Cover Feature

November 2, 2018

Fratelli Ruffatti, Padua, Italy

Buckfast Abbey, 

Devon, United Kingdom

The sound

Designing an organ presents many challenges, many of which are related to making the instrument fit tonally and visually into the building which will be its home. The challenges connected with our recent installation at Buckfast Abbey, Devon, England, were, in many ways, out of the ordinary. We were asked to design two instruments of considerable size, tonally interconnected, for a building of moderate size and very kind acoustics that amplify sound in a dreamlike fashion. While it was not difficult to design an instrument to play a variety of literature, much attention was required to scaling the sound to the building without sacrificing the proper characterization of the many different stops.

The tonal palette was based on an initial draft by Matthew Martin, international recitalist, former organist at the London Oratory and now Fellow and Director of Music and College Lecturer at Keble College, Oxford. Further adjustments were coordinated between Philip Arkwright, Organist and Master of the Music at Buckfast Abbey, and Fratelli Ruffatti.

The main instrument, of four manuals and pedal, is located on two sides behind the choir stalls and partially on the triforium level (the upper arcaded gallery) above. Specifically, Great, Positivo (in the Italian style, hence the name), Swell, and Pedal are housed inside solid oak cases at nave level, while the Solo division is placed at triforium level, along with a whole series of “special effects” playable from the Positivo, some of which belong to the early Italian tradition.

The second instrument, comprising two manual divisions with full pedal, is located in the west gallery and partially in the triforium level areas that are closest to the west gallery. Two nearly identical four-manual consoles have been provided, one in each location. The difference between the two is that the Quire console is equipped with an electric lift that adjusts the height of the keydesk and stop jambs by more than four inches (10 centimeters). This feature, along with the two height-adjustable benches (one for concert use, and one for teaching purposes), makes it very easy for any organist to find comfortable playing space. 

As G. Donald Harrison, the Englishman who became tonal director of Aeolian Skinner, once stated, “To me, all art is international; one can draw from the best of all countries. I have used the technique at my disposal to produce instruments which I consider suitable for expressing the best in organ literature.” This instrument indeed embraces this philosophy. The requirements for the seven initial worldwide organbuilders that were asked to submit specifications included the need for the instrument to support a wide repertoire of accompanied music, as well as to successfully perform a wide range of organ literature. Such requirements were not taken lightly and, drawing from decades of experience and from different traditions, as Harrison advocated, Ruffatti introduced several tonal features that are new or rare to find in England, with the aim of sparking interest for improvisation and creative registration for the international repertoire. 

It is along these lines that the Gallery Organ was designed. It draws from the French Romantic tradition of Cavaillé-Coll. Dedicated studies were conducted on several organs in Paris and other locations in order to ensure as close a proximity as possible to the Cavaillé-Coll style, by carefully copying pipe measurements and voicing methods, without pretentious claims of authenticity. The instrument is designed as a two-manual, but it can also be used as a large cohesive division, part of which is under expression, that can be played against, or in tandem with, the main Quire Organ. 

Along the same line of thought, the Italian Positivo was introduced in the Quire. With the tonal consistency of an early Italian instrument and the trademark low-pressure voicing, it provides all tonal resources needed to faithfully perform classical Italian literature from the Renaissance up to the early Romantic period, an ingredient that is indeed rare to find in an instrument in England. It is also ideal for playing in alternatim with the monastic choir. This is not just a nice “toy” to have, but serves convincingly as a Positiv division, in dialogue with the Great for access to a broader classical repertoire.

Another note of interest concerns the Solo division, which includes stops that have been drawn from the Skinner tradition, as well as other orchestral stops of Ruffatti design.

One of the aspects characteristic of Fratelli Ruffatti is that we manufacture almost everything in house, including flue and reed pipes. This is the best guarantee for quality control. At the same time, it provides the opportunity to carefully select all the ingredients that are necessary in the mind of the tonal designer. The difference is in the details. Being able to pass any requirements that experience dictates on to the pipe shop enables the voicers to exactly tailor the sound to the room, resulting in that perfect blend for which Ruffatti is famous.  

Versatility is only partially the product of having a variety of stops on hand; what really makes the difference is the ability of each stop to combine successfully with all others to produce countless tonal combinations. Open-toe voicing for principals and flutes is the key, as it favors blending of sounds, as well as promptness and precision of speech, an aspect that is of paramount importance, especially when there is no close proximity of the player to the pipes (as there would be with a mechanical action instrument). An old misconception still flies around, deriving from the early neo-Baroque times of the Orgelbewegung, or Organ Reform Movement of the mid-twentieth century, where the open-toe voicing technique was sometimes used to produce excessively harsh sounds. Open-toe voicing is instead quite versatile, ideal for the effective voicing of a rank of pipes in a variety of styles, regardless of the chosen wind pressures. 

