02 November 2006

NOEL MANDER, who has died, aged 93, was a remarkable organ-builder. From his combined home and organ works in Bethnal Green (where, thankfully, the firm is still based), he championed the cause of classical structure and mechanical action long before they became accepted as best practice.

As a schoolboy in London in the late 1950s, visiting St Martin's, Ludgate Hill, I had just managed to open the organ and start playing when a voice over my shoulder said: "How did you get into this?"

It was Noel; and, instead of being cross, he merely said: "If you're that interested, you'd better come and see what I do: I'm the organ-builder." And he drove me there and then to Bethnal Green, on the first of many visits to the remarkable complex of church, school, schoolmaster's house, and (later) the parsonage house, where he worked and lived with Enid and their five children.

The music room, with an array of 17th- and 18th-century organs, was a wonderful setting for the frequent parties to celebrate the completion of a restored instrument.

Starting in publishing after school (which he hated), Mander soon moved into organ-building, initially with Hill, Norman & Beard. After war service, he returned to a scene of destruction. As a Londoner who loved the City, and who had, with the help (and sometimes connivance) of his friend Archdeacon Michael Hodgins, rescued many war-damaged instruments, he knew the organs of London better than anyone.

He understood the relationship of the case to the instrument of which it was an integral part, and from his organ for the rebuilt St Vedast's, Foster Lane, onwards set a trend against the overblown and sprawling instruments of the 1950s and 1960s which electric action had made possible.

Noel built organs great and small; he never passed an interesting instrument by, and he believed that there was always something to learn from his predecessors. From the extraordinarily painstaking restoration of the 17th-century organ at Aldington Hall, Cheshire, in 1959 onwards, he was known as someone to whom you could entrust a bruised and battered instrument, and know that he could bring it to life - its own life.

In church organs, Noel was interested in placing the organ where it could be seen and heard, and where it could help people sing. When he rebuilt the organ in Canterbury Cathedral, he put a small division halfway down the north wall of the nave: it has only six stops, but it can be used to lead a congregation of a thousand.

The culmination of his work was the rebuilding of the organ in St Paul's Cathedral, from 1972 to 1978. Noel knew the building, and understood the problems that Willis had tried to solve by adding large choruses in the dome. He championed the restoration of the organ to its Wren screen, from which it had been removed in the 1860s, and got his friend Dennis Flanders to draw a winsome design, which would have helped make liturgical as well as musical sense of the great dome area.

Noel had to accept that this - like many of his ideas - was ahead of its time, but worked hard at unifying the revitalised Father Willis instrument in the choir with his new dome choruses and the remarkable west-end section. He made it possible for the first time for a huge congregation in St Paul's to sing together.

The St Paul's organ is a triumph: it could have been built only by someone who knew the building and how it was used, and who knew and loved the original Willis organ, and wanted it to sing again with integrity.

Noel was an old-fashioned churchman of decided opinions, a member of the Parish Clerks, and an instinctive organ-builder, who more than anyone else of his generation paved the way for the respectful and accurate conservation of old organs. And he was great company. To his delight, his son John, whom he sent to Von Beckerath in Germany for his apprenticeship, now leads this internationally respected firm.

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