David Mason at a Skinner-Style Regent Classic Organ
© Regent Classic Organs

For what seemed liked months earlier this year, you couldn’t open a British newspaper on a Monday morning without seeing a photograph of the then prime minister, Theresa May, emerging the previous day from the church of St Andrew’s in Sonning, a grimly determined expression on her face. The implication every time was that this vicar’s daughter had been seeking divine inspiration in her Berkshire constituency to help her through her doomed attempt to extricate the nation from the European Union.

No attention was ever paid to what May might actually have heard during her morning service. In addition to a no-doubt stirring sermon and some notices about the flower rota, she would have heard that £75,000 was needed to install a new digital organ at St Andrew’s, the existing venerable pipe organ not always being totally reliable. And as a regular parishioner it’s quite likely she chipped in.

Soon St Andrew’s will have a new instrument, with David Mason, boss of Viscount Classical Organs and Regent Classic Organs, advising on installation – as he has done in churches, homes, halls and cathedrals across the country and as far away as Wellington, New Zealand.

“Wellington Cathedral’s pipe organ was destroyed in the earthquake of 2016 which fortunately left the building largely undamaged,” says Mason. The cathedral then took the pragmatic decision to install a digital organ that would be unaffected by any future earthquake.

He said the instrument, his largest yet, incorporates some modern features, including an iPad page turner piston for digitised music scores. He’s proud of the craftsmanship of the Devon-based carpentry company Renatus he uses to make his consoles. This time they made a console to match the design of the cathedral’s pulpit. “The keyboard’s natural keys have a cherry wood veneer and the sharps are of rosewood while the drawstop heads are in mahogany”. Similarly, Milton Court – the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s new state-of-the-art concert hall – has a custom-built Regent Classic instrument with a console made from Sapele mahogany to match the strikingly dark woodwork in the hall.

Transporting a Viscount Organ across a Nigerian lake
© Viscount Organs

But while big projects such as Wellington capture the imagination (and he has instruments currently on hire in Canterbury Cathedral, York Minster, Wells Cathedral and Tewksbury Abbey) Mason is also prepared to serve the tiniest church. He got an SOS early one summer Saturday morning to rescue not one but two weddings scheduled in a church in North Wales. The organ had suddenly failed, so he drove 180 miles and fixed the instrument minutes before the first bride was due to arrive.

A thief nearly severely injured two of his colleagues when they were installing one of 20 single-manual instruments in meetings room at the Masons’ headquarters, the United Grand Lodge in central London. “Someone gained access to the roof space above the room and tried to scrape the gold leaf off the central boss of the room’s dome,” he said. The clumsy felon – later arrested – knocked out the pin that held the boss and it fell 30 feet to floor, missing his colleagues by a few feet.

His organs have travelled the world, including being transported across a Nigerian lake and to Station Island in Lough Derg in County Donegal, where, he reports: “Pilgrims travel bare foot. Once there it is a frugal lifestyle with fasting part of the experience. Just one simple meal a day. Toast is eaten dry and tea or coffee served without milk.” At least they now have a new organ to listen to.

A Skinner-Style Regent Classic Organ used during the Papal Mass in UAE
© Regent Classic Organs

Organ scholars at King’s College, Cambridge, now have his practice organs installed in their rooms – with headphones supplied, in the interests of those trying to study in their own rooms nearby... And Pope Francis heard his organs play when he visited Ireland, both at Knock Shrine and for the large open-air services at Dublin’s Phoenix Park – a first for the digital organ – and at Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, during his historical visit to the UAE earlier this year.

Theresa May may not know this, but having both a pipe and a digital organ, St Andrew’s will shortly represent both sides in the rancorous debate about organ technology, an argument that divides organists almost as much as her EU Withdrawal Bill divided the House of Commons.

But can we really tell the difference between digital and pipe? Four years ago, Mason ran an online competition to win a home practice instrument, pitching five pieces played on a digital instrument against five played on a pipe organ and asking entrants to identify which was which. The die-hards protested that listening through online speakers made it unfair, but of the 1,500 entrants, 1,000 were right just over half the time. “Some very distinguished names in the organ world [he would not divulge names] got it horribly wrong!”

Mason agrees that some of the hostility towards digital dates from the “horrible sound” made by early electronic organs. It wasn’t until computer technology developed in the 1990s with the invention of flash memory that individual organ pipes could be recorded. His instruments use a system called Physis, a computer-generated physical model of an organ pipe, manufactured in Italy. He says the model can be manipulated in just the same way as a pipe voicer would approach a traditional organ pipe. He explains: “With sampled sound organ technology, each note reproduces identically each time it is played. In practice even in a single steady note there is a very subtle inconsistency in what you hear, as the air flow through the pipe always has some element of random motion. This “micro variation” which the Viscount Physical model reproduces, adds a completely new dimension to the sound which greatly enhances the realism.”

Organist David Pipe teaching young pupils on a Viscount Organ
© Viscount Organs

Talking to Mason, an affable 64-year-old with an interesting business brain, you get the impression he has spent well over a decade not only trying to build his business but also to change the way we think of the organ and its place in the life of a country where it no longer features in the lives of an increasingly secular population. In Hong Kong last year and recalls seeing 600 attend an organ recital, 300 under the age of 20. “In Hong Kong, the organ is not seen in the Christian worship context but merely as another fascinating instrument. We need to engender that sort of interest here.”

He says the instrument is enjoying a boom in the home, paradoxically because of modern church policies. Organists, he says, are finding it increasingly difficult to practise because church health and safety regulations often prevent them from being left alone in the building. “People worry they might have a heart attack or an accident.” He says even a church’s appointed organist is sometimes not allowed to practise alone in their own church, hence they are buying instruments for home practice instead. He now finds himself installing more organs in home attics than in lofts perched high above a nave.

He also points out that a church that needs to spend £250,000 on a major pipe organ restoration could spend £25,000 on a decent digital organ and devote their savings to new facilities for the church, thereby perhaps making it a more useful building for the local community.

Mason says his typical home instrument customer is male, aged between 55 and 80, mainly in a final salary pension scheme, “and for five years has mentally been spending his lump sum working out what to buy himself as a retirement present”. Most will spend between £5,000 to £15,000, but others will have no limit. Still keen to attract younger players he offers used starter instruments from £2,500.

When Mason bought Viscount in 2006 it was not well regarded, producing what were considered to be bottom-of-the-range instruments. “Think Skoda before VW took it over,” he said. It was selling about 120 organs a year. That figure now tops 200 – which he says means that with about 450 total sales a year in the marketplace, there are still 250 customers to chase. “They will spend twice as much elsewhere. I sometimes wonder if I were to put my prices up 50%, would I sell more?”

This article was sponsored by Viscount Classical Organs.