Cover Feature

September 5, 2015

Fratelli Ruffatti, Padua, Italy

St. Mel’s Cathedral, 

Longford, Ireland


From the organ consultant

The present organ is the fourth to be built for the cathedral. The first instrument was built by the highly respected Victorian firm of Bevington & Sons of London in 1857. This organ served the cathedral for 56 years, being replaced in 1913 by a new instrument made by the German firm of Stahlhuth of Aachen, on the advice of the Reverend Professor Heinrich Bewerunge of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland’s national seminary for the training of priests for the Roman Catholic Church since 1795. Some 14 years earlier Bewerunge had commisioned the same firm to build an instrument for the new College Chapel on the Maynooth campus. This was an innovative instrument for its time and one that clearly impressed and satisfied Bewerunge; hence his recommendation that the same firm from his native country should be commissioned to build the new organ for Longford’s St. Mel’s Cathedral. It was a substantial three-manual and pedal organ, but its positioning in the cathedral was problematic, having to be “shoe-horned” onto the small, high west gallery of the building, tight up against the barrel of the ceiling, leaving only cramped accommodation for what must have been a small choir. It was housed in grilled timber enclosures without visible pipes, and employed the latest pneumatic-action technology that had so impressed Bewerunge in the Maynooth instrument.

By the 1970s it had clearly served its time and had become unreliable in function, and its location, long a problem in terms of participative liturgy, had now become anachronistic in the context of the cathedral’s major reordering according to the liturgical norms of Vatican II. It was, therefore, decided to replace the Stahlhuth installation with a new organ, which, however, was to retain the best of the pipes of the original instrument. This was commissioned from Kenneth Jones & Associates of Bray, County Wicklow. It was to be a two-manual and pedal organ with mechanical action. While the pipes and soundboards of the new instrument remained in the original high gallery, they were sited more advantageously and with less obstruction to tonal egress. A new, generously proportioned gallery was built at a lower level to provide comfortable accommodation for both choir and organist. This organ served the cathedral well until the disastrous fire of Christmas 2009, which saw its complete destruction.

The contract was put out to international tender, with three eminent organ building firms making it to the short list. The contract was ultimately awarded to Fratelli Ruffatti of Padua, Italy, a firm with a long history of organ building in various styles on both sides of the Atlantic. In a sense, the commissioning of this instrument from the Italian firm saw history repeating itself, as Fratelli Ruffatti has also recently completed the major restoration and renovation of the Maynooth College Chapel organ, just as Stahlhuth had similarly worked in Maynooth before coming to Longford over a century ago. 

In seeking to provide a new organ for the restored cathedral, the primary aims were to secure an instrument that would at least be of the same high quality as the Jones organ, while providing a richer palette of tonal colors that would make the instrument more suited to a wider range of repertoire, and enhance its accompanimental capacity for choir and congregation. The new Fratelli Ruffatti organ is sited in a case of striking design—placed to the right of the altar, apparently suspended between columns as it follows and echoes the cathedral’s architectural elegance of line. It is thus a visual and musical enhancement of the “new” St. Mel’s, positioned in a manner that clearly gives witness to its key role in providing music for the liturgy, suited to its functions in accompanying choirs, cantors, and congregation, while its sonic design gives the range of color and dynamics necessary to perform with fidelity the centuries-old solo repertoire of the “king of instruments.”

The present organ is the largest in the cathedral’s 160-year history. The instrument now numbers 39 stops, and its enclosed Choir division enhances the accompanimental capacity of the organ, while also enabling it to cope with both romantic and contemporary repertoire with a degree of authenticity and color that the previous organs lacked.

The tonal ethos of the instrument is eclectic, with a bias towards the romantic and symphonic style of organ design. For example, 14 of the stops are at 8 or 16 pitch, thus providing solid tonal foundations of varying intensity and flexibility, while seven reed stops provide both variety of color and grandeur as required. The expressive Choir division with its American-style Celeste stop is a bold statement of the instrument’s expressive romantic intent.

Ruffatti opted to manufacture the divisional soundboards and other internal components using Sipo mahogany from Central Africa, as it was felt that this variety of wood would guarantee maximum stability in varying climatic conditions.

New pipes have been cast in the Ruffatti workshop in Padua, some using an alloy of 95% tin to ensure optimal tonal and structural properties, not only for the crafting of the display pipes, but also for all internal pipes of large dimensions. Other pipes have been manufactured utilizing selected alloys to achieve the best tonal properties for each individual stop.

