The organ in St Peter's church stands in the St John Chantry by the choir stalls. It is a striking modern instrument encased in English oak with colourful pipework, and plays a central role in the musical life of St Peter's
It was built by Peter Collins in 1986 at his former workshop in Redbourne, only eight miles from Berkhamsted. In 2007-2011 the organ underwent a major restoration programme.
The St Peter's organ is a versatile instrument for the whole repertoire, whether accompanying the church choir and congregation in hymns, playing at weddings or funerals, or as a solo instrument in the frequent organ recitals held at St Peter's.
It is an instrument for all our lives, and it speaks to us whether we are musicians or simply those who delight in listening.
In 1984, the decision was taken to replace the ageing Walker organ of 1871 and build an instrument that better suited the revised liturgical layout of the church. The English builder, Peter Collins, was chosen and the instrument was completed in 1986. Over half of the pipework comprised pipes from the original Walker organ and Peter Collins was involved in every stage of the construction. The case-work was entirely executed in English oak, the ornament and screens were made of sycamore, the windchests in oak and mahogany.
By 2002, the 1986 instrument had become unreliable and a number of its essential systems were failing with increasing regularity. Initially the church had planned to replace just the mechanical action (the most regularly-failing system), but after advice, it was decided to undertake a major rebuild and try to rectify the majority of infrastructure faults that had developed and were impacting on the musical and spiritual life of the church. An appeal for £40,000 was launched in October 2007 and Vincent H. M. Woodstock was engaged as organ builder for the scheme. The work comprised an almost entirely new mechanical action, a new winding system (to replace the one that kept breaking down), a new electrical and capture system to replace the original that had ceased to work reliably and the addition of a digital 32’ to underpin the very bright chorus and English-style full swell. By Eastertide 2008, the fund was nearly complete and work was able to begin.
Rebuilding the instrument turned into a substantially longer project than originally envisaged: the process of rebuilding had uncovered a whole set of further problems that needed rectifying. The compact nature of the instrument did mean that the problems were all but invisible until parts of the instrument were dismantled. So in addition to the original schedule of work, the project required new sets of manuals to replace the original manuals with an unrectifiable pivot problem, a complete refurbishment of a very old and worn out set of bellows, major work on the windchests, and substantial extra work on the pedal organ wind system that had all but collapsed.
The major part of the work was complete by Easter 2011, with final completion achieved on 24 October. It has been a joy to hear the pipes sound with a much improved supply of wind, and the work has uncovered some very beautiful flute tones, as well as a Great Chorus with much more body than previously – meaning a substantially more effective hymn accompaniment with a full church. It is also hoped that the stability of wind, alongside the new keyboards and mechanical system, will correct the long-time tuning difficulties between the manuals.
This rebuilt organ was made possible by the generosity of the members of St Peter’s, the people of Berkhamsted and friends, and is offered by them to the Glory of God and for the joy and inspiration of all who come to hear and see it.
The organ was blessed during a service of vespers for St Cecilia's Day in November 2011.
In 2014 a new addition was installed on the St Peter's organ, the Zimbelstern, designed by Tony Firshman. A Zimbelstern (which means "cymbal star" in German) is a mechanism which plays a set of small bells. Zimbelsterns were popular in Germany from the 16th century and can be found today on Baroque organs around Europe, but it is quite unusual to find a Zimbelstern on an English instrument. The Berkhamsted Zimbelstern was inaugurated at Easter 2014.
Read about the design process that went into the construction of the Zimbelstern
Watch a video of the latest addition to the St Peter's organ, the Firshman-Zimbelstern:
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