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What's on City of Melbourne

Town Hall Organ

There have been two permanent Grand Organs installed in the Town Hall since 1872. The original organ was extensively rebuilt in 1905. The second organ was installed in 1929 following the Town Hall fire of 1925.

For information on upcoming organ concerts, visit What's on.  

The 1872 Organ

The makers of the original Grand Organ were unable to install it in time for the official opening of the Town Hall on 9 August 1870.

A 17-stop organ from a lecture room in Richmond was borrowed and used until the installation and opening of the Grand Organ on 10 August 1872.

This organ was built and installed by William Hill and Son of London. The various organ parts, packed in a great number of cases (later sold by the builder to recoup part of the losses on the tender), arrived in Melbourne on 27 November 1871 after a 56-day journey from London on the Lammermuir.

Under the guidance of Robert Mackenzie of William Hill and Son, and D. Renton, the organ was installed into the recess intended in the northern part of the Hall. This work took nine months to complete.

The organ contained four manuals, 66 speaking stops and 4,373 pipes.

It was opened formally on 10 August 1872 by the Mayor, Orlando Fenwick, in the presence of the Governor of Victoria, Lord Viscount Canterbury, and Lady Canterbury. The organist for the opening was David Lee, who was later appointed City Organist.

George Fincham, the builder of the temporary organ used prior to 1872, carried out the repairs and maintenance of the organ until the early 1900s, when the Council decided to undertake a major reconstruction of the organ to improve its action and tonal qualities.

The 1906 Organ

After consulting leading overseas and local organ-building experts, a contract was entered into with Ingram and Co. (who prepared the specification) for the complete reconstruction of the organ on the electro-pneumatic principle, including the provision of a new console. In addition, a number of new stops were installed, along with alterations and repairs to the wind trunks and sound board. Edwin H. Lemare of London gave the opening recital on the revamped organ on 4 July 1906.

Apart from some variations in ornamentation and the position of the console, the organ retained its appearance of 1872. The alterations to the choir seating were perhaps the most noticeable feature of the stage and organ arrangement.

On 1 February 1925, the organ and a large part of the Main Hall were destroyed by fire.

The 1929 Organ

In late-1925, following the Town Hall fire, the Council resolved to rebuild the Main Hall and install a new grand organ. A comprehensive specification of work, dated 30 April 1926, invited tenders throughout Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom for the supply, delivery and installation of a modern grand organ in the Town Hall.

The tender of William Hill and Son, and Norman and Beard Ltd. of London, was accepted.

The opening recital on the new grand organ was given by W. G. Price, the City Organist, on 3 July 1929.

The organ stands at 9.75 metres (32 feet) high. The casework is made of Queensland maple with coin-bronze grilles. More than 483 kilometres (300 miles) of wire and more than 3,000 magnets with 32,000 electric contacts were used in the electrical equipment. There are 6,024 pipes, the largest being the ‘Tibia Profunda’.

The organ was constructed of California red pine and contains more than 1,000 metres (300 super feet) of 50.8 mm (2 inches) thick timber. The smallest pipe is the top note of the Tierce and is 9.3 mm (3/8 inch) in length with a diameter of 11.11 mm (7/16 inch). The console has four manuals (four rows of keys) from top to bottom being: Solo, Swell, Great and Choir. The Orchestral is a floating organ and is playable on all manuals by way of a rocking tablet on the key cheek of each set of keys.

The organ is blown by two electric motors, one 14.91 kilowatts (20 horsepower) and one 11.18 kilowatts (15 horsepower) and gives pressures from 215.900 mm (8 ½ inches) to 7,010.400 mm (23 ½ inches) water pressure, as measured by a water pressure gauge. The wind is delivered at a rate of 2,548.53 cubic metres (90,000 cubic feet) per minute.

On 11 September 1972, a Grand Organ Music Concert was held to celebrate a centenary of organ music concerts at the Town Hall. The four soloists on this historic occasion were Anthony Fenelon, Gordon Hamilton, Lance Hardy and Dr. Harold Fabrikant. The organ stands as one of the most significant features of the Town Hall and has been listed by Heritage Victoria.

Unfortunately, by the mid-1990s the Town Hall Organ had fallen into disrepair and was greatly in need of refurbishing. Financial constraints in the past had prevented any major work being carried out on it for some time, so that by 1997 the organ was unplayable.

A Town Hall Organ Working Committee was established in 1996 to make recommendations for the restoration and enhancement of the organ, agreeing to a refurbishment program the following year.

Refurbishing the Grand Organ

In 2001, after five years and $4.5 million dollars, work to restore and enhance the Grand Organ was completed.

The contract to restore the organ went to the Schantz Organ Company of Orville, Ohio. The Schantz Organ Company employs some 70 craftspeople and artisans. It was founded in 1873 and is the oldest and largest American pipe organ builder still under management of the founding family.

In January 1999, a team of nine Schantz staff visited Melbourne to complete the removal of the organ from the chamber and to pack it in containers for its journey to America. Some parts of the organ, including the largest pipes, stayed in Australia and were restored by Australian organ builders. When work was complete, the organ was returned to Australia.

The City of Melbourne celebrated the completion of the refurbishment of the Grand Organ with a public concert on May 25 2001, as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations.

The concert was the world premiere of a specially commissioned work by internationally renowned composer Philip Glass. Glass, in collaboration with didgeridoo virtuoso Mark Atkins, wrote a 25-minute musical work featuring a combination of indigenous and non-indigenous performers: Calvin Bowman (pipe organ), Mark Atkins (didgeridoo), Ron Murray, (didgeridoo and clapsticks) and Wurundjeri elder Joy Murphy Wandin (narrator).

Grand Organ specifications

Download the Grand Organ specifications (PDF, 66kb).

Recent performances

The City of Melbourne now pursues a strategy of presenting a wide range of performances featuring the organ, including attracting new audiences and international performers.

The free lunchtime concert series, Organic Lunch, is a very popular series that has been running since December 2003. Other activities have included screening films with live improvised accompaniment on the organ, masterclasses with visiting international organists and new compositions by young Australian composers commissioned for the organ.

In 2005 and 2007, The Necks…Piped brought a minimalist jazz sound to the organ. In 2006, The Current expanded the Grand Organ program with a multimedia interactive event that toured the Town Hall building, including inside the organ chambers. This program was extended further in 2008, with improvised performances by The Genie and Chris Abrahams.

Recently, the computer MIDI capabilities of the Grand Organ have been explored with students of RMIT’s Music Technology and Perception course. In 2009, Paul Grabowsky was commissioned to create a new work for Grand Organ, trumpet, recorders and drums, as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, and Calvin Bowman performed the complete organ works of JS Bach in a marathon of almost 17 hours.

There have been a large number of international organists perform on the Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ since 2005. They include Cameron Carpenter, Simon Preston, Fred Swann, John Scott, Daniel Zaretsky, Dong-ill Shin, Carlo Curley, Felix Hell, Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin, Gordon Stewart, Clive Driskill-Smith, Christopher Herrick and Maurizio Salerno. Orchestra Victoria partners with the City of Melbourne to present works for organ and orchestra from the well-known (Poulenc, Saint-Saens) to the undiscovered (Rheinberger, Lovelock).

Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ Museum

In July 2005, the City of Melbourne launched the Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ Museum. The museum features a stunning three dimensional scale model of the organ and original programmes from the opening concerts of the 1872 and 1929 organs. The museum gives visitors a chance to breathe air into the organ pipes.

It is accessible via tours of the Melbourne Town Hall. Tours operate 11am and 1pm Monday to Friday, and can be booked on 03 9658 9658. 

Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