Now let the organ thunder

We are grateful to volunteer Sally Rumsey for a new musical blog post on rather unusual ‘organs’.

‘Now let the organ thunder’  [Dearmer, P. (Trans) 1928. New English Hymnal, Unto us a boy is born.]

What a joy it is to peruse the items in the John Johnson (JJ) collection that feature pipe organs and organ-like instruments. Many readers will be familiar with the pipe organ such as that found in a parish church. The JJ collection includes items that are variations on the theme created by Victorian entrepreneurs.

Take, for example, Mr Arthur Denny’s Calliope, or steam organ, that was exhibited for the first time in England at the Crystal Palace. The detailed etching displays a contraption with the common features of a pipe organ – a manual (keyboard) and pipes – with the addition of cogs and wheels, and steam billowing out of the pipes.  It has the feel more of industrial brewery than musical instrument! Mr Denny acknowledged that the steam could be an inconvenience when performing indoors.

Image and descriptive text relating to the Calliope
The Calliope

Not satisfied with a run of the mill organ, a church, school, or chapel might have been interested in purchasing one of Mason & Hamlin’s ornate American Organs. A selection of models was available including the regal-sounding ‘Queen’s model,’ the more racy ‘Liszt model,’ or perhaps the ever practical ‘Portable model.’ The potential purchaser could obtain the company’s ‘New illustrated catalogue’ from the outlet of Metzler & Co on Great Marlborough St, London, and which would be sent to them ‘gratis and post free.’

The Metzler & Co ‘Celebrated Liszt organ’ advertisement displays a handsome instrument bearing an array of pipes as one might expect in a church setting. Although it has only one manual, it offers 15 stops, each supplying a different sound colour and ‘being on a larger scale’from all other organs,’ employs ‘larger and different reeds, tubes, tuber-boards…by which its power is largely increased.’ According to the marketing, ‘the first organ of this class was manufactured expressly for Liszt,’ the celebrated composer. Apparently the sound of the instrument would ‘surprise any musician who hears it’ but, and here’s the rub, if ‘properly played.’

Advertisement for Metzler’s Liszt organ

Both of these instruments generate power by a pair of foot pedals, similar to those used on harmoniums or player pianos before electrification. It should not be forgotten that church organs of the time often required two people to play them – the organist who skilfully interpreted and performed the music via manuals and stops, but rendered pointless without the poor soul who provided the energy and stamina to pump air through the pipes via foot or hand bellows. A hearty breakfast was probably required.

For more sizeable church locations, one might be tempted to explore the capabilities of the veritable ‘Royal Seraphine or portable church and chamber organ, invented and manufactured only by J. Green, 33 Soho Square.’ This blustering prose with fawning endorsements, runs in dense text over the course of 3 pages. Mr Green was so convinced of the uniqueness and quality of his organ of wonderful powers, that he warned customers of poor imitations. He is cutting about the ‘present proprietor of an attempted rival instrument…who had the temerity to compare it with the Royal Seraphine.’ He is equally dismissive of common pianofortes that do not have the capability to transpose the pitch of the music played as employed by his ‘Transponicon.’ He anticipated this instrument ‘will very shortly render obsolete all pianofortes not possessing this extraordinary power.’ Mr. Green was clearly very sure of his himself.

Advertisement for The Seraphine
Advertisement for The Royal Seraphine


All of the examples above were dwarfed by the ‘New majestic organ’ featured in Issue 989 of The Mirror published on Saturday, February 1, 1840. The etching shows a ‘noble’ instrument, extending close to the ornate ceiling of Exeter Hall in the Strand, London. The sheer size of the ‘magnificent piece of mechanism’ is emphasised by the inclusion of two diminutive figures. These comprise an elegant lady in crinoline and bonnet, having details of the instrument pointed out to her by a gentleman in full regalia – tails and bicorn hat and wielding a large stick or sword. The article lists the stops and pipes of the organ, praising its ‘amazing powers.’

The advertisements for instruments in the collection usually include exquisite etchings. This is particularly evident in the 1883 advertisement for Metzler & Co’s American Orguinette. The three models on offer are illustrated in fine detail, clearly showing the ornamentation that decorates each instrument. As the contemporaneous William Morris had recently written in 1880 ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’

Advertisement for the Orguinette
Advertisement for the Orguinette


The common themes running through the sales information about these instruments is the power of the sound and the beauty of tone – especially for the Calliope that, it attests, can be heard at a distance of 12 miles! The advertisement prose is bombastic, and sales personnel are wont to make sweeping claims about the excellence of their instrument above all others. I trust their customers were not disappointed.


These items are housed in the John Johnson Collection: Musical Instruments boxes 2 and 3