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Appeal for city hall organ restoration

Wim Mutsaerts - October 31, 2008

Email Wim

I do not know about You, dear Music Lover, but every time I attend the Thursday evening KZNPO Concert in the Durban City Hall, I often glance over the heads of the enthusiastic and competent Musicians and see 'Our Organ' staring at me, as if it is pleading: "when at last will I be enabled to be heard"?

It is specially significant for those who appreciate the sound of an Organ and the wide range of available Organ Music. The Organ not only plays Sacred Music, as in many Churches, but furthermore also Secular Music as played in concert halls and auditoriums. The Organ is described by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as "the King of all the Instruments". It holds a unique place in world music with a tradition stretching back over two thousand years.

"Our Organ", was built by 'Brindley and Foster' of Sheffield (UK), the same builder as the Organ in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, and was installed by December 1894, in what today is the Central Post Office. In the opinion of an eminent Organist of the time, it was "the finest instrument so far erected by the builders". To celebrate the installation of the Organ, a music festival was held on 19th, 20th and 22nd December 1894. The large and appreciative audience at each performance provided ample testimony to the popularity of the Council's action in bringing about "so unique an incident as the acquisition of the grandest of all musical instruments" (Natal Mercury, 19th December 1894).

In the early 1900s a new, much larger City Hall (the present one) was built to a design by Stanley Hudson with internal dimensions of 157 ft long, (±48 m), 95 ft wide (±29 m) and a ceiling height of 60 ft (±18 m). It was three times larger than the then existing Town Hall, the present Post Office. In 1910 the Organ was moved, in its entirety, from the old Town Hall to the present City Hall. One change was made. A new organ case, specially designed in teak housing 30 new 32ft Open Diapason pipes, was added. The organ became an integral part of the City Hall and therefore of the Community of Durban.

Over the years, as a result of inadequate and irregular maintenance, the condition of the organ deteriorated and it became in need of repair and renovation. Mr Ronald Charles, appointed consultant in 1972, reported that the console was completely obsolete after nearly 80 years of use and that the organ, inadequate for a hall three times larger than the original Town Hall, fell far short of a comprehensive, versatile instrument suitable for its civic surroundings.

In 1975 a contract was awarded to Henry Willis and Sons Limited of Hampshire, England, to rebuild and tonally redesign the organ. The following year the organ was dismantled for major remodelling and revoicing of the pipes in England. Most of the existing pipes were retained. The organ was enlarged, from 51 stops controlling 2.522 pipes to 66 stops controlling 3.465 pipes, and its range was widened to encompass both classical, from Baroque to Modern, and light music. The old tubular-pneumatic action and console was scrapped and a new four-manual detached console and an electronic action was provided. The renovated instrument was opened at a recital by the celebrated British recitalist Dame Gillian Weir on 26th May 1977.

In 1996 the discovery of extensive damage by borer beetle to much of the lower timber structures of the organ, all the reservoirs and the floor of the Organ Chamber, led to the decision by the Durban Municipality to restore the Organ.

In 1998 a contract was awarded in order to restore the organ. The restoration project's aims and objectives were not only to restore the instrument to its former glory, but to enlarge the instrument to cater for the demands of being in a much larger hall than the one for which it was originally intended, the demands as an instrument accompanying an orchestra and the demands and high standards set by international soloists of our time. It was intended that on completion of the project the organ would have nearly 5.500 pipes. Due partly to lack of funding the contract was aborted during 2003.

The organ has not just been repaired, but substantially re-built, using imported components of the highest quality. It is estimated that it is about 80% complete.

These were my findings so far!

It is understood that the Ethekwini Municipal Council is aware of the condition of the organ and has the sincere intention to bring it back to its former glory. However, after the highly expensive and unfinished restoration work done, it is understandably concerned about spending any further taxpayers' money without any guarantee of the final success of such an undertaking.

The object of this letter? To drum up as much support as possible for a friendly but an urgent "Motivation" to The Ethekwini Municipal Council, listing many names of people in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal, who would be interested and maybe also supportive to get "Our Organ" to perform the Music for which it was originally designed and installed.

What will MUSIC MAP do? Through Music Map, I intend to collect the names of people and organisations reacting positively to this e-mail and present them in listed form. Although MUSIC MAP has already many helpful Members, the "Motivation" needs to have many more names. So if you have contact with other Music Lovers, in Organisations or Enterprises or Institutions, please send a link to this page to these friends and ask them urgently to email me with their expression of support.

What will our Motivation state? "We are Music Lovers. We would love to hear the Pipe Organ in the Durban City Hall. Most of us have never heard it. We accordingly support and encourage the eThekwini Municipality Council to continue the final restoration of the Pipe Organ in the Durban City Hall. We actively support such repairs to be undertaken, by committing ourselves either with a voluntary, financial contribution and/or, by actively attending any music played on this Organ".

We strongly believe that the completion of the project will enable a part of our City's Musical Heritage to be preserved for future generations and indeed open a insight into the King of Instruments for a whole new generation of all Music Lovers in our wonderful City.

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