All posts by Ross Trant

The organ in St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto, Canada

As is often the case, the story of the pipe organ at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Church in Toronto is very much tied in with the story of the building itself. The ups and downs of the instrument certainly coincide with those of the parish. The Church is located in the West – Central part of Toronto’s inner city. The address is 103 Bellevue Avenue, but the entrance currently in use is on College Street, a major thoroughfare that runs east and west. If you are looking for the building, it is located on the south side of College Street, between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street. It is easily reached by public transportation, with the College streetcar close by.

St. Stephen’s was built by the Dennison family, wealthy landowners whose home, Bellevue House, was near the site of the Church. Constructed of brick, the building was designed by the well-known ecclesiastical architect, Thomas Fuller who later moved to Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, known, when the Church was built in 1858 as Bytown. The original building consisted of just the nave of the present structure. So far I have been unable to get any information about the organ then installed, except that it stood on a small gallery over the West door.

Less than ten years after it was built, the Church was gutted by fire. The Dennison family as patrons of St. Stephen’s had the building reconstructed. As much as possible of the original became the Nave, and a large Chancel and Sanctuary, with a Lady Chapel were added to the East end of the building. The Chapel was (and is) located on the North side of the Chancel, and a spacious organ chamber was built opposite. The chamber was designed well, and is entirely within the building. There is a large opening into the Chancel, and another was provided into the South aisle, the display pipes forming a rerados for the Altar in another chapel located in the aisle.

Architecturally the Church has a very ‘English’ look, although as one who lived for a time in England, I never saw a Church, urban or rural, that quite matched St. Stephen’s. While it has been described as a Gothic Revival structure, that is not entirely accurate, and, in fact, it shows some of the attributes of an ‘A” frame building. The walls of the Nave are low, with the windows set into dormers while the roof rises to a ridge far higher than the walls. After the fire, the broad Nave seated some 900 people until recent changes. There was a spacious aisle on each side separated from the central Nave by rows of pillars and Gothic arches. The ‘new’ Chancel and Sanctuary are lofty, and a display of 16′ organ pipes is easily accommodated in the case. The acoustics were excellent, and are still very good, even though drastic changes have been made to the structure. More about that later. Still, the exterior has been preserved, and the structure declared of historic and architectural importance.

Again no information is currently available about an organ in the Church until the present one was installed in 1906. There was a large harmonium in the Chapel on the South side of the Nave, and this did have enough power to accompany hymns when the pipe organ failed to function. That instrument has since disappeared.

The Church’s location today is highly urban and inner city by nature. When the Dennison family built it, St. Stephen’s was in the country, and thus St. Stephen-in-the-Fields. The fields were real. While the Church did have a few wealthy parishioners, it was never a wealthy parish, the building being rather grand for its congregation. The implications as the city grew and changed were obvious for the future. A large and expensive building to be maintained without a large budget to support it. Thus as time went on, the congregation found it necessary to cut financial corners when it came to furnishing and maintaining the building. This restraint applied to the pipe organ.

In 1888, George Ryder, organ builder from Reading, Massachusetts, was contracted to build a new instrument for New Richmond Methodist Church on McCaul Street, less than a mile east of St. Stephen’s. It was a fairly large instrument for its day, two manuals and some 27 ranks of pipes. The action, of course, was tracker (mechanical) with Barker lever (pneumatic) action for the larger pedal stops. The organ was Ryder’s Opus # 149. While romantic in nature, the Ryder organ did have some nicely developed harmonics, and was much brighter and fiery in sound than many other North American instruments of the time. Rather than following the French or English tonal pattern Ryder based his work on the German model.

In 1906, the New Richmond Methodist Church, due to a major change in demographics, was sold to a Jewish congregation to be used as a synagogue. The new owners had no need of the organ, and it was put up for sale. The people of St. Stephen’s purchased it from the Methodists. Just before it was to be moved, a dispute over the ownership of the instrument arose between the Methodists and the new owners of the building. Worried that the fine instrument they had purchased might not come to them after all, many of the men from the congregation spent the night outside the former Methodist Church, to ensure that it was not touched by anyone else. It was not. In the morning the men from Breckels and Mathews, a highly reputable firm of organ builders, arrived, the organ was dismantled and removed.

Breckels and Mathews made some fairly major changes in order to suit the instrument to its new home, providing a new key desk and key action, adding a couple of ranks and rearranging the pedal pipes and some of the Great Organ. A display of 16′ Open Diapason pipes, painted and decorated in rather Victorian fashion formed the façade which can still be seen. Other decorated pipes from the 8′ pedal stop which had been on display in the former Church were installed inside the chamber. The disposition was Great 10, Swell 11 and Pedal 3. The façade contained pipes from the Pedal Open Diapason 16′ and the bottom octave of the Great Open Diapason 8′, with the unenclosed Great immediately behind, and behind that the Swell, with a walkway between the two divisions. The Pedal Bourdon 16′ and Violin ‘Cello were located to the west of the manual chests. The organ remained much the same as this until 1942.

When first installed in St. Stephen’s, the organ, now bearing the name-plate of Breckels and Mathews, was hand pumped, and the indicator lines and instructions are still to be seen. At some point, however modern technology caught up with the instrument and a hydraulic blowing system was installed. The remains of this are still in the basement under the Chancel. The water-powered blowing system seemed to work quite well in the warmer weather, but it had a tendency to freeze in winter, rendering the organ speechless.

In the 1920’s a major advance was made under the leadership of the Rev’d. Canon James Ward, a priest who was also an accomplished musician, writer and pioneer in may fields. At Canon Ward’s insistence the hydraulic blowing system was retired and the first electric blower installed. The feeders were removed, but the main bellows, 7-feet square, was retained as the reservoir, and is still in use today.

