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