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. A booklet on the organs of the Abbey, published in 1969 by Harold Reay, indicates that only in the middle of the 19th 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.
This almost unique Echo organ which contains some interesting pipes of quite reasonable quality, and in good condition, survives in the South East transept triforium. In spite of the rather odd 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 Phelps Organ
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 Chamber Organ
In the more intimate setting of the choir, the Chamber Organ is used to accompany Choral Evensong and Communion services. It is also used in the Nave for the Abbey Choirs, for Music in the Abbey and Festival concerts, and for services or concerts in the transepts. Particularly suitable for continuo for major works such as Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s St Matthew Passion, it can be used alone or in ensemble with the Phelps organ, the piano, string, brass or woodwind instruments.