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King's Hall organ

Custom-made organ crowns University’s restoration project

Published on: 10 November 2017

A new pipe organ has taken pride of place in Newcastle University’s King’s Hall as part of a £26 million restoration project in the historic Armstrong Building.

A unique instrument

Graduating students, visitors and concert-goers are set to enjoy the sight and sounds of the organ within the impressive surroundings of King’s Hall. It also provides students with a first-rate instrument for recital and practice.

Master craftsman Bernard Aubertin and his team arrived in Newcastle from France to spend 10 days carefully installing the specially commissioned organ, filling King’s Hall with the smell of oak as they fitted and fine-tuned the 21-stop, pipe organ, which stands more than 10m high.

The first of its kind in the north of England and the first purpose-built concert instrument by Mr Aubertin in Europe, the organ has been tailored to the acoustics and architecture of the King’s Hall as part of the full restoration of the University’s Armstrong Building.

In place to commemorate Dr Martin Luther King’s visit

Completion of the organ and the restoration project has been carefully timed in readiness for an honorary degree ceremony in the King’s Hall on Monday 13 November 2017. This ceremony is set to commemorate Dr Martin Luther King’s visit to the University 50 years ago and is part of Newcastle’s wider programme of Freedom City 2017 events.

Professor Eric Cross, Newcastle University’s Dean of Cultural Affairs, said: “The King’s Hall is the University’s most prominent and accessible interior space, used for graduation ceremonies, public events and concerts and it is therefore central to our mission, outreach and reputation as a University. The previous organ had deteriorated and couldn’t be used for serious practice or performance. This new, purpose-built organ will not only contribute to the cultural life of the University and the curriculum of its International Centre for Music Studies but also enhance the musical heritage of the region providing an instrument worthy of international artists and allowing us to expand the scope of our public concerts.”

Magnus Williamson, Newcastle University’s Professor of Early Music Arts and Cultures, said: “Bernard Aubertin has an unprecedented reputation in terms of the quality and durability of his craftsmanship. The design of the organ combines total integrity and an uncompromising attention to detail with the most extraordinary imagination. We are very proud to house one of only three Aubertin organs in the UK, the others being in Aberdeen and Oxford.

“Nearly all Newcastle campus students will experience the organ being played during their graduation ceremonies. It will also provide organ students with a first-rate recital and practice instrument and can be used to accompany orchestras and choirs.

“For visitors the new organ provides an asset of international significance. For concert-goers it expands the range of experiences we can offer and it considerably enhances the range of playable organs available to the region’s performers. We expect to attract gifted students and professionals to Newcastle and to make the University a venue for master classes by organisations such as the Royal College of Organists (RCO).”

“the sound they produce reaches their heart”

The renowned organ builder Bernard Aubertin said: “The best reward that I have is when people see the organs that I build and install and they tell me that although they are new they have the impression that they have always been part of the room and that the sound they produce reaches their heart.”

Working with his small team Mr Aubertin spent 12 months making and building the organ in his workshop and home in Courtefontaine, Eastern France. It was then taken apart to be shipped to the UK and assembled in Newcastle piece by piece.

“An organ is so much more than a wooden box” said Mr Aubertin “before I start construction it is important to spend some time in the building and get the spirit of the room. Then I consider the acoustics and proportions of the room and materials that will be used.”

Creating the organ using the same materials and principles deployed during medieval times, Mr Aubertin took inspiration from the pediment over the entrance to the Armstrong Building as a basis for the design. “I felt that this was the signature of the building, which is also captured in other features throughout the building” he said.

Support for restoration of the Armstrong building

Restoration of the University’s Armstrong Building began in 2011 and has been completed in phases. The Victorian building bears the family name of Alexander Armstrong the respected actor, comedian, musician and TV presenter who is a descendent of the eminent industrialist Lord Armstrong.

Alexander Armstrong has been a prominent supporter in the £26 million appeal to cover the costs of restoring the historic building. He said: “Although I am not a Newcastle graduate, my family connections to the University and the area make it a special place for me. I cannot imagine a better restoration for an historic building than this one.”

Newcastle University architecture graduate and TV presenter George Clarke has also taken a keen interest in the Armstrong restoration. Earlier this year he recorded a special message in support of the appeal.  

Open day and concerts

There are plans to hold an open day (details to be announced) when members of the public will be invited to view the new instrument in the King’s Hall. 

The organ will be heard in concerts hosted by Newcastle University’s School of Arts and Cultures on 10 and 13 December. There will also be a Henry Miller recital on 11 March as part of the 2018 Early Music Festival.

The University’s full programme of public concerts is available here.  


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