History of the Concert Organ

The Wellington Town Hall concert organ is known internationally for its sound quality and historical value. It’s one of the few original Edwardian pipe organs in the world – this makes it pretty special.

Wellington Town Hall organ.
Wellington Town Hall concert organ

Powerful organ is more than meets the eye

The Town Hall organ is enormous - there’s much more to it than we can see from the front. It has 4,000 pipes of varying sizes distributed in a structure that is three storeys high. Two of the four keyboards play pipes contained in their own separate rooms, with louvres that the organist can open and shut to control the loudness.

The organ is immensely powerful, capable of matching a full symphony orchestra in volume and able to play notes lower than the bass tuba and higher than the piccolo. It is the quality of tone, however, that distinguishes it from most concert hall organs in the world. Built at a time when Romanticism in music was at its height, it has a warmth of sound that envelopes the listener rather than assaulting the ears.

It takes a full day to tune it. To make sure the 4,000 pipes are doing exactly what they are supposed to, an organist presses each key and combination of keys for the organ tuner to check.

Entertaining the community

The organ has played a major role in Wellington’s community - from business meetings and ceremonies to choral festivals, silent films and the International Festival of the Arts. It has also been played at a variety of public, religious and political gatherings.

Listening to the organ today, you hear the same sound as its audiences enjoyed in 1906. The Town Hall’s auditorium is recognised for its quality symphonic acoustics and when the organ is played, you can hear they are made for each other.

City organists

Past Wellington city organists (starting with the most recent): include:

  • Douglas Mews
  • Maxwell Fernie
  • Charles Collins
  • Harold Temple White
  • Bernard Page
  • John Maughan Barnett.

There is no city organist in Wellington at present.

International organists

After playing the organ, prestigious French concert organist Marie-Claire Alain wrote a letter strongly recommending that the organ be kept at its original specifications.

Many other prominent international organists have played the Town Hall organ. These include:

  • Cameron Carpenter
  • Carlo Curley
  • Christopher Herrick
  • David Kinsela
  • Olivier Latry (2012)
  • Edwin Lemare
  • Hayko Siemens
  • Dame Gillian Weir.

Music recorded on the Town Hall organ

Listen to music recorded on the organ and remember it’s only a taste of what you would hear live:
Douglas Mews - Dance Macabre - YouTube
Christopher Herrick - Organ Fireworks, Vol 6 - Hyperion

Organ background

Wellington City Corporation commissioned Norman & Beard to build our concert organ in London at a cost of 5,000 pounds. It took 12 months to build and was shipped from England in 51 zinc-lined cases and packages.

Designed as a symphonic-styled civic concert organ, it still has its original tubular pneumatic action and blowing mechanism. Many civic organs were rebuilt when the organ reform movement (a classical organ revival) was popular from the late ’50s to the '80s.

There have been recommendations to make all sorts of substantial changes to the organ over the years. Though some minor changes have been made, it’s had a lucky escape from a major makeover. If any major alterations had been done, it would have destroyed the very essence of the organ and we’d never get it back.

Photo gallery

Check out some of the photos of the organ showing its use and history.