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Pipe Organs: ‘The King of Instruments’

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It’s not the sexiest musical instrument, but when it lets loose at high volume, a pipe organ can drown out the largest orchestra or the most raucous of rock bands. Learn how this king of instruments works and why it’s endured.

The Grand Barton organ at Coronado Theatre was painted white and gold in the 1960s, but was carefully restored around 2000 during renovations to the theater. The colorful dragon vents on either side of the stage disguise the organ’s inner workings, which include some 1,181 pipes.

The Grand Barton organ at Coronado Theatre was painted white and gold in the 1960s, but was carefully restored around 2000 during renovations to the theater. The colorful dragon vents on either side of the stage disguise the organ’s inner workings, which include some 1,181 pipes.

Who is able to trill like a piccolo or warble like a bird, but in the next moment fill the space with music nearly as loud as the loudest rock band? The otherwise mild-mannered pipe organist at the console of the King of Instruments. Take that, Led Zeppelin!

With such a domineering voice, the pipe organ usually is a solo instrument. More than 400 musical arrangements have been written for pipe organ and symphony orchestra, but it’s an uneasy pairing, with the symphony musicians proud of their position at the top of the musical world and the organist smugly aware that the organ could easily drown out the entire 100-piece orchestra with a single fortissimo chord.

Alex Ross, music critic for New Yorker magazine, wrote in the Dec. 15, 2014, issue, “There is no louder sound in the musical realm than a pipe organ at full throttle.” The air that creates that tremendous sound is produced by bellows and stored in a “wind chest” until the organist presses a key to release some of it. For centuries, men or boys, unseen by the audience, operated the bellows by hand. In the 20th century, they were released from their servitude by electric pumps.

Nearly every organ is custom made for the buyer, taking into account the available space, budget and desired physical looks of the organ. Organ sizes are measured in manuals (keyboards), and ranks. A “rank” is another word for a set of pipes; there are 61 keys on an organ keyboard, and a rank consists of one pipe per key. Each rank gives the same note a different sound quality. Organ sizes vary widely, from having one manual and one or two dozen pipes to seven manuals and more than 32,000 pipes! Even the smallest organs are not easily portable.

Transport of the largest organs is difficult even to imagine. The console, where the organist sits and operates the keys, pedals and stops, is only the tip of the iceberg, the entry into the great chambers of sound produced by air pressure through the pipes. Think of it as a highly evolved manifestation of the sound produced by blowing across the top of a soda bottle. Organ chambers contain the mechanisms that control the pipes, and can be as large as one or more rooms. Of the perfect array of pipes visible, only some actually play; many are simply ornamental and others are out of sight in the vast organ chambers.

The pipe organ’s history begins in the third century B.C. in Greece, with a musical instrument called the hydraulis that used water pressure to force air into pipes. Medieval illuminations show small pipe organs called portatives being played by lovely maidens.

The addition of “stops” to the organ in the mid-15th century made it possible for a certain note to acquire several different traits; it could be straight in tone or lively in tremolo, imitate a human voice, or a trumpet, or any other of a variety of sounds. The stop is activated when the player pulls out a small knob. “To pull out all the stops” is slang for maximum effort, but no organist would do that; the result would surely be cacophony.

Many newer organs, especially theater organs, have tabs instead of knobs to activate the stops, because tabs can be pressed more quickly than knobs can be pulled, and more of them can be squeezed into the sides of the console. During many centuries, church pipe organs were the main source of music for most people, but during the 16th century English Reformation, many organs were taken out of churches and relocated to grand private homes. Many former Catholic abbeys were transformed into grand private homes, pipe organs intact.

By the 17th century, the organ had acquired most of the sounds of the modern classical organ. Until displaced by the telephone exchange in the late 1800s, the pipe organ was the most complex man-made device in the world.

