The early history of the organs of Hexham Abbey remains shrouded in mystery. An 18th century engraving shows that an organ was sited on the mediaeval screen but no further details can be traced. An interesting booklet on the organs of the Abbey, published in 1969 by Harold Reay, indicates that only in the middle of the last century did the instrument reach that degree of prominence whereby it was thought to be worthy for its details to be recorded.
An organ installed in 1804 in Carlisle Cathedral by John Avery, one of the better known and more respected builders of his time, was sold in 1856 to the Abbey and rebuilt on the screen by Nicholson of Newcastle in exactly the same form as that in which it left Carlisle. Harold Reay's account describes how this Carlisle organ underwent a number of changes in the latter half of the 19th century before it was completely rebuilt in 1905 by Norman & Beard with Sir Frederick Bridge, then organist of Westminster Abbey, as the consultant.
The almost unique Echo organ which contained some interesting pipes of quite reasonable quality - all in good condition survives in the South East transept triforium. In spite of the rather queer looking stoplist of this division - by today's standards at least - it was difficult to avoid the view that here was an untouched piece of the history of organ building. As such, it therefore should be left, respected and not disturbed in any way.
The current 1974 organ is from Lawrence Phelps and Associates of Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., with two manuals and pedal organ of 34 stops. The design includes not merely what is necessary for music of classical composers but also satisfies the needs of the romantic repertoire and music associated with all periods of the Anglican tradition. The stoplist includes string tones as well as that sound so characteristic of the English organ, the full Swell; all this done with 34 stops on two manuals and Pedal!
The action to all keys is mechanical, the stop action electric with solid-state electronic memory pistons. There are 8 pistons to each division with 8 general pistons affecting the whole organ. The latter and the pistons to the Pedal organ are duplicated by toe pistons - and there are the usual reversible pistons to the couplers and a "Full Organ" piston.
The finishing of the organ by Lawrence Phelps was completed for September 10th 1974 when the inaugural recital was given by Gillian Weir.
1998 - Solid state multi-channel combination action with sequencer
The result of the builder's endeavours is now evident for all to see and hear. There cannot be many churches in the country where one can find an instrument of 34 speaking stops which is capable of providing a superb musical account of such a wide range of organ music. Indeed few organs can rival it in versatility. It is capable of doing justice to the music of all periods - from deGrigny, Sweelinck and Blow, through Couperin, Bach, Franck, Liszt, Wesley and Stanford to Messiaen, Howells and Leighton.
Most importantly from the liturgical point of view, it provides firm and positive accompaniment for congregational singing and fully serves the needs of the wide variety of the Anglican choral tradition.
For some time now it has been generally recognised that mechanical action has a number of important advantages over electrical and pneumatic systems - especially in terms of the ability of the player to control the way in which the wind is admitted to the pipes. Opinions have been expressed that this organ is endowed with one of the finest and most sensitive actions in the country. In this as well as in other aspects, the instrument must surely represent a landmark for organ building. Testimony to its excellence is to be found in the numerous recordings which have been made and the frequency with which it is featured in radio broadcasts. But the best testimony of all is to hear it - for it speaks for itself.
The appearance in a prominent position on the screen of the werkprinzip case of light oak with its glistening facade of high-grade tin pipes is striking. There was no attempt to match the organ case in style or colour to the mediaeval screen. The solution arrived at was to arrange that the wood of the case blended in colour with the stone columns of the surrounding chancel arch - and this clearly has been achieved.
Original text taken & edited from "Hexham Abbey The Organ" by Donald Wright
CDs of the organ can be obtained from the Abbey Shop.
There is also a Chamber Organ.. [see here]