Few musicians build their own musical instruments, but
Alan Edwards has built not only a spinet, but also an organ.
Charmian Smith talks to the Dunedin musician.
To be able to bridge the centuries and bring what some people
might think was old and dusty and show it is as
life-enhancing as anything today is one of the delights of
early music, according to Alan Edwards.
A member of the Rare Byrds early music consort, as well as
the City of Dunedin Choir and choirmaster and organist at St
John's, Roslyn, Mr Edwards built a spinet after he retired as
law librarian at the University of Otago in 2008.
The spinet, a keyboard instrument in the harpsichord family,
came as a kitset but he decided to build an organ from
scratch. Compared to several thousand dollars for the spinet
kitset, the cost of materials for the organ, - the recycled
timber, felt, leather, springs and guide pins - was less than
It took him about three years to build, working on and off,
Mr Edwards says.
It is a positive organ that can be dismantled from its stand
and the bellows disconnected for transporting. Such organs
were used in the medieval, Renaissance and baroque periods.
"It is capable of two, three or four parts and is designed to
blend with other instruments, either to carry a melody line
and perhaps a bassline, or to accompany singers or viols or
recorders, or a combination. They are not in themselves a
solo instrument. They are a continuo instrument in baroque
terms," he says.
With 32 keys and pipes, it is capable of two and a-half
octaves, from C an octave below middle C to the G an octave
and a-half above. The keyboard can be slipped one semitone to
the left to allow it to accompany instruments tuned to the
pitch used in early music, the pitch believed to have been
used by Bach, Mr Edwards says.
One of the tricky things is scaling then regulating and
voicing the pipes.
"If you built them all the same width and depth, the treble
ones would be screamingly loud and the bass ones would be too
quiet, so each pipe had to be individually made to the right
There are traditional scaling measurements used by organ
builders indicating the graduations of dimensions partly to
give the right pitches and also so the power and quality of
tone from pipe to pipe is a smooth progression from bass up
to treble, he says.
Regulating and voicing the pipes involved making innumerable
fine adjustments to the components around the mouth of each
pipe such as the height and thickness of the lip and depth of
the windway. Even removing a few specks of wood with fine
sandpaper could make all the difference between sound and no
sound. Each pipe has an adjustable leather-covered stopper in
the top which can adjust the pitch.
As the organ is designed as an accompanying instrument, Mr
Edwards plans to use it with other musicians.
"Playing in an ensemble is the great joy of early music -
bringing it to life together as a group, then performing it
to a standard that's good enough to interest listeners and
communicate music. That's what music is all about,
communicating," he says.
Although it has had a couple of small outings so far, the
organ will give its first concert with the Rare Byrds in
"Proud Fire or Sacred Fear: Songs and instrumental music by
Henry Purcell" a house concert at Seacliff on December 1.
• HENRY PURCELL (c1659-1695), one of the greatest English
composers, came from a musical family and assimilated French
and Italian musical influences, but is generally regarded as
having transcended these to arrive at a distinctively English
He flourished in the atmosphere of musical renewal that
accompanied the restoration of the monarchy after the grim
Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell. As organist at Westminster
Abbey he composed a significant body of sacred music. He also
served as organist of the Chapel Royal under three different
monarchs, and wrote numerous odes and anthems for royal
birthdays, coronations and funerals. Purcell was also a
prolific composer for the revitalised English stage, writing
music for adaptations of Shakespeare's plays by Shadwell and
Dryden, and also composing for his own productions. He was a
pioneer of early English opera, composing landmark works such
as Dido and Aeneas, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen.
His music spans an extraordinary range from sacred to
secular, from low comedy to high tragedy. His songs and arias
often feature wonderfully dramatic characters, ranging from
the flirtatious Dorinda of The Tempest, to the melancholy
heroine of Dido and Aeneas, to the malevolent Cold Genius
from King Arthur.
• Rare Byrds present Purcell songs and arias in their
Christmas concert, "Proud Fire or Sacred Fear: Songs and
instrumental music by Henry Purcell", in a converted church
at Seacliff at 3pm on December 1. The concert will be
accompanied by a 17th-century afternoon tea.
Tickets are $15/$20 and bookings are essential. Inquiries to
Jonathan Cweorth on 021 453 191 or email email@example.com.