Materials for the construction of pipes include the ultra-shiny alloy of ninety-five percent tin, used for the pipes in the façade as well as for a high number of larger internal pipes. Its structural strength and incredible resonance properties make it ideal for pipes of larger size. Other internal pipes are made with a tin percentage ranging from 75 to 30 percent.

Many pipes are made of wood, including the resonators of the two majestic 32′ reeds, the Bombarde, and the Fagott. Only the finest African Sipo mahogany has been used, varnished inside and out to enhance resonance. The Pontifical Trumpet, which projects horizontally from the front of the Gallery Organ, has highly polished solid brass resonators.

This organ was featured in the press for the first time in the March 2018 issue of the British magazine Organists’ Review with an article by Philip Arkwright, Organist and Master of the Music at Buckfast Abbey. It was inaugurated on April 20, 2018, with a splendid concert performed by Martin Baker, Organist and Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, which I had the good fortune to witness. The improvisation that closed the performance was stunning: a perfect demonstration of creativity and a kaleidoscopic use of musical color.

The opening organ series also includes concerts by Vincent Dubois, titular organist of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris; David Briggs, Artist-in-Residence at St. John the Divine, New York City; Matthew Martin, Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford; Richard Lester, international recitalist; and in-house organists Richard Lea and Matthew Searles.

—Francesco Ruffatti


Architecture and technical features

The east and west organs at Buckfast Abbey are aesthetically quite different. The east organ (Quire) is intended to be discreet, as the client’s desire was that the front of the building should not have the imposing presence of an intricate organ design. For this reason we chose a very simple layout for the façade, with pipes recessed into three arches that crown the stalls on both sides of the Quire. The pipes are hardly visible from the center of the building, but clearly show the brightness of the tin they are built from when they are seen from the side.

The central pipe of each bay, with its diamond-shaped embossing, reflects the light in all directions, providing a touch of richness within the simplicity of the design scheme.

The west organ (Gallery) gave us the opportunity to offer a more sophisticated architectural solution. The full visibility of the splendid stained glass windows being paramount, we built two symmetrical oak organ cases against the side walls of the gallery, with tunnels to grant access to the balcony from the doors in the back corners. The aim was for a design of lightness and richness at the same time—not an easy task, as the two qualities are normally in conflict.

To achieve this goal, we chose a case design where the façade pipes are not topped by a ceiling. Instead, there is an alternation between bays having pipes with unobstructed tops and pipes with carved elements defining the top line. The richness is provided by the carving, which is also used to separate façade pipes within the same bay. In the general scheme, it gives visual continuity to the various bays. These elements have been hand-carved from European oak by a gifted artist, from a Ruffatti design inspired by the intricate and elaborate carved wood of the Abbey’s choir stalls. Even the panels of the lower part of the case are enriched by carvings in the Gothic style. 

The sunlight coming through the stained glass windows is reflected by the shiny surface of the tin pipes, adding a touch of color to the façade, an effect that is remarkably spectacular.

The signature Ruffatti horizontal trumpets, with their flared brass bells, extend from the lower part of the cases, projecting their shining beauty into the Abbey’s central bay.

The most frequent comment we have received on the design is that the organ looks like it has always been there. I believe that this is the biggest compliment that can be paid to the designer, because it proves that the organ belongs to the building, without imposing its presence. The initial aim has been reached: a light yet elegant result.

On the strictly technical side, African Sipo mahogany is widely used for functional parts, such as all of the windchests. The main units are of the slider type, which are controlled by solenoids of the latest generation, featuring self-adjusting power for the initial stiffness of the slider movement and reduced power at the end of the travel, for maximum silence.

The twin consoles feature identical controls and can be played simultaneously, as they often are. The control system is operated by the organist from a touch-screen panel, and it offers a large number of functions. The huge memory provides separate password-protected storage folders for many organists, where stop combinations, personal crescendo, and tutti settings can be stored. The system also features, among many other useful tools, a transposer, a record/playback function, and on-board diagnostics, a useful tool for maintenance.

The height adjustment of the keydesk of the Quire console is controlled by a push button, operating a heavy-duty electric motor. Adjusting the level of the keydesk allows maximum comfort for the player, regardless of that person’s physical height and build.

