The Maxwell Fernie Organ

The organ was originally built in 1958 by George Croft and Son Limited from Auckland to the tonal design and pipe-scaling of Maxwell Fernie who also supervised, both in England and New Zealand, the voicing of the pipes and the construction of the instrument. The cost with Gallery alterations, etc., included – was just on six thousand pounds.

The Maxwell Fernie Organ

In 1984 the instrument was extensively rebuilt and extended by the South Island Organ Company of Timaru, once again to the specifications designed by Maxwell Fernie and under his careful supervision. All this came about in no small way thanks to the assistance of James A. Young, assistant organist / choir conductor at the time.

“The organ in the church of St. Mary of the Angels, Wellington, possesses some unique features”, wrote Maxwell Fernie in a note on the organ in 1990. “The Diapason choruses on both Swell and Great are of “constant scale” and wholly of Schultze-type voicing and scale with generous treble measurements. The swell-reed chorus is complete and independent, voiced in keeping with the large Gothic-type church which houses the three-manual and pedal instrument in the west gallery. All pipes, with the exception of some German-made flutes and locally-made wood basses, were voiced in England under the direct supervision of Maxwell Fernie. The positive section contains probably the first examples of solo flute-mutations in New Zealand and the whole instrument is flexible in the extreme owing to a generous number of inter-manual and pedal couplers. Tonally it might be said that the organ, with mainly pipes from England and parts from Germany, Holland and USA has a Continental flavour…acknowledging all schools of composition of the various periods and nationalities. It amply fulfils its prime function as a church organ, and various famous recitalists have praised its ability to enable them to ‘make music’, without tonal restrictions in their recitals”.

It is the only organ of its type in New Zealand and was at the heart of the organ revival movement in this country. It comprises three manuals and pedals with some sixty-five speaking stops and a great many coupling options that give the instrument a unique flexibility to interchange the stops or sounds available between the manuals.

During the period following the 1984 rebuild the organ suffered quite serious water and some rodent damage. This particularly affected the right hand side of the instrument, the section containing parts of the Great, Positive and Pedal organ. Damage to the wind chests, some of the wooden pipes and to the electro-mechanical working of the organ affected the instrument to the extent that several ranks of pipes no longer functioned and other pipes were prone to malfunction. In addition, the original electrical system from 1958 was unreliable and needed to be replaced.

An appeal launched in December 2006 raised funds sufficient to restore the organ to its 1958 performance condition and also, to replace the original electrical circuitry with a modern computerised system. The appeal was coordinated by the Friends of St. Mary of the Angels Charitable Trust and involved the wider Wellington Community. The organ was decommissioned by the South Island Organ Company following Easter 2006. The fully restored instrument was welcomed back at a celebration on 29 April 2007.

Maxwell Fernie

Maxwell Fernie was born and educated in Wellington. He served in Egypt and Europe in the Second World War, after which he received advanced training at the Royal Academy of Music, London. Here he gained prizes in Organ-playing and extemporization.

He returned to NZ in 1950, to take a post as Supervisor of Music in Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Wellington. In 1953 he was offered the position of Organist at Westminster Cathedral in London, where he remained until 1958, when he was appointed Director of Music at St Mary of the Angels, a post he held for 40 years.

His organ playing was captured on several recordings, and remains in the memory of all who heard him as full of insight and meaning, particularly in his performance of the music of Bach. It was however his brilliant improvisations which captured the imaginations of those who were fortunate to be present when he “caught fire”. However his choir training brought something new to New Zealand – the so-called ‘continental’ sound. Our choirs all based their tone on what was imagined to be the English tradition. Max developed a much more direct and brilliant tone, reedy and bright in the sopranos, brilliant in the tenors, and forceful and vigorous in the altos and basses. His choirs had such expressiveness, and recordings, with excellent reviews, for example, in the prestigious English Magazine ‘Gramophone’ brought them a world-wide reputation.

Maxwell Fernie established St Mary of the Angels as the place to be for young musicians. The choir’s electrifying singing of chant and polyphony, and Max’s own playing of the organ, formed a generation of musicians – Anthony Jennings, Peter Walls, Denis Smalley, Geoffrey Coker, Roy Tankersley, Christopher Hainsworth, Barry Mora to name just a few. The present Director of Music at St. Mary of the Angels, Robert Oliver, was a singing pupil of Maxwell Fernie’s and sang in the choir as a student.

Gregorian Chant began to be sung in 1905, and for the opening of the new church in 1922, a choir of 70 voices sang Mass under the direction of Edward Healy. Maxwell Fernie revitalised the singing of chant, and this tradition continues a hundred years later, perhaps unique in New Zealand music.

Maxwell Fernie’s involvement in music at St Mary of the Angels continued right up until his death in 1999.