Chairman’s Blog – January 2018

ChairmanThe recent announcement that the Vatican have acquired an Allen digital organ for the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s leads me to muse upon the pipes versus digital debate yet again. Digital organs have improved out of all recognition in recent years but there is still much uninformed prejudice on both sides of the debate.

How much does it cost to tune and maintain a pipe organ?

As a general rule of thumb, a pipe organ is tuned twice a year, either at the change of seasons from hot to cold, and cold to hot, or before Easter and before Christmas. The cost of this biannual tuning will vary depending on the size of the pipe organ and area in which the pipe organ is located. In general, tuning and maintenance will require roughly one hour for every six stops in the organ. Hourly rates will vary from @ £80 – £120 (mean average £100) per 6 stops. A visit from an organ builder to tune the organ and carry out small jobs of routine maintenance can cost between say £60 and £250 per visit for an average church, which is a small amount in comparison with the cost of a major overhaul or restoration of many thousands of pounds.

I think there are two scenarios for the smaller churches. Where there is the will, and a not too large pipe organ, then retention & restoration is possible (as long as the organist isn’t seduced by the attraction of the plethora of stops on even the smallest digital organs). One congregation had their small chamber organ restored a few years ago. They had the reserves to go ahead quickly – and the cost was covered and reserves replenished in about a year! The sizeable 3 manual that they had in their previous church building would have been a different matter.

Churches don’t always look properly at the relative costs – a digital organ may well seem attractive in the short term – but no way will it outlive a pipe organ, especially one with tracker action. The few statistics that are available show that electronic organs have an average life of 15-20 years, and then, in the main, will need replacement. Say the digital costs £20,000 and lasts 20 years, that’s £1,000 per year of useful life. The maintenance costs for the 3-manual Harrison I play at St John’s in Yeovil is also £1,000 per year. So maintenance costs are roughly the same, but in the same period the digital instrument would have had to be replaced around 5 times. Digital organs will never be better than a pipe organ due to electronic distortion (see my article “Don’t Distort the Digits” in the Tuition part of this SOCA website).

In many cases digital instruments are the only viable option – or the only option in the short-term, but churches going down that route (or going to a praise band) should be encouraged to seriously consider retaining & mothballing the pipe organ for (hopefully) future restoration, even if they purchase a digital instrument as a short-term measure.

To return to the Vatican organ situation, the 4-manual pipe instrument in St Peters is likely to need a lot of TLC as it is now 55 years since the last major work. It is spread over several locations and, apparently, is overloud close-to but cannot be heard well – if at all – from any distance, particularly when the building is full. The Sistine Chapel pipe organ is relatively small and not portable. This arrangement is woefully inadequate, particularly when St Peter’s is full. The new Allen is on a mobile platform and can be moved to wherever it is needed, even outside into St Peter’s Square, with speaker systems also located wherever needed. The ideal solution would be something like that at Notre Dame in Paris, with two organs, one in the East end (where the present organ is located), and a Grande Orgue at the West end. The Allen could then be used outside and as a temporary “stand in” if and wherever needed.

Details of the St Peter’s organs are at:-

Info re the Allen installation can be found at:-

Also with links to this seasons Christmas & Epiphany recordings at:-

Digital organs can never replace pipe organs overall, but they do offer solutions to difficult circumstances.

My Best Wishes to all of our membership for a Happy and Prosperous 2018 with lots of opportunities to meet and chat and make good music.

Ray Willis
January 2018