Meanwhile the musical life of the parish thrived. St. Stephen’s became known for its fine choir and the distinguished musicians who sought and held the position of Organist and Choir Master. The organ itself became well known, and its unique sound was thrilling. Powerful reeds with lots of fire, assertive yet not muddy diapasons, romantic strings and clear flutes all blended into a bright chorus. A joy to hear and to play, at least when not plagued by mechanical problems. Outstanding organists were willing to put up with its idiosyncrasies, for the sake of its glorious sound.

The year 1942 brought the first major change in the organ since the days of Breckels and Mathews. In that year the mechanical action was electrified. The Ryder chests were becoming unreliable…(they still are!) and the heavy tracker action and long draws on the stop knobs had little appeal to the organists who had learned their art on instruments by Warren and Casavant, and the more recent work of Breckels and Mathews, to name a few builders. It was the modern age, and new technology must be applied to the organ. After all, this was a Church of the Twentieth Century — Canon Ward had pioneered Church radio broadcasting from St. Stephen’s. This medium made the voice of the priest and that of the organ familiar to many thousands across the country and into the United States. In keeping with the times, the organ was electrified.

Sadly the parish did not have the funds to have the work done by one of the leading builders, and the Franklin Legge Organ Company was called in. The original Ryder chests, pull downs and pallets were retained, in spite of growing unreliability due to wear and splits occurring in the sound boards, exacerbated by dryness during the heating season. The sliders were also kept.

Mr. Legge installed electropneumatic stacks under the chests to operate the pulldowns and pallets. These were quite efficient, and of his own design, but they had one problem. They needed higher wind pressure for proper operation. Similar devices were attached to the sliders, and these remain in use today.

A new and rather impressive draw-knob console was installed under the façade, facing West. This part of the organ was definitely a relief for the organist with its light touch and adjustable pistons. Now, too, the organist could keep his eye on the choir without relying on a mirror and a twisted neck.

When the conversion was complete, a new 49-note Celeste had been added to the Swell, with its own electropneumatic wind chest. That chest still functions reliably…sometimes the only stop on the organ that can be caused to function!

Back to the wind pressure problem. In order to operate his electropneumatic action, Franklin Legge raised the wind pressure noticeably, resulting in a slightly forced tone, and a rise in pitch of almost a semitone. This situation continued until 1971.

In spite of the problems mentioned, the St. Stephen’s organ continued to be a favourite among musicians and the musical tradition continued. The organ was in this state when I began taking lessons on it with Ian Galliford and later George Coutts. It was a truly thrilling instrument to play, and one could become lost in its majesty. Hours at the console passed like minutes. It always seemed that I had just got there to practise when it would be time to go home. Hours would have passed, unnoticed. That, of course, applied only when it worked.

During the 1960’s, the organist was the very talented Peter Roe, who is not only an accomplished church musician and recitalist, but also a talented organ builder and technician. During his tenure, Peter made a number of tonal improvements and enlarged the organ to three manuals, moving the console across the Chancel at the time. When Peter left, the organ had the following specifications:

Great Swell Pedal Couplers
*Open Diapason 8′ *Bourdon 16′ *Open Diapason 16′ Great to Pedal
*Dulciana 8′ *Open Diapason 8′ *Bourdon 16′ Swell to Pedal
*Hohl Flute 8′ *Stopped Diapason 8′ *Violin ‘Cello 8’ Choir to Pedal
*Principal 4′ *Salicional 8′ +Trombone 16′ Swell Super to Pedal
*Harm. Flute 4′ **Voix Celeste 8′
*Twelfth 2 2/3′ *Octave 4′ Choir Swell Sub to Great
*Fifteenth 2′ *Piccolo 2′ Swell to Great
*Clarinet 8′ *Mixture II rks +Stopped Flute 8′ Swell Super to Great
Trumpet 8′ *Oboe 8′ +Piccolo 2′ Choir to Great
*Cornopean 8′ Great Super Octave
*Tremulant Swell Sub to Choir
Swell to Choir
Swell Super to Choir
Draw-knob console with couplers on tablets above Swell
Manuals 61 notes Pedals 30
Action: Mechanical pull downs with ep stacks. Slider stop action
Balanced Swell Pedal – 5 stage motor
Balanced Crescendo Pedal
6 adjustable thumb pistons
3 reversible thumb pistons
Great to Pedal toe reversible
Full Organ reversible (toe)
*Original pipes from 1906. Mainly Ryder, but some possibly Breckels and Mathews.
**Added by Franklin Legge in 1942
+donated and installed by Peter Roe

Peter Roe used the 1942 Franklin Legge console, adding the Choir manual and controls.

It is interesting to note that the Clarinet on the Great is a rather powerful stop, not noted for the mellowness normally associated with the name. There are some Krumhorn characteristics. It is a useful Great reed, and does not suffer from not being under expression as one might expect.

In 1971 an attempt was made to improve the reliability of the organ, and it was overhauled by John Fyall and Son. But once again cost was a factor, and the old Ryder chests and action remained. The organ was dismantled, the pipes removed and complete cleaning was done. The Legge electropneumatic stacks were replaced by Kimber-Allen pull-down magnets. (The Legge action to run the sliders was retained.) All the metal pipes were sleeved for easier tuning, affecting the tone to some degree, but not too seriously. The big tonal change came when it was possible to reduce the wind pressure. Pitch has been restored to normal A=440, and the sound seems less forced then before.

