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MMD > Archives > July 1996 > 1996.07.24 > 07Prev  Next

Sir David Salomon's Welte Philharmonic Organ
By Dan Wilson

Part of the Welte Philharmonic reproducing pipe organ at Broomhill, or "Sir David Salomon's House", at Speldhurst near Tunbridge Wells, spoke out again for the first time in nearly 60 years recently. The organ was heavily rebuilt from a "No 10 Orchestrion" as a combined Orchestrion and Pipe Organ with double tracker bars in 1914 by Steinway & Sons as Welte agents, using their own staff plus one interned Welte craftsmen from Freiburg trapped in England during the job, and is believed to be the largest roll-playing organ anywhere still on its original site.

The organ has never been under threat, as the 1896 "Science Theatre" - the first all-electric one anywhere - at the back of whose stage it is placed, has been preserved as a time capsule ever since the Salomon descendants left the house "to the people of Kent" in 1937. This did not prevent the stage wiring being robbed for its copper during WW2. But with the use of the house as a convalescent home, a temporary hospital during the war and a National Health Service conference centre since 1976, the outlook for restoration looked bleak. I saw it on several historical tours run by the Institution of Electrical Engineers and neglect reigned. The auditorium's rather stark wooden folding benches were stored in numerous basement rooms which remained undecorated and gave the impression, up to 1990, of staterooms of a Titanic run aground on Namibia's rainless Skeleton Coast and the space used for a badminton court.

Then, in 1991, the Theatre was taken over as an opera school by the Broomhill Trust and restoration started with modern seating. To help raise funds, several extremely successful local music festivals have been held there, overflowing into large marquees on Broomhill's lawns.

The Welte needed complete rebuilding and a new blower - of the original complicated arrangement of 110V DC motors and 67.5 Hz AC generators and motors, the enormous 5hp AC blower motor survives and is to be rebuilt as a separate exercise - and had to take a back seat until the Trust could come round to it. This happened late in 1994 and a slow rebuild has been put in the hands of Peter Wood & Sons of Harrogate.

The rebuild priorities have naturally been blower, pipes, manuals and roll-playing module, which is detachable. Since about 90% of the original rolls were auctioned off in 1937, there now remain only a sample 280 or so (rather over half of them reproducing rolls) so as well as restoring the roll equipment Wood are converting the Welte into a digital record and playback instrument using computer disks.

By January this year they had rebuilt the roll-player but retained it in Harrogate in order to put all the rolls onto disk as well, using the existing contacts on the Welte pouch board. A Windows sequencer program (to judge from a local videotape, I would guess SeqWin) is being used.

According to Peter Wood there had obviously been attempts to run the Welte in poor condition as some of the rolls have bad tears down the edges. This possibly explains why they failed to sell in 1937 and suggests that they may be the most popular rolls from the original collection.

By November 1995 enough work had been done to provide a temporary double-manual console and connect it and the computer input to the "echo organ" at the back of the hall. This hidden and hitherto mysterious installation is revealed by the videotape (showing it being tuned) to be no less than the guts of the original Orchestrion No 10, with the louder ranks removed to produce a fainter and more silvery sound than the main organ. Some similar ranks have been reinstated and a Conacher organ has been loaned to bulk out the sound while the restoration of the main organ proceeds. Sixty years of idleness in a 80-year-old organ show in pipes that have not been "got at", so the tuner had an easy task.

Despite these fairly drastic steps taken to provide the Broomhill Theatre with organ facilities of some sort, the eventual intention is to restore the original three-manual console and roll player in their hidden position and rebuild the Welte as specified in 1914, but with the echo organ augmented as now and a additional modern console more suitably placed for operatic and orchestral performance. The pitch is modern (A = 440 Hz) and there are over 2000 pipes.

We can now be pretty sure that as long as there are Welte organs anywhere, the Broomhill Orchestrion will remain the largest in its original setting. After many years of uncertainty and decay, this is a wonderful outcome, not just for the district but the world of mechanical music as well. The Broomhill Trust (c/o Sir DS House, Kent TN3 0TC) deserve our warmest congratulations.

Location: Sir David Salomon's House (but not the Theatre now it is a school) is on the local tourist circuit as it contains a small museum dedicated to the house's history, which is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only. Take the A21 from London, take "Tonbridge (S)" exit, head for Tunbridge Wells for 2 miles to Southborough, then follow English Tourist Board brown road signs west towards Speldhurst.

Dan Wilson

Key Words in Subject:  David, Organ, Philharmonic, Salomon's, Sir, Welte

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