When Size Matters: The Mulholland Organ
Philip Hammond gets the low down on the Mulholland Grand Organ at the Ulster Hall
Let’s face it. There are some things in life which really count and when it comes to the size of your organ, in the mind of the Victorians at any rate, size mattered. And it still does - although with modern technology, you can probably produce the same effect of a huge organ from a mere box of tricks and a couple of big speakers. But where’s the romance in that?
Thanks to the size of the trouser pockets of a previous Lord Mayor of Belfast, the generous Andrew Mulholland, this city can claim one of the most interesting old organs in the country. So when the Mulholland Grand Organ was 'welcomed back' to the Ulster Hall this week and 'tried out' by the current city organist, Colm Carey, I decided that I should get in on the act. Why not interview the organ itself?
'It’s no joke having your ivories tickled at almost 150 years of age. And especially after all that I’ve been through in this past year.'
I began to worry that I was going to find this organ hard to handle. Would I get a grumpy old organ response to everything?
'Those rough builder types who refurbished the Ulster Hall, I tell you. Despite the swathes of black plastic that had been wrapped around me, I could feel the damp, the dust, the debris getting into my inners. It almost did for me!'
At that point, there was a low grumbling from the depths of the organ casing and the beginnings of a cipher so I thought I’d better move the conversation on. We wouldn’t have wanted to disturb the political rally that was taking place in another part of the Ulster Hall complex – making any sounds to do with the arts would, of course, have been unwelcome.
'Ah yes, I’ve seen a few things here you know. Rallies were ten a penny in the old days but there’s just not the same calibre of politicians nowadays as back then. In the old days, they were already rich from exploiting the poor of the country – now they spend all their trying to make themselves rich in other ways – questionable expenses, dodgey land deals, you name it.'
I felt this blunt instrument was heading into difficult territory and wanted to get back to the size thing so I remarked on the rather large protrusion at the front top of the organ casing.
'That’s the new fanfare trumpet which was added some years ago by Mr Prosser – the lovely organ builder who looks after me so well. Mind you, I’ve noticed he’s got rather portly of late and finds it a bit awkward crawling around inside me and reaching those bits which require someone – how shall I put it? – someone of a lighter frame perhaps? That fanfare rank is not the easiest place to reach... still, he manages it rightly and, of course, no-one ever uses it now anyway – those tone deaf City Council bureaucrats probably consider it a Health and Safety risk for the audience as it certainly makes one big sound.'
But the trumpet fanfare is just the bit 'in your face' I suggested. What’s behind the facade?
'You’ll already know that I’m made up of over six thousand pipes – the biggest is 32 feet long and the smallest is no more than half an inch. I’ve got four keyboards or manuals and it takes a six horse power engine to work the bellows that supply me with enough air to sing. In fact, I’ve also got a back-up two horse power engine as well because when you pull out all the stops – and there’s well over 80 of those – you need one heck of a lot of wind. I remember that nice girl Gillian Weir playing with me in the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony here some years ago and that last chord began to sag ever so slightly – well, it happens. Now she was one big player!
'And talking about big players, there was the infamous Carlo Curley also who actually stood up on my pedal board for melodramatic effect. He knew how to play to the gallery and that’s no lie. In those days, the hall manager, Terry de Winne, had installed a massive spotlight up there, trained only on me so that the ice-cream parlour colours that he’d 'restored' were almost blinding. Funny how one generation thinks it 'restores' what a previous generation has already thought it 'restored'.
Looking at its current casing, the rather dull browns of the falsely grained wood and the unimaginative stencilling, flanked by the most ghastly false Victorian murals I’ve ever seen, I wondered what the future held for this musical masterpiece.
'Like many old codgers, I’ve had various bits and pieces added and fall off over the years – some to good effect and, well, others which could be removed without too many tears being shed. I think I’d want to go back to my original specification and get rid of some of the excesses of my 70s rebuild. That would cost a bit I’m afraid but I’d love to be again the spritely young romantic organ I was when Mr Hill put me together in 1862.'
And I thought to myself, wouldn’t we all like to be the young romantics we once saw ourselves to be!
You can attend a special celebratory concert to mark the Mulholland Grand Organ’s return to working order on Tuesday May 4 featuring Belfast City Organist Colm Carey and the Ulster Orchestra.