About this time the Franklin Legge console was replaced by a 1928 Casavant one, removed from St. Jude’s when that Church was closed. It is interesting to note that when this was done the stop names were not changed on the draw-knobs, and these were hooked up to stops with the closest sound. Thus the Great Dulciana now plays when the Gemshorn is drawn, Swell Open Diapason is now a Violin Diapason, the Piccolo has become a Flautino, and the Mixture II masquerades as a Mixture III (an effect that is achieved when the ‘Flautino’ is drawn with it.) The Swell Octave 4′ is now known as the Spitzprincipal 4′.

The last time I heard the organ and played it was in 1970, when it could still be described as magnificent, although many stops were slow to act, and runnings occurred among the Swell ranks on occasion, caused by the deteriorating Swell soundboard. That situation remains as I write.

Back in 1947, organist Ian Galliford described the instrument as ‘An atrocious organ. Wonderful sound, but atrocious!’ The notorious unreliability of the old Ryder chests was the motivation for this description. Some of Franklin Legge’s work added to this situation.

Time has passed. Back when I was a child Canon Ward, a family friend and godfather, would sometimes refer to his Church as, “Not St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, but St. Stephen-in-the-Red.” At times I wonder if it might not also be called, “St. Stephen-on-the Rocks.” That suits both my sailing hobby and predilection for a certain Scottish beverage served over ice…

In June of this year I was invited to examine the organ and make recommendations for its future, as well as undertaking some urgent repairs to make it usable, at least. Although thinking of retiring from active organ repair and maintenance to concentrate on my writing and the Tall Ship Canada magazine of which I am executive editor, the prospect of returning to St. Stephen’s held great allure. Because of Canon “Uncle Jim” Ward, I had been attending the Church off and on since I was a very small child. Here was the pipe organ that I had first played, and the Church I had attended after returning from England. It is the one in which my wife and I were married. Of course I went! The project is now under way.

My return to St. Stephen-in-the-Fields after thirty years was a shock. The Parish Hall and Rectory were gone, replaced with an apartment building. The Convent and Church Home for the Aged closed, the nuns having fled the inner city to open a new facility called Cana Place in newer part of the city. Still, one of the former Church buildings, now involved with social services is called St. Stephen’s House. What I saw inside the Church itself was hard to believe.

In the middle of the Nave a complete building has been constructed, at one time housing a clinic and providing some rental income for the parish. Its tenants have long since departed. In addition to this structure, a wall now divides the Nave in half, and the Gothic arches of the aisles have been walled up, creating offices and classroom space.

The traditional furniture has gone from what is left of Nave, Chancel and Sanctuary. A few stacking chairs near the Chancel steps replace the pews for almost a thousand people. The choir stalls are gone, as are the sedilia. The High Altar is now on wheels, and moved forward, its former place of honour an empty space. The rerados is gone. The organ case remains…but not the same! The 16′ Open Diapason still stands proudly in place, pipe tops reaching toward the roof beams. But there is something new! Beneath the mighty Diapason is a smaller front of painted eight-foot pipes. Reminiscent of a Continental Positive, or perhaps an English Choir or Chair, but that is not the case. I know those pipes of old. The pedal eight-foot stop has moved outside the chamber, and now is silent. I shake my head in dismay.

To the console. I turn the key and the organ wheezes into life. The Casavant console is new to me. I draw two stops on the Choir, and touch the keys. Nothing. No sound. I try the other knobs to see if they control the pipes my friend Peter had installed. The same. No sound at all.

Next, the Swell. I draw the strings and promptly there is a squeal as many pipes sound forth. Runnings. The old Ryder chest has not improved with passing years! The Great has runnings too, and ciphers. With caution some ranks can be persuaded to behave. The remnants of past glory sound forth. Briefly. Time to step inside the chamber. I do that.

A horror! Dust and dirt on every surface, in some places inches deep. Some pipes are partly filled and cannot speak. Stepping in front of the Great chest to where the Choir once stood, I find the space is empty. Chest and pipes are gone! Nobody can tell me when or where. Then around behind the Swell…the old opening arch into the Nave has been walled up. The eight-foot pedal stop is gone, chest and all. A few pipes form that front I’d seen, the rest have disappeared. And everywhere the dirt. Such terrible neglect. On one wall there is a wind chest mounted, one of Franklin Legge’s, and it was not there before. The inscription on the wood suggests a string, ‘Salic.’ I read, a Salicional. But the pipes are of a principal. What’s this? And then I see. The wind trunk has been disconnected and the wires pulled away. There’ll be no sound from this, I think.

Further examination shows more dirt, loose, hanging wires. Dirt-filled pipes. Dirt everywhere. We set to work.

Cleaning first. We uncover hidden wires buried in the dust of decades. We fill a 10-gallon shop vac many times. But let’s try to make it sound. The blower works and the rectifier produces DC current. Some pipes can speak. We manage to use the Swell Bourdon 16′ to draw off unwanted wind, and the Swell Can play! At last the grandeur I recall comes back, as the Cornopean caps the chorus…but all is out of tune. Oh well! The Mixture is missing! We find it later and bring it back to life. Most of the Bourdon pipes are gone. No great loss…a muddy stop as I recall, and we have enough left to relieve the runnings. Back to the console. Coupling, with octaves up and down, to Great and Choir we can achieve some nice effects. Play a solo against the Swell itself, or build another chorus.

The Great is temperamental. At times for no apparent reason the pull down magnets come to life and wrong notes sound. Close the Swell box, and the Great responds with discord. Sometimes. The trick is to know just when.

And so it goes. The Pedal Bourdon has most strange behaviour! At times when on, more discords from un-drawn reeds. I shudder, and decide, “Swell to Pedal” and those few Bourdon pipes are a help.

Yes…in moments of good fortune, the sound is there. The majesty has not fled, at least not entirely.

