Organmakers groan over new rule
A European Union law on lead in pipes could undermine Britain's organ industry.
LONDON — Ah, the magnificent din of a good pipe organ in full cry, one moment all bells and bird chatter, the next a thunderous rumble from the lower registers and a subterranean boom that sounds like a large ship is docking somewhere nearby.
Needless to say, it's a sound that has underpinned church and choral music for centuries. And yet in a bizarre legal quirk, the future of the instrument has been called into question in Britain, Europe's largest organ-building nation, as a result of an opaque European ruling governing the substances used to construct organ pipes.
Two European Union directives, which come into force in the 25 EU countries in July, ban the manufacture of "electrical equipment" containing more than 0.1 percent lead. The statutes are intended principally to reduce the volume of lead seeping back into the environment mainly from discarded mobile phones and other disposable modern technologies.
But the 1,000-year-old art of organ-building appears to have been swept up in the legislating zeal. Most organs these days are powered by electricity and use a certain amount of lead in their extensive run of pipework to achieve the appropriate musical voicing. Old pipes aren't discarded but are instead melted down and reused.
Senior EU officials have insisted that they do not want to penalize organ-builders, and it seems highly unlikely that "eurocrats" will start snooping around churches, ready to pounce the moment an organist strikes up with a Bach voluntary.
But the British organ-building industry is alarmed at the way the EU laws (entitled the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directives) are being interpreted in Britain.
British officials say that organs are indeed affected. "If an organ has electrical components, then in theory it is likely to come under the remit of the directive," says one government official on customary condition of anonymity. He adds that special exemptions will be required for any of the 80-odd companies that build organs in Britain.
One such company, Harrison and Harrison, is pulling out all the stops to campaign for legal clarification. The company is currently working on three organs that will, under the new post-July rules, be illegal. "This was meant to be all about mobile phones which is what makes it all so stupid," says Katharine Venning, a company director who is also president of the Institute of British Organ Building. "From July 1 it appears that new organs would be illegal. And yet organ pipes never get thrown away in landfill sites."
It gets worse. The law clearly pertains only to the manufacture of new organs. But several churches that have collected large six-figure sums to revive their ancient musical heirlooms are worried that their renovation works might also be jeopardized. In some cases where an old instrument has had to be largely rebuilt, it is unclear whether that qualifies as a new-build or just a renovation.
But according to a statement from Reijo Kemppinen, the Head of the European Commission in the United Kingdom, British organ builders need not worry about the future of their craft.
"Organists can ... even continue to repair and upgrade [organs] with lead without any further restrictions under RoHS," wrote Mr. Kemppinen last month. But, he added, British organ-builders should apply for a derogation of the law if they want to continue building new pipes. "As far as we know, no such derogation has been applied for yet," he wrote.
Despite official reassurances, if you're Neil Shepherd, director of music at the 13th century Cirencester Parish Church in western England, it's all very worrying. The church's organ, a splendid beast with more than 3,000 pipes ranging from two inches high to 16 feet long and constructed in the late 19th century by one of the most famous names in the business, Henry Willis, has been feeling its age for some years, he says.
"It's 115 years old, and some of its parts go back even further," he says. "If I was 115, I'd be sounding a bit tired."
The church is spending more than $1 million to revive the musical centerpiece, and at least half of the instrument will be new when finished. If it's finished.
"I suppose it all depends on whether we get an exemption" for the work, says Mr Shepherd. "The whole thing is absolutely ridiculous. I'd like to think that people will be able to see sense and realize they can't bring to an end a craft that has been going on for centuries."
No exemption would mean no renovation and, eventually, no organ. "We'd have to use a piano," says Mr Shepherd, an accomplished organist with a penchant for Bach's Toccata and Fugue, and French recital works. "The majority of church music was designed to be played on an organ with a traditional choir. It's just not the same on a piano."
• Seven of the world's 10 largest pipe organs can be found in the United States.
• The world's largest playable pipe organ is located in a Philadelphia Lord & Taylor store.
• The organ - along with the clock - was considered the most complex of all mechanical instruments before the Industrial Revolution.
• A hydraulic organ appears in a Roman mosaic, along with organists and other musicians, at a gladiator contest.
• Throughout history, pipe organs have been powered by water, wind, foot pumps, massive multifolded bellows, mechanical pneumatic action, and electricity.
Source: The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians