The grand organ

The grand organ

Sound and vision

Visit the site dedicated to the grand organ, see how it was restored and listen to some of its music.

The grand organ

Keys to the City

When it was installed in 1890, Sydney Town Hall’s grand organ was the largest in the world.

Throughout the 19th-century British Empire, it was customary for civic halls to be provided with grand organs as imposing symbols of a city's pride and its aspirations. When Sydney Town Hall was designed, it featured plans for an organ of very grand dimensions, drawn up in 1879 under the direction of William Hill and Son of London.

Their design provided for an instrument of 59 speaking stops, at a cost of £5,000. But even this was considered too modest for the city. Instead a committee recommended an instrument with five manuals and pedals and 150 stops.

English company William Hill and Son submitted the successful tender for the manufacture of the organ, its freight and installation and 12 months' maintenance, at a cost of £14,241. Their design included a new feature of a full-length 64-foot pedal stop, never previously attempted. A number of prominent organists were invited to test it, including the organist of Westminster Abbey, Dr Bridge, who considered it to be "the finest organ ever built by an English organ builder". The organ was then dismantled and sent by ship to Sydney.

The organ case was also designed by William Hill and Son to complement Sydney Town Hall's architectural character, despite opposition from the city architect who believed the case should be modern in design.

The opening of the grand organ was held on Saturday 9 August 1890 before 4,000 prominent guests. Mr W.T. Best, the city organist of Liverpool and considered to be the finest concert organist in the world, was invited to play. Best stayed on to play at 11 further public recitals, performing classical and operatic pieces, selections from Bach's organ works and his own compositions.

The concerts were a resounding success and the organ hailed by The Sydney Morning Herald as "the special attraction of the city right now". A city organist, Auguste Wiegand, from Belgium was appointed.

His successor, Arthur Mason, was appointed in 1901, beginning a long tradition of Australian organists to hold the post. The current city organist, Mr Robert Ampt (pictured), has held the position since 1978.

In 1973, the City of Sydney undertook a major restoration program to restore the grand organ, which had begun to experience mechanical problems. The firm of R H Pogson Pty Ltd was appointed to manage the project and their craftsmen worked tirelessly for almost a decade to return the organ to its former splendour and tone. 

The grand organ was transformed following another restoration worth $1.2 million completed in early 2015. The extensive conservation works saw its nearly 9,000 pipes delicately cleaned, tuned, repaired and carefully documented for future generations to enjoy. 

Today, free organ recitals are held throughout the year. 

Pipe organ dream gig

Local resident and lifetime organist Ken Bean has realised his dream of playing Town Hall's majestic grand organ - among the world's largest pipe organs.

Ken spent a a private session with City organist, Robert Ampt, to try his hand at making the City's "grand dame" sing by playing the five keyboards, pedals and 141 stops.

Ken has played the organ at local Anglican churches for nearly 60 years and still plays at St Johns, Penshurst. He had always hoped to play an historic organ such as Sydney Town Hall's 19th century grand organ, an amazing instrument that is over 13 metres tall and features nearly 9,000 pipes.

The private session was arranged as a surprise by Mr Bean's nephew, Graeme Lundie, who wrote to Lord Mayor Clover Moore saying he knew it would thrill his uncle to play the organ in Town Hall's famous Centennial Hall.

Organist Ken Bean and his pipe organ dream gig

Last updated: Thursday, 17 September 2015