We continue trying to make this organ usable at least. A friend who once designed nasty things for Litton Industries, guidance systems and internal missile circuits, has offered some electrical help. He is a wizard. And I form a plan.

At first the thought is to replace the entire thing, buy a used organ in good repair and place it here in St. Stephen’s. Yet that’s not what we want. Can we save the wondrous sound of old and bring the machinery back to life? So let it be.

The answer is new chests and action. The Ryder chests must go. The console will serve for now, the blower is old but fine and the rectifier can still be used. The swell box is effective and in good shape. The Casavant chest where the Trombone stands is good.

A friend from Temple Organs in Missouri offers hope…a price the Church can possibly afford. We’ll work toward that. We’ll continue striving to keep the poor old beast alive for now, a year or two or maybe three, and then!

The Ryder’s glorious sound will one day return. Modern pitman chests and action. New wiring throughout. It will be a new organ, good for another hundred years or more, with proper care. And the sound that George Ryder, Breckels and Mathews and Peter Roe developed over years will be back. Best of all, perhaps, will be the chance to play it without fear of what may be going to happen next! This time St. Stephen’s has the chance to do it right, and win! The future looks bright.

I’d love to play it and trust it before I die. Let’s dream the possibledream!

Addendum: While working at St. Stephen’s on Friday (10/22/2000), I discovered an additional disaster:

The Franklin Legge organ company added electropneumatic stop action in order to operate the sliders. This consists of a large unit fastened to the end of the chest, and made up of two sections. The lower section contains the action which is much the same as that in a ventil chest. This is connected via wires from the pneumatics to the upper, larger box which contains the complex system of levers which actually move the sliders in and out. Between the upper and lower boxes is a space of about half an inch. The stop action box for the Swell is just outside the door into a vestry… Someone had decided the narrow space between the two parts of the action was ideal for holding a wire coat hanger. Yes! They had straightened out the hook at the top to go into the space between the two sections of the action, and managed to find the tiny hole above a pneumatic pouch. As a result, the Swell 8′ Diapason no longer sounds. Because of the installation and complexity, we are looking at about 8 hours’ work to dismantle, re-leather the pouch and reassemble the stop action. Whew! I have put warning signs in the area, now, but I guess that really means locking the stable door after the horse was stolen! It seems that most people, even organists in many cases, are unaware of the complexity of the instrument…in fact to many the inside of a pipe organ looks much more like a collection of junk than the interior of a musical instrument!

Notes on the Casavant Console

The 1928 Casavant console at St. Stephen’s Church felt very familiar when I sat down to play. At first that seemed not at all unusual, since I have always found the consoles by that builder very comfortable to use, regardless of the design period. As mentioned in my article previously, a very reliable source had informed me that this console had come from St. Jude’s Church, Roncesvelles, Toronto. That building had become redundant, and was closed by Diocesan authority. At one time I had tried to acquire the console for the organ I was playing at the time, but was told it had already been sold when the organ was broken up for parts. I settled for a 3-manual Austin console for my Church, and thought no more about it until recently.

While playing at St. Stephen’s, I did notice that the console had provision for forty stops, while the instrument at St. Jude’s had been a smaller one, about 20-25 stops total. Still, memory fades!

Shortly after becoming a member of the Organ Focus site and publishing my first two articles, I received an email response from Andrew Mead, a talented organ builder who lives not far from my home, with further details on St. James’ Cathedral and a note about St. Stephen’s. Andrew identified the console at the latter as coming from St. Clement’s Church, Eglinton, (North Toronto.) This made a lot of sense. It also opened up more vistas, both for this site and in my memory.

While the organ in St. Stephen’s was the first I ever played, that at St. Clement’s was the second, and the first on which, as a teenager, I ever played for a service. This all reminds me of another instrument that may well be described here. The St. Clement’s organ, a Casavant, had major work done in the seventies, including a new console and a powerful unenclosed positiv division in the Chancel. The organ is being totally rebuilt this year by Casavant, and should prove interesting.

Anyway, no wonder the console felt so familiar to me! Many thanks to Andrew Mead for his interest and very useful information. Andrew also added to my knowledge of the St. James Cathedral organ, one which he is now maintaining.

© 2000 Ross Trant

Toronto and the Pipe Organ

Cathedral Church of St James | St Paul’s Church | Church of St Mary Magdalene | Church of the Advent

With its population of almost three million people, Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is surprisingly little-known as a truly great tourist centre in other countries. However, it has much to offer, and for the visiting organist it can be a goldmine of wonderful sights and sounds, especially sounds. There are giants like the four manual, 137-rank Casavant in St. Paul’s Church, Bloor Street, and the even larger five-manual instrument in Metropolitan United Church and tiny instruments such as the ten – rank Casavant pneumatic in the Church of the Advent. And the whole gamut in between. Some of the instruments in this large city are fascinating because of their musical merit, others have interesting historical connections, especially with outstanding musicians. There are those whose visual effect give an outward sign of the art of organ building. Then there are the instruments with all these attributes.

One thing that most visiting organists will discover is the ubiquity of the name Casavant, probably the best-known organ builder in the country. Consoles bearing the name of this internationally known firm abound. However, in many cases the curious student of pipe organs will discover that the instrument may have begun its life at the hands of another builder.

While the name Casavant certainly dominates the scene, there are other names to watch for as well. Casavant instruments demonstrate the many different design periods in the company’s history. Among the outstanding builders represented in Toronto is Samuel Warren and his descendants and off-shoots, such as Karn-Warren and Woodstock. The names of Morel, Jacques, and Canadian Pipe Organs will be found on instruments built by entrepreneurs who began their careers with Casavant. Another prominent organ builder once located in Toronto, was Breckels and Mathews, a firm which for a time was simply known as Mathews Pipe Organs.

Two rather prolific organ builders in the Toronto area, but definitely not in the same league as the above, were Franklin Legge and Edward Lye and Sons. Both of these concerns, sadly, built often strictly to price, leaving much to be desired, especially in the area of tonal design, voicing and scaling. The Lye firm did, in its early years, produce some quite good tracker instruments, but went downhill when they began to use electro-pneumatic action. There are some fine instruments bearing the names of Lye and Legge, but research always shows these were electrified examples of other builders’ work, notably Warren and Breckels and Mathews. The Legge firm was taken over by the Eaton department stores, and under that name did some quite good work. One former employee is the area representative for Casavant, Alan Jackson who has produced some excellent instruments.

With such a large population, Toronto has many churches and other buildings with pipe organs. Two more builders whose work may be experienced here are Gabriel Kney (formerly Kney and Bright,) and Schlicker. This gives some idea of what to expect when an organist visits Toronto. The dominance of Casavant in larger churches and institutions may be surprising, but understandable. Other more recent builders include Gibault-Therien, Keats-Geissler, Hallman, Gober and Helmut Wolfe. Yes, lots to see and hear! Now to some interesting specifics, as we consider some of my favourites.

The Cathedral Church of St. James

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A quiet oasis in downtown Toronto, St. James Cathedral stands within its wall, surrounded by green grass, amid the bustle of traffic and the hype of commerce. If you seek this place, you will be looking for the corner of King and Church Streets. You will have no trouble locating it. As you enter the main doors into the Nave, you will pass under an organ case, turn and look. A 19th Century case stands above the doorway, containing the pipes of the Auxiliary Division of the instrument, along with its one pedal stop. Protruding proudly from the foot of the case, pointing down the centre passage of the Nave, the pipes of a powerful trumpet en chamade. Continue walking toward the Chancel and the High Altar, and four more cases are seen, perhaps the finest examples of organ cases in the English tradition to be found in Canada. On the North and South sides of the Chancel or Choir are two spacious chambers, and here reside the pipes of the main organ, speaking clearly into both Nave and Choir. In the Choir itself you’ll see the tall English console with its rows of draw-knobs in pairs, as British tradition dictates. “Ah! A Walker organ!” you say, but no.

stjames_consoleThe ‘voice’ of the Cathedral Church of St. James was built in 1888 by Samuel Warren and Sons. The four-manual Walker console arrived in 1979, when the 97-rank instrument was already almost a century old. Extensive rebuilds were undertaken in 1916, 1936 and 1967 by Casavant. In more recent years further upgrades were accomplished, including the addition of a 32-foot reed on the large pedal organ. This is, perhaps, my favourite Toronto pipe organ. Rather romantic in nature, it has the characteristics of an English Cathedral organ, yet with something of a French touch in the voicing of many of the reeds. It handles well the works of Franck, Vierne, and other French composers, as well as the works of Bach and the music associated with the English Cathedral. How do you describe just how an organ sounds? I am not really sure. I hope these few remarks will give you some idea of the majesty of this one. If you are lucky, you will arrive when the organ is in use. If you are very lucky you may have the good fortune of playing. Powerful and exciting, yet capable of soft whispers, too. A wondrous sound in friendly acoustics. The spirit of Samuel Warren lives on, along with touch of the Casavant brothers, and Stephen Stoote tonal director in the thirties and beyond.

Console photo courtesy of Clyde Dollimount

St. Paul’s Church, Bloor Street


Travel north from St. James, on Church, past St. Michael’s Cathedral with its Warren tracker, rebuilt by Gabriel Kney, and Metropolitan United Church, with its huge five manual Casavant, largest Church organ in Canada, (more about these later,) to Bloor Street, the city’s main east-west artery. Turn east a short distance, and there it stands. Gray stone, rising toward the sky, St. Paul’s is impressive. Walk up the steps from the street to the main entrance, and step inside. Enter the Nave which seats 3,000 people, and look about you. High in the gallery over the West doors in the gallery is a large organ chamber with a display front of unadorned zinc pipes. This is the Gallery organ, a complete two manual and pedal instrument, controlled by the large four-manual console in the Chancel up ahead. Take the long walk to the Chancel steps, and look above once more. High above the floor of Chancel and Nave are two spacious chambers, opening into both Nave and Chancel. Again a façade of unpainted zinc pipes. In their austerity, they rather match the plain Gothic of the Church itself. Beauty in simplicity. The Casavant console resides on the north side of the Chancel. Here in St. Paul’s, much larger than the Cathedral, we find the four manual, 137 rank Casavant, built in 1914. The instrument has seven manual divisions, and two pedal divisions. The usual, Great, Swell and Choir, an Orchestral Division and a Tuba Division, along with the Pedal, complete the main organ, with the Gallery Great, Swell and Pedal speaking from the West end of the large Church.

The reeds for which St. Paul’s is famous were created by W.G. Jones, Frank Wesson and Harrison and Harrison, of England. Incredible fire, yet bell-like describes the mighty Tuba Division, capable of playing a solo over the entire rest of the organ! This is a truly exciting organ to hear from the Nave. However, due to the great distances between divisions, the effect from the console can be a bit confusing with delayed sounds heard in the vast space with an echo approaching ten seconds under some conditions. The first organist to preside over this great instrument was the late Dr. Healey Willan who came form England to Canada for this purpose, spending the balance of his life in the country, and becoming arguably the foremost musician the land has known. Like the organ in St. James Cathedral, the effect of this instrument is magnificent, but on an even grander scale than that in the Cathedral. Frequently used for recitals, it is also heard on many festive occasions, when St. Paul’s takes on the role of the Cathedral, due to its greater size.

