Echoes of the past in Bill’s handmade harpsichords

The partially completed regal organ that Bill Robson is working on.

The hands of William Selway “Bill” Robson, 78, glide effortlessly over the keyboards of his almost 50-year-old organ which he built from scratch with “bits and pieces” from 1975 to 2012.

The sound of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Dorian Toccata echoes through his Cape Dutch-style farmhouse and drifts out to the massive oak trees on his Noordhoek smallholding.

The organ is the first he ever made, and some of those “bits and pieces” date back 200 years.

It has two keyboards: one is made by hand and the other is an original ebony-and-ivory keyboard from an 1851 piano that was destroyed in a fire.

“The keyboard was the only thing that survived the fire, and I know exactly how old it is as the date had been inscribed on one of the keys,” says Bill.

The organ has 310 pipes. Bill made most of them himself except for two ranks (a set of pipes) which are antique, one from 1897 and the other from about 1820.

The only modern thing about the organ, he says, is the blower which provides the air pressure “to make the pipes speak”.

And should you wish to be authentic, you can pump the blower by foot.

Bill Robson playing the organ that he built from “bits and pieces” between 1975 and 2012.

Bill has always had a love for baroque music, and Bach’s church cantatas are his favourite.

He started playing the piano at the age of 5, and his father taught him how to do woodwork.

Bill was born in South Africa but moved to England with his family where he studied mechanical and electronic engineering.

The family returned to South Africa in 1968, and, at the time, Bill worked for Plessey SA, installing a navigation system for the South African Navy.

After completing the project, he was “stuck in a lab in Plumstead”.

“I was passionate about electronics, and I wanted to be out in the field, so I decided it was time to do something different.”

While in between jobs, he got hold of the book, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, by Frank Hubbard, and he taught himself how to make organs and harpsichords.

A harpsichord resembles a piano, but the key difference is that its strings are mechanically plucked instead of struck, creating a very different sound.

Bill started off by making a spinet for himself. A spinet is a small harpsichord that was produced during the 17th and 18th centuries.

He then got an order for another one, and the rest is history.

Selway Robson Harpsichords and Pipe Organs was established, and, to date, Bill is the only harpsichord and baroque-organ maker in South Africa.

He built the only pure baroque pipe organ in South Africa on his own, by hand, which is in the St Norbert Catholic Church in Kommetjie.

Bill Robson’s workshop. The tools in the background belonged to his grandfather and date back to the 18th century.

He used planes (tools used for smoothing wood) that belonged to his maternal grandfather, William Selway, who bought them second hand in the 1880s, as he couldn’t afford new ones. The oldest ones date back to 1735.

“Looking back, I can’t believe I did it. It took me three-and-a-half years to build, and I did it at a fraction of the cost, as I was passionate about the project.”

At the time, the church’s priest, who was from Belgium, wanted to import a 1680 organ from Belgium, but the Belgian government refused his request, and the priest persuaded Bill to build an organ in the same style.

In reality, he says, a team of people would usually work on such a project, but he made all the parts himself in his workshop except for some of the carvings on the brass pipes that were done in Holland.

When the organ was finished, the church held regular religious music concerts which have since been stopped as the church cannot be used for secular reasons.

“The concerts were most enjoyable and since they have stopped, the organ is not being used to its full capacity,” says Bill.

He is no fan of today’s pneumatic and electronic-action organs, and he believes that to get a “truly authentic” sound, a harpsichord should be made as it was during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

“They don’t produce instruments like they did back then anymore. They started electrifying pipe organs in the 19th century, and it destroyed the sound.”

He says one might expect his biggest market to be Europe, but his biggest orders, from 1998 to 2008, were from Japan.

“The Japanese loved my instruments, and they would place large orders, pay in advance and tell me to take my time.”

Bill Robson demonstrating how the wedge bellows of the regal organ works.

The market has “completely died down” since Covid-19, and he has since started building a regal, a small, portable pipe organ with two bellows, that Bill says is ideal for playing pre-Bach music.

“It provides a completely different sound to most pipe organs and was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Most had been destroyed by the 18th century, and there a very few originals left. King Henry VIII had a lot of them.”

But Bill’s regal project has been put on the back burner in recent months because he is busy restoring an 18th-century cottage on his property, which will be used for music concerts in the future.

Bill is doing all the woodwork at the cottage, which can host up to 60 people, and he hopes to make it available at no charge to musicians in the far south.

Artistic director of the Cape Town Baroque Orchestra, Dr Erik Dippenaar, says Bill’s skill and experience in the building of historical instruments is unique in South Africa.

“It’s a craft that is in short supply globally, not only in South Africa.”

Bill is always exploring new “old” ideas, and the building of the regal organ is a good example of this, he says.

“Building an instrument based on historical examples, right down to the historical wind-supply system of wedge bellows instead of a wind motor, as you would find on many modern pipe organs, is remarkable.”

The baroque pipe organ in St Norbert’s Catholic Church in Kommetjie.
One of the concerts held in the St Norbert’s Catholic Church in Kommetjie.