The organ is distributed over several locations and, true to Ruffatti philosophy, uses several different wind pressures to optimize the tonal result of the various stops. As a result, nine separate blowers, twenty traditional reservoirs, and nine schwimmers have been used to provide adequate and stable wind at the many different pressures, ranging from 40 to 185 mm.

—Piero Ruffatti


Builder’s website:

Church’s website:



Location: Quire and Triforium 

POSITIVO (unenclosed–Manual I)

8′ Principale 61 pipes

8′ Bordone 61 pipes

8′ Voce Umana (tenor G) 42 pipes

4′ Ottava 61 pipes

4′ Flauto Veneziano 61 pipes

2′ Decimaquinta 61 pipes

11⁄3′ Decimanona 61 pipes

22⁄3′ Sesquialtera II 122 pipes

2⁄3′ Ripieno III 183 pipes

8′ Cromorno 61 pipes

8′ Pontifical Trumpet Solo

8′ Abbatial Trumpet Solo

Glockenspiel (tenor C) 30 bells


Nightingale 5 pipes

Cymbelstern 12 bells

Drum 3 pipes

6′ Bagpipe F 1 pipe

4′ Bagpipe C 1 pipe

22⁄3′ Bagpipe G 1 pipe

GREAT (unenclosed–Manual II)

16′ Bourdon 61 pipes

8′ Principal 61 pipes

8′ Bourdon 61 pipes

8′ Spitzflöte 61 pipes

4′ Octave 61 pipes

4′ Blockflöte 61 pipes

22⁄3′ Quint 61 pipes

2′ Superoctave 61 pipes

11⁄3′ Mixture IV 244 pipes

1⁄2′ Terz Zimbel III 183 pipes

8′ Trumpet 61 pipes

4′ Clarion 61 pipes

8′ Pontifical Trumpet Solo

8′ Abbatial Trumpet Solo

Sub Octave

Unison Off 

SWELL (enclosed–Manual III)

8′ Flûte à Cheminée 61 pipes

8′ Gemshorn 61 pipes

8′ Viole de Gambe 61 pipes

8′ Voix Céleste (tenor C) 49 pipes

4′ Prestant 61 pipes

4′ Flûte Creuse 61 pipes

22⁄3′ Nazard 61 pipes

2′ Octavin 61 pipes

13⁄5′ Tierce 61 pipes

2′ Plein Jeu IV 244 pipes

16′ Basson 61 pipes

8′ Trompette Harmonique 61 pipes

8′ Hautbois (ext 16′) 12 pipes

4′ Clairon Harmonique (ext 8′) 12 pipes


Sub Octave

Unison Off

Super Octave

SOLO (enclosed–Manual IV)

16′ Lieblich Bourdon 61 pipes

8′ Orchestral Flute 61 pipes

8′ Doppelflöte 61 pipes

8′ Salicional 61 pipes

8′ Unda Maris (tenor C) 49 pipes

8′ Flûte Douce 61 pipes

8′ Flûte Céleste (tenor C) 49 pipes

4′ Flauto d’Amore 61 pipes

22⁄3′ Harmonic Nazard 61 pipes

2′ Harmonic Piccolo 61 pipes

13⁄5′ Harmonic Tierce 61 pipes

8′ Bassett Horn 61 pipes

8′ Vox Humana 61 pipes

8′ Pontifical Trumpet* 61 pipes

8′ Abbatial Trumpet** 61 pipes


Sub Octave

Unison Off

Super Octave

* mounted horizontally from the front of the Gallery Organ cases, divided at both sides. Not affected by couplers

**located in the Triforium, unenclosed. Not affected by couplers


32′ Contra Bourdon digital

16′ Contrabass 32 pipes

16′ Subbass 32 pipes

16′ Bourdon Great

16′ Lieblich Bourdon Solo

102⁄3′ Quintflöte 32 pipes

8′ Octave 32 pipes

8′ Flûte Ouverte 32 pipes

51⁄3′ Nazard (ext 102⁄3′) 12 pipes

4′ Superoctave 32 pipes

2′ Flûte 32 pipes

22⁄3′ Mixture IV 128 pipes

32′ Fagott 32 pipes

16′ Bombarde 32 pipes

16′ Basson Swell

8′ Trompette (ext 16′) 12 pipes

4′ Schalmei 32 pipes



Location: West Gallery


16′ Bourdon 61 pipes

8′ Montre 61 pipes

8′ Flûte Harmonique 61 pipes

8′ Bourdon 61 pipes

4′ Prestant 61 pipes

4′ Flûte Octaviante 61 pipes

22⁄3′ Cornet III (tenor G) 126 pipes

2′ Doublette 61 pipes

2′ Plein Jeu III–V 264 pipes

8′ Clarinette 61 pipes

8′ Pontifical Trumpet Solo

8′ Abbatial Trumpet Solo


Sub Octave

Unison Off

EXPRESSIF (enclosed–floating)