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene

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magdaleneConsidered by many to be the key parish in the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, in the West-central area of the city, has a powerful musical tradition. Many important names have been attached to its musical leadership, but perhaps the greatest of these was Healey Willan, composer, conductor, organist and choir director. When Dr. Willan left his post at St. Paul’s, Bloor Street, he began his career at St. Mary Magdalene’s in 1921 and continued there until his death in 1968. Under Dr. Willan’s direction a new organ was built for the Church by the highly reputable firm of Breckels and Mathews. A good sized three manual instrument, it is located in a spacious chamber on the North side of the Chancel/Sanctuary area. The console is located in the gallery above the West entrance. Tired of sticking roll-tops on large consoles, Willan insisted on this one being equipped with doors, in the English tradition. As a memorial to Dr. Willan, the organ has been rebuilt in recent years. Work on this project was begun by David Legge, son of the late Franklin Legge, mentioned near the beginning of this article. When this did not work out successfully, the work was completed by Alan Jackson, Toronto representative of Casavant Freres. The rebuilt and enlarged organ contains some pipes from St. James Cathedral, which were found to be redundant when a major overhaul of that instrument took place. The Breckels and Mathews console, with additional matching draw-knobs, pistons and rockers has been retained. Tonally the instrument is in the tradition of English organ building of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A magnificent Tuba crowns the chorus, and performs well both as a chorus reed and solo stop. Dr. Willan and his successors have made good use of this rank as well as the rest of the instrument in improvisation, service accompaniment and in the performance of countless organ works. The St. Mary Magdalene’s organ raises goose bumps as the organist plays Willan’s glorious tune for ‘Hail Thee Festival Day,’ improvising between verses during a procession. If you have a chance to visit St. Mary Magdalene’s Church on a major Festival, don’t miss it!

Note: An archival CD recording of Healey Willan, playing the organ and directing the choirs, (Gallery and Ritual) has been produced by EMI Canada, and is available through the Royal Canadian College of Organists. That CD is playing as I type these words.)

The Church of the Advent

RossAdventbThis little parish Church is located in a rather down at heel neighbourhood in the West end of Toronto, not far from the old stockyards on Pritchard Avenue. An unpretentious Church in an unpretentious setting, it contains a pleasant little organ. This seems to be an appropriate place at which to conclude this article, which hopefully is the beginning of a series on interesting pipe organs in Toronto.

The organ in the Church of the Advent is a ten rank, ten stop two manual Casavant, with pneumatic action. It was originally built as a practice and teaching instrument for the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto. When the Conservatory moved to a new site, the little instrument was acquired by the Church and with volunteer assistance, installed there in the Chancel. It was later overhauled by Dubay Organs of Burlington, Ontario. The instrument dates from c.1911. Although not built and specifically scaled for the building, it is certainly adequate, and contains all of the four major families of organ sound. No, not spectacular, but it does have one thing in common with those already mentioned. One of its frequent and illustrious players was the late Healey Willan who was for many years on the faculty of the Royal Conservatory and served as its Principal at one time.

So there you have it. Four interesting pipe organs out of the hundreds to be found in Toronto, a city that most certainly deserves the attention of lovers of the pipe organ. Drop by the City some time, and enjoy a fascinating organ crawl!

© 2000 Ross Trant

The Organ in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto

Built in 1906, the Breckels and Mathews pipe organ in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto, conjures up images from the past and its sound delights the ear and thrills the soul. The instrument has been under the hands of many fine musicians, but, of course, the one name most frequently connected with it is the legendary Dr. Healey Willan. It was that legend that first drew me to the church on Manning Avenue, and as with so many others, the attraction of the church itself, the organ and the music they provide caught my imagination and attention from the moment of that first visit and the interest continues to this day. A combination of the building, the organ builder and the musicians make this the inspiring and impressive instrument that it is.It is impossible to separate this organ from Healey Willan, his music, his style and his musicianship. Thus this essay about the instrument begins with the man who brought it fame. Dr. Willan came to St. Mary Magdalene’s in 1921 from the position of organist and choir master at St. Paul’s Church, Bloor Street, where he presided over what many consider to be Casavant’s masterpiece, Opus 550, 1914 which at the time had four manuals and 106 stops. It has since been renovated and enlarged. Maestro Willan, after a seven year stint at the magnificent, rather evangelical St. Paul’s, served as Organist and Precentor* at St. Mary Magdalene’s from 1921 until a few weeks before his death in 1968. The organ now at his disposal was very different as we will see, from the magnificent Casavant where he had begun his Canadian church career. StMaryToronto
Courtesy Mystery Worshipper
Courtesy Church of St. Mary Magdalene
The fame of St. Mary Magdalene’s and its music spread far and wide, and it became a place of musical pilgrimage for visitors from around the world. It was very common to have tourists from the major hotels telephone the parish office, asking for service times, and almost invariably adding to the request, ‘Will Dr. Willan be there?’ On at least one occasion the Rector, somewhat annoyed at the priorities of the caller, answered with, “Yes, Dr. Willan will be here. And Jesus will be here too!”I first heard the organ and met Dr. Willan while a teen-age organ student and schoolboy. There is nothing like the brashness of youth. A friend from the same independent school who was also studying the organ, and I decided we should make the pilgrimage and hear the Great Man and his choir. Considering the fame of its precentor, our first surprise was the rather small building, rather plain in exterior design. We had expected something more grand. On entering, our impression changed. There was an atmosphere of loftiness and space, far beyond the dimensions of the place. The architect had done wonders. There was plenty of reflective surface on walls, ceiling and floor. Although the accoutrements of Anglo-Catholicism were very much in evidence, there was no sense of clutter, and the nave was attractively austere. Both my friend, Bob Evans, and I were fascinated by the echo when a busy acolyte set a candle holder down none too gently at the altar. That boded well for the organ, and that proved to be correct. The organ was located, as it is today, on the north side of the chancel with generous openings into the chancel itself and also into the Lady Chapel and north aisle, thus sounding clearly into the nave. Someone had done something right. The architect had made provision for the instrument to be contained within the church, and not in some add-on chamber where its voice could be lost.Bob and I expected to be entertained with a brilliant organ voluntary by Dr. Willan as the congregation assembled, but it was not to be. The organ remained silent until at the sound of a bell, the clergy entered the sanctuary. The celebrant began by singing the invitation to a procession. By great good fortune we had chosen the greatest of Festivals for our visit. The ritual began:

“The Lord be with you…”
“And with thy spirit…”
“Let us go forth in peace…”
“In the name of the Lord, Amen…”

The voices echoed after each line, and after that ‘Great Amen’ the organ came to life. I’ll never forget the thrill of a single pedal note, the bottom D as I recall, with a snarl of reeds and the supporting body of the flues. It set the heart beating and the adrenalin flowing. There was no further introduction, and choirs and congregation rose and sang, ‘Hail , Thee Festival Day’ to the tune which might be considered Willan’s signature composition. The choir and clergy with crucifer, torchbearers and censor, gorgeous banners on high began their solemn procession around the church. The organ can only be described as magnificent, the registrations dramatic and there was no way anyone present could avoid an eagerness to sing. We were being led by a master. Between stanzas of the hymn, which were taken surprisingly slowly to our thinking, yet effectively, Dr. Willan improvised with the skill and artistry for which he was noted. Reeds and diapasons dominated the ensemble, complementing each other, echoing, contrasting, uniting. Bob and I were in awe.

The service progressed, and I’ll not bore the reader by attempting to describe it all. There were times when the choirs sang a capella, and others when the organ joined in. At quiet moments there were delightfully smooth and blending strings in evidence, at the other moments the pure tone of the flutes dominated. Occasionally the voice of the Tuba rang forth. The music was all that we had imagined and more. The organ, most impressive.

It was not the kind of instrument that would have appealed to E. Power Biggs or other proponents of North German instruments. This was the time when it was considered correct to revere the organs of the Baroque, and especially those of the time and homeland of J. S. Bach. This instrument was not like that at all. It still isn’t. Now it is fully back in fashion. What I am attempting to describe is an organ built in the English tradition, familiar at the beginning of the twentieth century and before. I think Father Henry Willis would have approved, but would have included at least a Great mixture as he built it. That omission has been since looked after in a recent rebuild. A fairly assertive twelfth and fifteenth seemed to cap the Great chorus quite well.

The final hymn was ‘The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done,’ sung, of course to ‘Victory.’ Again the organ pealed and Healey Willan displayed his genius, sending thrills up our spines with his mastery. The Mass ended, we were treated to a gloriously festal improvisation based on three of the hymn tunes that had been used. When it ended, Bob and I with our fascination for the organ, reverence for the organist and the audacity of teenagers, climbed the stairs to the gallery and approached the console, where the venerable musician, well into his seventies, was still seated.

We had been expecting to find a magnificent four manual Casavant at least, that being the ultimate to us in those days, maybe even a Willis! What we found was a rather down at heel three manual console with glass doors instead of the expected rolltop. The draw knobs were in double rows after the English fashion and they and the keys looked very well worn. The name plate said, ‘Breckels and Mathews, Toronto, 1906.’ We had never heard of that before, but in time learned that Breckels and Mathews (and later Mathews) had been builders of quality instruments, at least for sound, but had gone out of business during the Great Depression.

Dr. Willan, dressed in grey flannels and a sports jacket with leather elbows over which was an organist’s surplice, but no cassock, smiled at us, and said, “Hello, boys. I’m Healey Willan.” We introduced ourselves as budding organists and students of a school that was familiar to him. Of course we made it clear that his fame had brought us here and we were honoured to meet him. “So, you came to hear the organ, and expected a four manual Casavant, correct?” Open mouthed we agreed that to be true. “Well, how did the Old Girl sound?” We were enthusiastic about the sound of the organ and the man who played it.

Dr. Willan spent nearly an hour with us, telling us about the Church and the organ, with some information about how the console had been moved to the gallery in 1931 by the Morel organ company, that an English Tuba, (we had been impressed by that sound,) playable at 16, 8 and 4 foot pitches had been added at the time. Then Franklin Legge had extended the Choir flute so it could be played at 8 and 4 foot pitches, making what he described a silvery sound.

All in all our impression was of a magnificent English-style, romantic organ. Of course the building’s incredibly fine resonance contributed much to the effect.

Healey Willan passed away in 1968, after serving St. Mary Magdalene’s for 48 years, with only one leave during that time. He was followed by Dr. Giles Bryant. We set about a project in memory of the Master, the rebuilding and enlarging of the Breckels and Mathews, now known as the Healey Willan Memorial Organ. Much of the work was done under the direction of an organ builder, but by parish volunteers. At first David Legge, son of Franklin Legge, mentioned earlier was in charge, but in time it was taken over by Alan Jackson, whose firm, Alan T. Jackson represents Casavant in the Toronto area. Mr. Jackson completed the work, although the number of volunteers dwindled to almost none.

The original Breckels and Mathews instrument had pneumatic action, and in 1931 L. E. Morel converted it to electro-pneumatic. At the same time the choir moved to a gallery choir loft, and the console was able to go with them.