The theater organ appeared in the early 20th century, with the advent of silent movies. Its pipes were not displayed to the audience, but the instrument added a lot of pizazz and excitement to those black-and-white films, as the organist played along with the action in the movie. Playing it required a technique different from that used on church organs. The once-plain console sported flamboyant decorations and rose dramatically from the orchestra pit on an elevator. It had a “toy counter” that produced some non-tonal sounds such as a complete set of orchestral percussion, horse’s hoofs, police sirens, and sleigh bells to match the action on the screen, as well as a tuneful glockenspiel, a marimba and birdsong, all activated through the organ’s wind supply. Some organs had player mechanisms using punched paper rolls, similar to player pianos, and could be found not only in theaters but also in the homes of the wealthy and/or the musically challenged.
Wurlitzer was the largest manufacturer and its name became interchangeable with theater organs.

In the late 1920s, talking pictures, some with their own music, made theater organs suddenly obsolete. Some 7,000 organs were installed in the U.S. between 1915 and 1933, but fewer than 40 remain in their original venues today. Inevitably, some of these old organs were dismantled, their pipes sold for scrap metal and their consoles sent to the dump. Others went into sports stadiums, concert halls, museums, restaurants and the hands of private collectors.

Among the lucky ones are the dual-console Wurlitzer in the Radio City Music Hall and the Grande Barton in Rockford’s magnificently restored 1927 Coronado Theatre.

In 1927, when the Coronado was under construction, the Bartola Musical Instrument Company of Oshkosh, Wis., had in its inventory a suitable organ that could be installed immediately. The organ cost $50,000 and was shipped to Rockford in five boxcars.

After talking pictures arrived, that organ was seldom used. In 1960, it was painted white and gold. It’s been maintained since 1973 by the Land of Lincoln Theatre Organ Society (LOLTOS) and Rob Riley serves as its present crew chief. From 1999 to 2000, when the theater underwent a complete renovation, so did the organ’s console. It was returned to its original red-and-gold “circus wagon” style with two depicted gryphons (mythical winged lions). Riley describes the 17-rank, four manual organ with 300 stop keys and 1,181 pipes as “intermediate to large.” A 15 horsepower blower provides the wind supply.

Riley plays organ in the First Congregational Church in his hometown of Pecatonica but modestly declines to play the Barton. That honor goes to Bob Bates, who has generously shared his talents with Coronado audiences for 20 years. A LOLTOS tour of the Barton may begin by the organ console being raised from the orchestra pit while playing Bates’ rousing rendition of “The Liberty Bell March.” No one need be seated at the console for the organ to play. Riley says the music can be prompted by a device that instructs the pipes to play the selection.

The LOLTOS tour continues with a visit to the chamber containing the toy counter, which includes an “oogah” horn, fire gong and claxon, among many other sounds. A small jar labeled “bird water” may catch your eye.

“That’s for the pipe that produces the bird warble,” Riley says. “If it runs dry, I have to refill it.” That’s only one of many small tasks performed by an organ’s crew chief; with hundreds of moving parts, something always needs attention.

One dire emergency is the development of an unintended note, called a “cipher,” that indicates a leak into a pipe. The cipher won’t stop until a little valve is cleared of dust. Riley is a lean fellow, but even he finds it difficult to squeeze between the forest of pipes to locate and repair the offending leak.

Rockford is justly proud of its historic Coronado Theatre, with the Barton organ still thrilling audiences.

One of the oldest and most interesting small pipe organs in the Old Northwest Territory is the one in Grace Episcopal Church in Galena, Ill. The lovely old church, made of native limestone, has the distinction of housing the longest continually operating Episcopal congregation in the country. In 1838, the church purchased an organ from the Henry Erben Organ Company in New York. It has one manual and six ranks of pipes. It was sent by ship down the Atlantic Coast, through the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River, and still is in use today.

Another small organ – two manuals and three ranks – was made in 1936, as opus No. 1311, by the Wicks Organ Company of Highland, Ill. Wicks is still in business, though many other organ companies have folded. Today, Wicks’ Opus No. 1311 stands in the two-story entryway of a home owned by the Woodworth family in Oak Park, Ill. There, daughter Madeleine practiced on it while attending high school at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. Today, she is majoring in pipe organ at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

“Playing the organ is so empowering,” says Madeleine. “Even though I’m hidden behind the console, I can still make people jump with surprise or other emotions, with the dynamic and color range of the instrument. Although the organ is primarily a solo instrument, the organ community at Eastman, and elsewhere, is supportive and welcoming, especially to young organists.”

