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Feature: The 35th London Handel Festival runs from March 15-April 24


Published: 15 March, 2012

St George’s, Handel’s church in Mayfair, is getting a glorious new organ. Made in the US at a cost of £1million, it is the first American organ to cross the pond.

Weighing 10 tons, it has 2,968 pipes, nearly all made of lead and 50 covered in gold leaf to go at the front of the organ case. The 174 hand-carved keys are made from cow shinbones.

Installation will take as long as six months as each pipe must be voiced and tuned to perfection.

St George’s organist and music director Simon Williams said: “Once installed in the autumn, the organ will not only provide the church with an instrument that meets the need of the liturgy, but London will also have a versatile instrument of the highest quality.

“We’ve been hosting the London Handel Festival for 30 years and this year’s five-week festival is getting under way this month.

“With the new organ, it will be possible to create a major new organ concert series and we’ll also be able to offer London’s many fine chamber choirs, professional and amateur, a first-class venue with excellent acoustics and a fine organ to accompany them.”

St George’s, in Hanover Square, is regarded by many as the quintessential 18th-century English church.

Designed by John James, a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, it was completed in 1724.

Handel (pictured) took up residence in Brook Street, Mayfair, in the same year, in time to provide advice on the church’s new organ and compose a piece to test the skills of candidates for the position of organist.

The composer worshipped regularly at the church until his death in 1759.

The first organ was installed in 1725 by Gerard Smith at a cost of £500.

Since then, the organ has been renovated or rebuilt eight times, most recently in 1970.

Leading organ consultant Ian Bell – who has worked on restorations of numerous organs, including those at St Paul’s and the Royal Albert Hall – was called in to advise, and was later appointed project manager.

“Ian Bell and I took the view that the 1970 organ had not lasted well, suffering grievously from the ferocious heating system,” says Williams, manoeuvring past pipes scattered around the church. “Rather than pour good money into doing it up, we decided to start again with a new organ, while preserving the wooden façade dating back to 1725.

“We still have world-class organ builders in this country, as there are in Europe, and we considered whether to go with one of them. But the instrument we were looking for was an organ with an 18th-century character able to meet the needs of the 21st century, an organ with flexibility and a wider palette of sounds, and we decided to see whether our requirements could be met by an American organ builder.”

In 2008, Williams and others from the church went on a whirlwind US tour to meet organ-builders and play their organs in New York City, New Jersey, Tennessee, Missouri and other states Finally, in 2010, the contract was awarded to Richards, Fowkes & Co, organ master-builders based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The firm was founded in 1988 to specialise in organs in the style of late-17th and 18th- century organs in Europe, organs that inspire people to sing, to play and to listen.

Nearly 12,000 individual parts have been painstakingly made by hand for St George, with virtually every construction method being based on traditional European techniques.

To date, nearly £1.75million has been raised, mostly to fund the church restoration works, leaving £0.75m still to be found to pay for the organ in full.

• The 35th London Handel Festival runs from March 15-April 24. Full details of concerts at


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