Organ restoration sounds a new note

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – In the world of musical instruments, conservation and restoration have been mutually exclusive and at times downright antagonistic – until now.

John Watson, conservator of instruments at Colonial Williamsburg, and David Blanchfield, associate metals conservator, recently performed something akin to a miracle: they both conserved and restored Colonial Williamsburg’s 18th-century chamber organ.

The organ, re-installed in mid-February in the newly renovated Wren Chapel, not only has been restored to its optimum playability, but also has undergone a rigorous conservation effort to preserve its historical integrity.

Cutting edge.

“The less intrusive methods of conservation are just beginning to change organ restoration worldwide, and this project has been on the cutting edge. We have tested principles and methods of conservation never before applied to the restoration of organs,” said Watson, who began his career as a harpsichord maker schooled in the art of restoration before making the leap to conservation.

Museums typically send out their antique organs to organ builders who restore them for their musical use. Conservation focuses more on preserving material evidence embedded in the artifact.

“The difference has meant a missed opportunity for collaboration and not necessarily a conflict of interests,” Watson said. “Organ builders offer the best insight into the musical aspect of restoration, while conservators can contribute the best methods of preserving an instrument’s historical aspect.”

Built c. 1760.

The Wren Chapel organ, built around 1760 for domestic use in an English country house called Kimberly Hall, may have been recycled from an earlier organ.

Its “wind chest,” the heart of the instrument, appears to have elements of German and English construction techniques. The organ includes a single keyboard, no pedals and five and a half ranks of pipes. The wooden casing is made of several types of wood but appears to be primarily walnut and mahogany.

High tech help.

Watson and his staff used a combination of methods to read the historical evidence in the organ, relying on high-tech investigation techniques, such as fluorescence microscopy, X-ray and ultraviolet light. The project attracted organ specialists James Collier, a builder from England; Nicholas Waanders, an organ restorer based in Australia; and intern Lucy Gwynn, also from England. Goetze and Gwynn, an English organ building firm, consulted on the project.

“We made a number of important restorative changes in the organ,” said Watson. “For instance, we replaced the 20th-century electric blower and reinstated the hand-pumping system so that now either one can be used.

“Probably most significantly, we reinstated the instrument’s ‘historical temperament’ by tuning it to the ‘fifth-comma mean tone,’ an 18th-century tuning technique that idealizes some keys at the expense of others creating a more authentic period sound.”

Want to know more?

Watson has a Publications Fellowship from the American Institute for Conservation and the Kress Foundation to write a book, “The Conservation of Organs and other Keyboard Instruments,” due out next year.

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