8′ Violoncelle 61 pipes

8′ Violoncelle Céleste (TC) 49 pipes

8′ Cor de Chamois 61 pipes

8′ Cor de Chamois Céleste (TC) 49 pipes

4′ Prestant 61 pipes

8′ Trompette 61 pipes

4′ Clairon 61 pipes


Sub Octave

Unison Off

Super Octave



16′ Soubasse 32 pipes

16′ Bourdon Grand-Orgue

8′ Basse 32 pipes

8′ Bourdon (ext 16′) 12 pipes

4′ Flûte (ext 16′) 12 pipes

32′ Bombarde* 32 pipes

16′ Bombarde (ext 32′)* 12 pipes

8′ Trompette (ext 32′)* 12 pipes

* located in the Gallery Organ Triforium


Positivo special effects located in the Quire Organ Triforium


Solo located in the Quire Organ Triforium


Four-manual movable Quire console, with electric height-adjustment for keyboards and stop knobs

Four-manual movable Gallery console

The consoles can be used simultaneously to perform repertoire for two organs



Identical for both consoles


COUPLERS (tilting tablets)

Solo to Swell 16-8-4

Expressif on Manual III

Solo to Great 16-8-4

Swell to Great 16-8-4

Positivo to Great 8

Grand-Orgue on Manual II

Gallery* on Manual I

Solo to Positivo 16-8-4

Great to Positivo 16-8-4

Swell to Positivo 16-8-4

Solo to Pedal 8

Swell to Pedal 8

Great to Pedal 8

Positivo to Pedal 8

Grand-Orgue to Pedal 8-4

Expressif to Pedal 8-4

* Grand-Orgue and Expressif combined


Reeds Off (for entire organ)

Mixtures Off (for entire organ)


Gallery* on Manual I on key cheek

Grand-Orgue on Manual II on key cheek

Expressif on Manual III on key cheek

*including both Gallery Organ manual divisions


Quire Organ Tutti

Full Organ Tutti

Pédale Off on key cheek


Sustain for Solo, Swell, Great, Positivo


Great and Pedal combinations coupled

Grand-Orgue and Pédale combinations coupled


All Swells to Swell


Quire Organ On – on key cheek

Gallery Organ On – on key cheek


Record and Playback



Twelve general pistons for Quire and Gallery organs

Eight Quire Organ divisional pistons

Six Gallery Organ divisional pistons

Set, General Cancel

Previous (-), Next (+) in several locations

Thousands of memory levels for the “common memory area”

Thousands of private memory folders accessible by password or magnetic sensor


Touch-screen control panel featuring multiple functions, including:

• Transposer

• Five “insert combinations” possible between each general piston for all available folders

• Option of automatic re-numbering of combinations after inserts have been introduced 

• In addition to conventional piston storage, both the common area and the individual folders offer:

Storage of piston sequences in “piece”-labelled folders

Storage of several “piece”-labelled folders to form “concert”-labelled folders


Swell, Expressif, Solo expression pedals


Crescendo Pedal: standard and multiple personalized settings 


MIDI In, Out, Through



95% tin alloy for all façade and most larger pipes inside

Bagpipes in the Positivo with walnut resonators, blocks and shallots in the traditional style


All other wooden pipes, including 32′ reed resonators, made of African Sipo mahogany

Principal choruses 75% tin alloy 

Flutes: 8′ octaves 95% tin alloy, rest 30% tin alloy (spotted)

Reeds, Strings: 8′ octaves 95% tin alloy, rest 52% tin alloy (spotted)





Positivo 40 mm for Principal chorus, 50 mm for flutes and reed

Great 80 mm for all stops, 95 mm for offsets only

Swell 90 mm for all stops, 100 mm for offsets only

Solo 160 mm for all stops except Pontifical and Abbatial trumpets, 185 mm

Pedal 100 mm and 80 mm upperwork



Grand Orgue 90 mm

Expressif 100 mm

Pédale 120 mm



81 real stops

100 ranks of pipes

5,542 pipes and 42 bells

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