Bob and I were given opportunities to play the organ later, Dr. Willan being amazingly friendly, inviting us back to visit a number of times. One thing that struck me was that there seemed to be no delay in the sound of the organ at the east end of the building reaching the console in the west gallery. One of the two instruments I was playing at the time was the 3-manual Casavant at St. Clement’s, North Toronto. That organ had the Great, Swell and Pedal divisions in the Chancel, while the Choir, for space reasons, had been installed in the west gallery, the console was in the Chancel. The time lag from the gallery division was frightful, and it was impossible to play with all three manuals coupled. St. Mary Magdalene’s situation was amazing by comparison. Again the superb acoustic design of the church made the difference.

During the rebuild and enlarging, the Breckels and Mathews ventil chests, which were difficult to repair, were replaced with modern pitman ones by Casavant, making the organ more reliable and easier to service. There were also some tonal changes and re-voicing, carried out by Alan Jackson. In its current state the Healey Willan Memorial Organ has three manuals and 51 speaking stops, having grown substantially from the 29-rank Breckels and Mathews of 1906. The original console is still in use, but the combination action is now electronic. While the old glass-doored console is still in use, some of the mechanism provided by Breckels and Mathews and L.E. Morel has become unreliable, and a major rebuild or overhaul appears to be needed.

Almost the entire instrument as it was known to Dr. Willan remains in use. A Doppel Flute on the Great has been removed and the 16′ Tuba pipes have been replaced by a revoiced Trombone by S.E. Warren, from the organ at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Toronto. Several reeds have been revoiced.**

Summing up the tonal effect of the organ in St. Mary Magdalene’s, it is an outstanding example of a church organ, especially suited to the English Catholic traditions. Its purpose, first and foremost, has always been to accompany the choirs, inspire the congregation in their singing, and generally to enhance the liturgy. The instrument achieves that purpose. As a concert or recital organ, it does have its limitations, but can certainly give a good account for itself with a skilled musician at the console, and to this writer’s ear, is at its best with English and French music. The English ‘tuba tunes’ are most effective when heard here, and it obviously does not require an organ by Aristide Cavaille-Coll to perform the works of Vierne, Franck or Alain with telling effect.

Organ builders involved from the beginning until the present have been: Breckels and Mathews, original builders, responsible for the basic concept, L.E. Morel, Franklin Legge, David Legge (briefly) and Alan T. Jackson, with his firm and Casavant Freres Limitee, whom Mr. Jackson represents. Alan Jackson took over from David Legge, and was responsible for the rebuilding and enlarging of the Healey Willan Memorial Organ, from 1971 until its completion in 1980. Dr. Giles Bryant deserves full credit for initiating the project.

The church has been most fortunate in its musicians. Since the time of Maestro Willan, the organ has been played and the choirs directed by Giles Bryant, Robert Hunter-Bell and currently Willis Noble.

Specifications of the Re-built Organ

Stops marked * contain new pipes

Great: Double Open Diapason 16, I Open Diapason 8. II Open Diapason 8, *Stopped Diapason 8, Gamba 8, Octave 4, *Wald Flute 4, Twelfth 2 2/3, Fifteenth 2, *Mixture IV, *Cornet (mid. C) V 8, *Trumpet 8, *Clarion 4. Great Super

Swell: Lieblich Bourdon 16, Stopped Diapason 8, Salicional 8, Viola da Gamba 8, Vox Angelica TC 8, Principal 4, Suabe Flute 4, Nazard 2 2/3, Flageolet 2, Tierce 1 3/5, *Sharp Mixture IV 1, *Bassoon 16, Trumpet 8, Oboe 8, Shawn 4. Tremulant. Choir Sub, Choir Super

Choir: (Enclosed) Gedackt 8, Dulciana 8, Unda Maris TC 8, Chimney Flute 4, *Spire Principal 2, *Larigot 1 1/3, *Cymbel III ½, Cremona 8, Tuba 8. Tremulant. Choir Sub, Choir Super.

Pedal: Sub Bourdon (wired) 32, Open Metal (Gt.) 16, Open Wood 16, Subbass 16, Lieblich Bourdon (Sw.) 16, Octave 8, Flute 8, Super Octave 4, Recorder 4, *Mixture IV 2 2/3, Ophelceide 16, Bassoon (Sw.) 16, Trumpet (Gt.) 8, Clarion (Gt.) 4

Couplers on Tilting Tablets above Swell: Great, Swell and Choir to Pedal, 16 and 8. Swell and Choir to Great, 16, 8 and 4. Swell to Choir: 16, 8 and 4.

Adjustable combination pistons: 6 thumb pistons to each division. 10 General pistons, Thumb and Toe. General Cancel and Adjuster. Great and Pedal combinations coupled.

Reversible Pistons: Great to Pedal: thumb and toe. Swell and Choir to Great – thumb. Swell and Choir to Pedal, thumb. Swell to Choir, thumb. Full Organ, toe.

© Ross Trant
Wellington, Ontario, Canada
April, 2004

* Precentor – a choirmaster, often a cleric and in a cathedral, who has been given absolute authority over the music sung and played in the cathedral or church to which he is appointed.

** For this and other technical information, I am indebted to a recent book, ‘Organs of Toronto’ by Alan T. Jackson and James Bailey, published by the Toronto Centre of the Royal Canadian College of Organists.(Highly recommended.) For all else and opinions, personal experience, my aging memory, and conversations with many others familiar with the instrument. For inspiration, the life and creativity of Healey Willan.

Further Links
The Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Healey Willan, Peerless Ecclesiastical Composer