Robert Hope-Jones is widely accepted to be the father of the theatre organ. Born in the Wirral on the 9th of February 1859, Hope-Jones’ initial career took him into telephony. From the start, he showed two traits which characterised his later endeavours; extreme inventiveness, and a remarkable ability to garner commitment and involvement (financial and otherwise) from a wide range of people to projects which, if not completely impractical, would certainly end up on the margins of sustainability.
Hope-Jones’ first milestone in organ building was the rebuild in 1886/9 of an 1846 instrument in St. John’s Birkenhead. The most remarkable feature was the electrification of the organ action, which enabled an historic photograph of the newly mobile console to be take outside the church porch. Commentators of a less sympathetic persuasion no doubt valued this facility, as it brought distance between the organist and some of Hope-Jones’ new-fangled extremely voiced pipework, precursors of the modern theatre organ stoplist. Although Hope-Jones did not invent electric action, there is no doubt that he played a significant part in its development and refinement.
Hope Jones started the “Hope-Jones Electric Organ Company” in Birkenhead in 1892, initially subcontracting work to other companies but gradually moving into manufacture as well. Notable was Mrs (Cecil) Hope-Jones’ management of the electrical winding and wiring side of the business; women were employed for this work, which precipitated a strike by the traditionally male workforce. Hope-Jones and controversy were never far apart, something which continues to this day.
Hope-Jones’ activities continued, his enterprises frequently sailing very close to the financial wind and usually being wound-up in favour of yet another set-up. He licensed a number of organbuilders to use his designs, including Ingram of Hereford. Problems at the time of this last partnership resulted in Hope-Jones emigrating to America in 1903, where he immediately set about replicating the type of business activities he had left behind in England.
Eventually, the Hope-Jones Organ Company of Elmira, N.Y. was set up and in 1908 was contracted to build a 4 manual 13 rank organ for the vast Ocean Grove Auditorium in New Jersey. This turned out to be one of the most significant practical expositions of Hope-Jones’ theories, and drew to the full on the abilities of his British voicers, who travelled with him to voice Tubas on 50″ of wind, and ‘delicate’ stops on 10″ of wind. The Ocean Grove organ, much enlarged, still stands. By 1910 however, the usual pattern re-emerged and the Elmira company found itself in terminal difficulties, though not through lack of orders. Interestingly, in comparison to the visionary shock-haired Hope-Jones, contemporary pictures of his workmen depict solid, reliable individuals who clearly loved and respected their work. In this, Hope-Jones clearly also had a talent to attract the right people.
One significant investor in this enterprise was Samuel Clemens, better known as the author Mark Twain.
In 1910, Hope-Jones paid a visit to the directors of the Wurlitzer company who, like many other good men before them, fell for the Hope-Jones line and entered an agreement on the 23rd. April to buy the assets of his failed enterprise. This time however, the mercurial genius of Hope-Jones was balanced in the relationship by his partners; the humane yet practical Farny Wurlitzer and his hard-nosed brother, Howard.
Between them, they constrained Hope-Jones to a more commercial discipline and he produced a number of instruments from 1911 under the generic title of the Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra. These contained the essential features that characterised Wurlitzer organs until the cease of production in the late 1930’s; Wurlitzer’s early sales methods followed those of Hope-Jones, with extravagant advertising testimonials extolling the tonal perfection of instruments that had yet to be installed, never mind play a note of music.
Hope-Jones’ ultimate and tragic downfall lay in his inability to balance innovation with business – organs ready to leave the workshops were stopped while Hope-Jones tinkered around with some improvement or another, and eventually the patience of the Wurlitzer brothers snapped. Hope-Jones, already contractually bound to work only for the Wurlitzer company, was banned from the Unit Organ department. This imprisonment of such an inventive instinct inevitably broke his spirit and in September 1914, at the age of 55, he took his life.
Hope-Jones contribution to organ building was significant at a time of technological innovation, yet remains largely unappreciated. It would be hard to find a detractor (even at the dawn of the 21st century) who has not made use of some innovation or design originated by Hope-Jones. From an artistic point of view, he promoted the concept of the organ as a replacement for the orchestra, an idea which fostered some frankly crackpot tonal inventions that were subsequently moderated to find a home in the theatre organ. In their moderated form, these ideas still remain far from the accepted norms of the classical organ, but possess as much artistic credibility when used to interpret the popular music forms of the first half of the 20th.century as does a consort of viols when playing Elizabethan music.
Crackpot or not, the technical inventions and developments of Hope-Jones are those which should be recognised the most. Organ building was then almost entirely a craft activity where change consisted of the steady evolution of traditions. Given the pace of change wrought even then by telecommunications, it was inevitable both that some new messiah would upset the established order of organ action design, and that the same messiah would be blamed for every ill that was around. The simple fact is that Hope-Jones introduced designs that (engineering-wise) were far ahead of their time and represented breakthroughs that are used to this day, and that it is for these that he should be remebered most.
Hope-Jones’ ideas represented the antithesis of the true classical instrument, blown on low pressures, with a responsive mechanical action and a style of voicing that played on the acoustics of the room and respected the ideals of a balanced chorus. The truth is that organ design had long before started on a path of Romanticism which led to some frankly awful octopodic monstrosities, and to lay the sins of a generation at the feet of one man is to deny a greater collective responsibility. Sixty years after the reflex of the organ reform movement started, we are now seeing a more reasoned acceptance that the lion of the Double English Horn can indeed lie down with the lamb of the low-pressure Ruckpositif, and that lovers of the multitude of shades in between are entitled to their own tastes and to the respect of their fellows.