Although the “Great Exhibition” was not the first time an organ or organ parts had been displayed at an exhibition, it was the start of a large series of organ exhibits at world expositions. The “Great Exhibition” had a special section for the organs: “Section II: Machinery” and the instruments and organ parts were categorized under “Class 10: philosophical, musical, horological and surgical instruments.” Apart from three barrel organs by English builders, a specimen of various stops and a special device, eleven organs were displayed; three of them by builders from abroad: France, Germany, and Italy; eight by English builders. Also, a large number of free reed instruments was exhibited.
A special jury was appointed to judge the musical instruments and one of its members was Hector Berlioz, the famous composer who stated that organ mixtures were left overs from the middle ages. He detested mutations and compound stops. Amongst the members we also find organist and composer George Smart, Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm (an organist and composer as well) and Dr. Karl Emil von Schafhäutl, Abbé Voglers first biographer.
Both Willis and Walker were present: Henry Willis had put up a 70-stop instrument, 3 manuals (56 keys) and a pedal with a compass of 32 keys. Joseph William Walker showed a small organ, “in a highly-ornamented gothic oak case, (…) 2¼ octaves of pedals, and nine stops, including pedal pipes. There are four composition pedals for changing the stops (…)” and a pedal coupler.
The exhibitions encouraged a strong focus on inventions and on new, technical devices, but this development went hand in hand with changes of the sound concept. Here is a small selection of spectacular novelties from the “Great Exhibition.”
Willis’s instrument included an improved pneumatic lever of his own design, thumb pistons underneath the manual keyboards which (through a pneumatic action) could activate fixed stop combinations, and a large Swell division with 22 stops and its bellows inside the swell box.
William Hill’s organ (II+P/16) included a “Tuba Mirabilis” 8 foot, voiced on 11 inches (about 280 mm) of wind pressure. This stop was invented by Hill and used for the first time in the Birmingham Town Hall organ (1840).
There was also an enharmonic organ, made by T.J.F. Robson, with a keyboard in three rows (42 keys per octave) and a set of exchangeable pipes. Although enharmonic keyboards in itself were not a novelty, this instrument was amongst the first organs equipped with an enharmonic keyboard and it had the largest numbers of keys per octave thus far.
Willis and Hill were awarded a Council Medal, Walker and Robson a Honourable Mention.
Jakob, Friedrich. Die Orgel und die Ausstellung. Männedorf: Th. Kuhn, 1991
Mactaggart, Peter and Ann (eds.).Musical Instruments in the 1851 Exhibition. A transcription of the entries of musical interest from the Official Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Art and Industry of all Nations, with additional material from contemporary sources. Welwyn, Herts: Mac & Me, 1986
Pole, W. Musical Instruments in the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851. London: [repr., with add., from Newton's London Journal of Arts], 1851