A New Organ for St. James Church, Florence, Italy

By Heylmun, Robert | The American Organist, September 2007 | Go to article overview

A New Organ for St. James Church, Florence, Italy


Heylmun, Robert, The American Organist


THE WHEEZING, coughing, untunable, sometimes ciphering mess that constitutes our current organ at St. James Episcopal Church (often called the American Church) in Florence, Italy, is about to be replaced by an entirely new instrument being built by Henry Willis & Sons Ltd., in Liverpool, U.K.

Last year saw the 40th anniversary of the flood that devastated Florence on those fateful days in early November 1966. Many works of art were severely damaged (restoration on some of them continues to this day) as was much of the national library's book collection. The organ at St. James was yet another casualty, as the water filled the undercroft, inundating the organ's blower and electrical systems and leaving them covered in mud. The water rose into the bottom of the organ chamber itself, warping the sound boards, windchests, and quite a number of wooden pipes. The organ was almost immediately cleaned and made somewhat playable, but the real damage had been irreparably done. A general restoration in 1970 did very little to improve the organ; in fact, that effort was so poorly done that it likely did more harm than good. Shoddy materials were used to replace water-damaged parts, and a number of metal pipes appear to have been replaced by something resembling aluminum foil.

Several ranks that sit on windchests that could no longer supply sufficient air to make them sound had to be abandoned. If you look into the organ chamber, you will discover all sorts of jerry-rigged inventions that would be laughable were they not so deleterious to the production of music. One enterprising repairman contributed a shoe and the belt from his trousers to keep a bellows from coming apart. We have limped along with the organ in this state all these years until 2005 when all the valiant efforts to keep it going were starting to fail even further. It became clear that no amount of restoration would produce a satisfactory instrument and that an entirely new organ would have to be installed.

An organ committee was duly formed to search for a builder, and it awarded the project to Henry Willis & Sons for an instrument appropriate to the demands of Episcopal liturgy and hymnody, as well one that would provide a wide tonal variety for accompanying choirs and soloists. …

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