The playing action of the instrument is electric, yet with an application of traditional procedures that look to the future. The three-manual playing console is on a moveable platform with hardwood parquet floor, providing flexibility for both varying liturgical demands and concert usage. In addition, the console accessories include a generous provision of both general and divisional combination pistons, a sequencer system, and record/playback connections to MIDI. Organists can also store a very large number of stop combinations within personalized password-protected memory folders, to facilitate ease of performances.

The organ was installed in the final months of 2014, with tonal completion taking place in April 2015. The dedication and inauguration took place on Sunday, May 24, 2015.

—Gerard Gillen

Titular Organist, Dublin Pro-Cathedral

Professor and Head of Music, Maynooth University, 1985–2007


The architecture
of the Longford organ

The organ in St. Mel’s Cathedral was originally located in the rear balcony. It was decided that a new position in the rebuilt cathedral, in the front of the building, would better suit the liturgical needs of the worship space. In its new location, the organ is elevated from floor level, under three arches in the right side transept. With this configuration the choir sits at the end of the right side nave, in front of the organ. Here, the organ’s presence is significant without being prominent.

It was required that the two columns in the right side transept be free of any load, and that they remain visible. A steel structure with two long beams was built behind the columns, spanning 34 feet and supported by the side pilasters. Since most of the organ’s weight hangs from these main beams, an additional steel structure was built about ten feet above the bottom structure to help support the load. This complicated steel structure further limited the available space and presented a problem for winding and access. Nevertheless, the most important goals to make an installation successful were achieved: ideal location of pipes and access for maintenance needs.

We were asked to design and build the organ case, including the cover of the steel frame. Although the cathedral had to be rebuilt exactly the way it had been before the fire, the general restoration philosophy called for any artwork, all furniture, and the organ to be contemporary in design. Although we have created many organs of traditional design, we at Ruffatti are particularly pleased when we can use creativity and innovation in a design, creating instruments with personality that can be remembered as unique.

We chose a symmetrical concept in the central bay and an asymmetrical concept in the side bays that put a visual emphasis on the central bay. The design is a combination of straight vertical lines and curved horizontal lines, which are traditionally seldom used. The curved lines work well with the arches over the organ, which are a prominent architectural feature recurring throughout the building.

The two enclosed divisions are located in the side bays. They are very effective, incorporating the unique Ruffatti hyperdynamic expression system. The Great and part of the Pedal are in the central bay. To save space inside the case, and to limit its depth, we decided to install the large wood pipes on the back of the organ case, effectively creating a front façade and a rear façade, which turned out to be very successful both aesthetically and tonally.

—Piero Ruffatti


The tonal design
of the Longford organ

Expression is the key to this approach. In using this word, we do not mean merely introducing enclosed organ divisions as a form of control over the volume of sound. Making the organ an expressive instrument means, primarily, creating the conditions by which every single voice, or stop, can be successfully combined with all others. If this condition is met, the number of possible tonal combinations becomes huge even in a relatively small instrument, thus creating the conditions to “express” music more freely and creatively. This is being achieved, in Ruffatti instruments, by the careful dimensioning and voicing of every single stop.

The creation of different volume levels also contributes, of course, to making the organ an “expressive” instrument. In the Longford Cathedral organ, two of the three manual divisions, the Choir and the Swell, are each located inside an expression box. While this feature does not represent anything new, there is something in this instrument that makes it unique. Research conducted by Ruffatti has produced an innovative system for dramatically increasing the dynamic range of the expression enclosures. Far beyond the simple possibility of providing a wider differentiation between “the softest” and “the loudest,” this feature is the key to a wider degree of freedom both for the tonal designer and the performer. A practical example of this concept can be found in the Choir division of this instrument, where a Gemshorn stands alone (possibly with a bit of help from a Holzgedeckt) as the foundation for the secondary Principal chorus of the organ. The possibility of reducing volume to a dramatic degree with the box closed allowed the tonal designer to “scale” and voice the Gemshorn almost to the tonal character and volume of a Principal, big enough to act as the natural foundation of a Positiv division, knowing that, with the box closed, such a stop could also be used, in conjunction with the Gems-horn Celeste, as an elegant, quiet Flute Celeste-like stop.

The same dynamics apply to all stops under expression, in particular the flutes, strings, and reeds, which have been voiced to function both as assertive solo stops and in contexts requiring moderate volume levels.

—Francesco Ruffatti

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