Henry Willis & Sons View Extant Instruments View Instruments


London, England, from 1845.
Classification: Builder

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May 07, 2018:

From the OHS Database Builders Listing editor, November 21, 2016. -

Founded by Henry 'Father' Willis in 1845, Henry Willis & Sons is one of the oldest organ building concerns in the world. Four generations of the Willis family continued the family tradition of organ building until 1997, when Henry Willis IV retired and the first non-family Managing Director was appointed.1

Although few of its organs have been exported to North America, the company had a long association with Ernest Skinner, the Skinner Organ Company, and its successor, Aeolian-Skinner. Ernest Skinner had traveled to Europe in the 1898 and met both 'Father' Willis and Henry Willis II. Skinner was interested in the signature Willis reeds, he brought back specifications that would allow him to develop his own Tromba and Cornopean type reeds. When Skinner made a second trip to Europe in 1924, Willis III had become interested in the orchestral reeds developed by Skinner. Skinner, in turn, was introduced to bright mixtures and incorporated them in his own instruments.2

The company's foremost affect on American organ building, however, occurred in an entirely different manner, although it was not to be realized until some years later. Henry Willis III had suggested a Willis staff member to Skinner Organ Company president Arthur Marks as a future replacement for the aging Ernest Skinner. Hudson agreed, and G. Donald Harrison came to the U.S. to start with the Skinner firm in 1927.3 Harrison would gradually replace the 'symphonic' organ that Ernest Skinner had developed with what would become known as the 'American Classic' organ, a new concept that was different from both the Skinner symphonic and the traditional British style. In Lawrence Phelps' words, "G. Donald Harrison arrived in America with a solid knowledge of English organ building and a fine appreciation of the work of Cavaillé-Coll. To this he soon added a rather detailed knowledge of Gottfried Silbermann's work, and with these tools he set about to realize in practice the ideal organ his artistic consciousness had long contemplated."4

This new style would become the prevalent theme in American organ building in the middle 20th century, and continue to influence instrument makers even as the organ reform movement gained traction and mechanical action instruments patterned after historic models began to proliferate. As Phelps observed in 1967, "... most of the instruments built even today bear a strong family resemblance to either the "American Classic" format originated by G. Donald Harrison or the even more stereotyped and restricted style of Walter Holtkamp."5 Designed to play a variety of repertoires, the 'American Classic' combined 18th and 19th century German and French inspired ensembles and placed them on the electro-pneumatic platform. After World War II, other American firms would follow Harrison's lead and create their own version of the style.6

The firm continues to be an active builder and restoration specialist. In addition to the United Kingdom, the firm has recently exported instruments and additions to the Netherlands, Norway, and New Zealand.7 We received the most recent update for this note from Database Manager on February 11, 2019.

January 11, 2016:


  1. Henry Willis & Sons website, Accessed Jan. 11, 2016.
  2. Jonathan Ambrosino, Ernest M. Skinner and G. Donald Harrison: Retrospective & Review Lecture delivered at the Organ Historical Society National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, summer of 2000. Available on-line at Jonathan Ambrosino website. Accessed Jan. 11, 2016.
  3. Ambrosino, ibid.
  4. Lawrence I. Phelps, "A Short History of the Organ Revival, II. The Organ Revival in America" (Reprinted from Church Music 67.1. On-line at LawrencePhelps.com), accessed Dec 15, 2015.
  5. Phelps, ibid.
  6. John T. Fesperman, "Organ Reform Movement," in The Organ: An Encyclopedia edited by Douglas Bush & Richard Kassel (Utah and New York: Psychology Press, 2006), pp. 386-387.
  7. Company website: Henry Willis & Sons Ltd., http://www.willis-organs.com/index.html, Accessed 21 November, 2016.

We received the most recent update for this note from Database Manager on April 09, 2020.

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