An Organ Building Company Steeped in History
Many other builders were doing good work in this quarter of the nineteenth century, but the finest specification of all came from Nicholson of Worcester, who then as now turned out good work.
So wrote the famous organ expert Cecil Clutton in the 1963 book The British Organ. He was referring to the 1854 organ of 53 stops built by John Nicholson for the Music Hall, Worcester.
This remarkable instrument – one of the very largest and most complete in Britain – established a national reputation for the firm of Nicholson & Company.
John Nicholson moved to Worcester in 1840 for the building of the organ at the Countess of Huntingdon Chapel. A year after arriving, he founded the Nicholson Organ Company and set up business at Palace Yard near to Worcester Cathedral. He had previously trained with his father, Richard, in the north of England. His early work soon brought the firm to the attention of organists of discernment.
Early Nicholson instruments were installed at the Worcester Public Hall, which was acclaimed as the finest English organ of the day, at Malvern Priory, Worcester Shirehall and Gloucester Shirehall. The Music Hall organ was followed in 1861 by an instrument of similar size for Manchester Cathedral. The quality of this organ was such that, despite two moves, it retains almost all its original pipework. Nicholson installed this famous organ with new mechanical action and soundboards in Portsmouth Cathedral in 1994. A notable feature of this installation was the restoration to the highest conservation standards of Portsmouth’s striking 1718 Abraham Jordan case.
Another cathedral organ built by Nicholson in the nineteenth century was in Birmingham Cathedral where venerable pipework by Swarbrick, Jordan, Snetzler and England was carefully preserved and re-used in 1892. The company has maintained this organ ever since, completing a major reconstruction for its centenary.
John Nicholson’s ability to build effective, musical and reliable church organs for a modest price rapidly endeared his firm to the many parish churches up and down the country who in the second half of the nineteenth century were in need of new organs.
Business boomed and hundreds of churches, from the south coast of England to the north of Scotland, as well as clients in such far-off countries as China, Australia and New Zealand ordered new Nicholson organs.
Nicholson instruments were installed not only in Anglican churches. Connections with the Roman Catholic church were strong, forged early on when John Nicholson became a business colleague of Sir Edward Elgar’s father. The senior Elgar was organist of St George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester for 37 years, for which Nicholson built an organ.
The young Edward learnt to play on this organ as well as taking organ lessons at Worcester Cathedral. It is known that Edward Elgar earned money as a boy by holding keys for organ tuners; some of this work was for John Nicholson and his staff. Elgar played the organ for the first time in public on the Nicholson instrument at St George’s Church while deputising for his father in July 1872. The Nicholson organ there continued to be an inspiration to the composer for several years and much of his early published compositions were hymn tunes, anthems and liturgical settings for use at St George’s. In 1873 Elgar was appointed as assistant organist to his father at the church and in 1885 he became organist in his own right. He presided over the Nicholson organ there for some years and, at his death, St George’s Church was the scene of his memorial Mass. Nicholson and Company has since rebuilt and enlarged this instrument and was careful to incorporate and identify the original stops so that it can still be played as Elgar would have known and used it.
As a young man, Elgar became a great friend of A H Whinfield, Nicholson’s owner from 1903 to 1915. The Whinfields often gave musical evenings at their house and Edward Elgar and his violin were frequent guests along with other local musicians. Elgar later dedicated his Serenade for Strings to Mr Whinfield.
In 1909 a large organ was built for the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Birmingham which was founded by John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman lived at the Oratory from its construction in 1852 until his death in 1890 and there wrote his poem The Dream of Gerontius. A copy of this was given to Edward Elgar on the occasion of his marriage to Alice Roberts in 1889, by the priest at St George’s Church, Worcester. Elgar set the words to music and his original score for the oratorio is now among the treasures preserved at the Birmingham Oratory. The Oratory Nicholson was last rebuilt by the firm in 1987.
An organ building company proud of its house style
By 1900 the Nicholson firm had begun to adopt tubular-pneumatic action, a more romantic style of voicing, higher wind pressures where appropriate, some new tonal colours, and elegant consoles equipped with more playing aids. From the 1870s to about 1930, several large English firms developed very specific house styles. Their organs were particularly individual, with such strong character that organists tended to prefer one such builder to another. Nicholson & Co. carefully avoided these extremes, steering a middle path, a path embracing the most useful and well-conceived modern developments, but eschewing those tonal ideas which employed extreme scales or wind pressure. To quote Cecil Clutton again, writing prophetically in The Organ in 1930: “There is now apparently hardly a single English builder who realises the advantages of light wind pressure, though an honourable exception must be made in the case of Messrs. Nicholson of Worcester; for in their most recent instruments light wind voicing (both flue and reed) has been brought to such a pitch of perfection as will be most difficult to surpass. I believe and hope we are about due for a reaction from high pressures, for the highest art is always economical in its resources”.
Rooted then as now in the unforced beauty of traditional English chorus stops – the Diapason chorus as developed by the great builders of the 17th and 18th centuries – Nicholson & Co. continues to build organs of great musicality, employing tried and tested materials and constructional techniques to ensure reliability. A significant proportion of the company’s work entails the maintenance and restoration of its own venerable instruments. Indeed, such has been the reliability of the Nicholson & Co. organ that many survive and are still in their builder’s hands.