The magnificent organ in Leeds Town Hall was built by Gray and Davison to the specification of Civic Organist, William Spark who held the appointment from 1860-1897. The 5 manual instrument was boasted to do ‘all that an orchestra could do but less expensively’.
Recitals soon became something of an institution under Spark and his successor from 1898, H.A. Fricker. Distinguished city organists in our own time have included Melville Cook, Donald Hunt, and from 1975-2017 Dr Simon Lindley.
In Fricker’s day they were normally given twice weekly on Tuesday afternoon and Saturday evenings, admission to the Town Hall area (ground floor) was free with a charge of 6d for admission to the gallery.
A striking feature of programmes in the early years of the 20th century was the frequent inclusion of orchestral works arranged for organ. Wagner operatic excerpts were almost as popular in this form as they were in the concert hall and included the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, the Good Friday Music from Parsifal, Forest Murmers from Seigfried and the prelude to Act 3 and bridal music from Lohengrin.
Popular overtures were occasionally featured as a spectacular finale: Dvorak’s boisterous Carnival Overture, Brahms’ Academic festival and Rossini’s William Tell must have been eagerly awaited highlights of Fricker’s recitals.
Fricker composed his Concert Overture in C minor which concluded his recital on 1st January 1901. City organist Simon Lindley opened his lunchtime recital, on 6th October 2003, with the same piece.
The Organ’s Renaissance
The Town Hall organ’s renaissance began in 1972 following the completion of a major restoration designed by Dr Donald Hunt, then Master of the Music at Leeds Parish Church. Hunt was designated City Organist and the opening recital on the restored organ was given by the distinguished Swiss organist, Flor Peters.
New Wednesday Evening Series
A series of five Wednesday evening recitals was promoted as part of the City’s Libraries and Arts Committee’s 1973/74 orchestral and recital programme. These were given by Dr Hunt, Lionel Rogg, the legendary George Thalben-Ball and BBC organist Robinson Cleaver. Three lunchtime recitals were given by Hunt, Anthony Cooke and Anthony Langford.
A similar mix of evening and lunchtime recitals (3 of each) was staged during the 1974/5 season and featured Fernando Germani the eminent Italian organist, and Noel Rawsthorne of Liverpool’s St Georges Hall.
Simon Lindley succeeded Dr Hunt at Leeds Parish Church in 1975 and stayed City Organist until 2017. The Town Hall’s weekly recitals under Dr Lindley’s stewardship became as much of an institution as Spark’s and Fricker’s recitals a century earlier.
300 years of music
Works by Pergolesi, J S Bach, Handel, English Edwardian composers Ireland, Bairstow, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Howells; have been juxtaposed with such lollipops as Sousa’s Washington Post, Barber/Biggs’ The Stars and Stripes for Ever, Lemare’s Fantasy on themes from Bizet’s Carmen, and Wagner’s Rienzi Overture. Simon Lindley also performed his own Prelude, Air and Postlude. Something for all tastes!
Darius Battiwalla succeeded Dr Simon Lindley as Leeds City Organist in 2017. Dr Lindley now holds the title of Leeds City Organist Emeritus.
Leeds Town Hall is closed for refurbishment until 2024 which includes a £1.8m overhaul of the organ. The organ’s major reconstruction after half a century’s heavy use will restore the instrument from three manuals to four and reinstate the darker tone colours lost in the 1971-72 rebuild. The weekly Monday lunchtime organ recital series will take place at Leeds Cathedral during the Town Hall’s closure.
Watch: Darius Battiwalla recital livestream from Leeds Cathedral April 2022.
Watch: An Introduction to the Leeds Town Hall Organ Renewal Project
Watch : St Peter’s Singers at Leeds Town Hall, Parry: Blest Pair of Sirens 2018
Read more – Early Orchestral Concerts
Classical Music Leeds was written and researched by Geoffrey Mogridge