demolition in favour of a bland concrete office block. The plan was subsequently modified to retain the building but carve up the Concert Hall into smaller rooms, discarding the organ. The BOA joined with the Reading Civic Society and other community groups to fight these proposals. Despite the constant expectation of closure and with fierce argument on both sides, the pattern of recitals continued right through to 1987, albeit gradually reducing in frequency due to the prevailing uncertainty.
Thankfully, by the time the shutdown eventually arrived, it had been determined that the closure would be to allow a full programme of restoration to be carried out, rather than destruction, and the plans included returning the organ to its former glory. Nobody predicted, though, that the work would drag on for thirteen years, during which time the organ was again not heard.
Some of the 3000 pipes inside the organ case. Photo: William McVicker
The organ in the 21st century
Following the sympathetic restoration of the organ, supported by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the re-opening recital was given by Olivier Latry of Notre-Dame, Paris, on the 16th March 2000. The highly-regarded organ consultant Dr William McVicker was subsequently appointed its Curator. The instrument now stands as a prime example of a tradition of town hall organs which were used for civic functions, and provided public musical entertainment in an age before regular orchestral performances and the invention of radio and recordings.
The BOA is delighted to support Reading Arts with the revived series of organ recitals which has seen the beautiful and thrilling sounds of the Father Willis established once more as a regular part of the Reading music scene. Performers have demonstrated beyond doubt that this instrument is a jewel in the town’s cultural crown, and visitors making pilgrimages from as far afield as Australia and the USA attest to the importance of having an unaltered Father Willis concert organ speaking with an authentic Victorian musical accent. So, as the instrument enjoys one of the periods of greatest appreciation in its chequered history, Reading can take great pride from the fact that this particular museum exhibit is in such good shape and still being used for the purpose for which it was intended.
This book about the organ was published by the Berkshire Organists’ Association, and is on sale at organ recitals.
David Pether is a member of the Berkshire Organists’ Association. He plays the organ at local churches and for ceremonies of the University of Reading and University College of Estate Management.
The Berkshire Organists’ Association was founded in April 1921. They are marking the culmination of their centenary year by sponsoring a celebrity organ recital by Daniel Moult on the Father Willis organ on Thursday 28th April 2022 at 7.30pm, with a free pre-concert talk at 6.30pm. For more information and to book tickets, please visit What's On Reading.
The Association is always keen to welcome new members – you don’t even have to be able to play the organ! To find out more, please visit the Association website.