When the Woodworths bought the organ from a private party in Wisconsin in 2010, it was disassembled, each pipe wrapped separately, and shipped to Oak Park. Organ builder Trevor Dodd stayed with the family for four days to reassemble it.

The largest classical pipe organ ever built is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was constructed by Midmer-Losh in 1932, for use at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., where it remains today. It has seven manuals and 33,112 pipes in 447 ranks. The longest pipe on this instrument is more than 64 feet long, the smallest a quarter-inch long, and the console boasts more than 1,200 moving stop tabs. When pipes of between 32 and 64 feet of length are playing, the frequency is too low to be determined by the ear, but the room literally shakes, and the tones can be “felt.” When fully operational, this organ was capable of producing more than 115 decibels of sound. Currently, only 150 ranks are functioning; it’s undergoing a renovation that will cost more than $11 million. However, the dedicated group charged with this task is confident they will be able to finish the job.

As for large pipe organs still playable, there are many and their owners are not above bragging about them. The John D.
Wanamaker organ in Macy’s Department Store in Philadelphia is the largest, with six manuals, 466 ranks and 28,765 wind-blown pipes. It originally was built for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and, in 1911, was installed in Philly’s biggest department store, Wanamaker’s. Fortunately, although store ownership changed, the organ has been maintained consistently and still is played twice a day during the week, with special performances at Christmas.

The 1911 M.P. Moeller organ in the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., comes in second, with four manuals, 385 ranks and 23,236 pipes; the E.M. Skinner-Schantz organ installed in the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles in 1932 is a close third, with five manuals, 346 ranks and 20,417 pipes.

In size measurements, theater organs are in a class by themselves. The Barton organ installed in the huge Chicago Stadium in 1929, with its six manuals and 52 ranks, boasts the largest console ever built for a theater organ. While there were instruments with more pipes in them at the time, none could ever match Chicago Stadium’s Barton in volume. It was designed to drown out 18,000 hockey fans, with the pipes being triple the scale and wind pressure of a normal instrument, and it reportedly smashed windows and lightbulbs when played to its capacity.

Some so-called “new” organs actually are built from parts of other theater organs. For instance, there is the five manual, 80-rank organ in the Sanfilippo estate in Barrington, Ill. Concert pianist and organ virtuoso David Gray, of Glasgow and London, visited the Sanfilippo organ in 2013 with the Woodworth family, and was invited to sample its capabilities just for fun. Perhaps one day he will present a concert on it.

“This instrument is, in fact, the largest theater organ ever built, and was designed and constructed by some of the finest professionals in the business, to create an instrument of unparalleled tonal diversity and dynamic range,” Gray says.

He adds, “The second-largest theater organ in existence can be heard in the Organ Stop Pizza Restaurant in Mesa, Ariz. It has more pipes, bells, whistles, percussions and sound effects than you could possibly imagine, as well as puppets, flags and a bubble machine. This organ is the central feature of the restaurant, and is extremely popular with locals and visitors.”

Another unique organ was designed by organ builder Manuel Rosales and daring architect Frank Gehry. Dubbed the “Hurricane Mama,” it’s in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Its wood-clad pipes are not hidden away, but are out in front, looking as if some giant had brought in an untidy armful of sticks, two-by-fours and wooden beams of various lengths and stood them on end, leaning this way and that.

However impractical they might seem, organs are collectibles just like vintage cars and old comic books. A passionate organ buff will do almost anything to his home to accommodate his newly acquired behemoth. It’s an opportunity to build an instrument of his own design. One case is John Rust of Acme, Ind., who has added to his country home a living room 87 feet long, 32 feet wide and 40 feet high. It was built and treated to provide the ideal acoustic. Rust imported a Compton theatre organ from Scotland, a small 19th century Appleton organ from New York State, and various church organs from different builders and locations. The room is filled with endless chambers, lofts and high balconies, all covered in weird and wonderful organ parts, each contributing to an ever more unique and inventive musical instrument.

Through the centuries, there have been challengers to the pipe organ, such as that ornate Victorian pump organ your great grandmother had in her parlor; the Hammond electronic organ; and those abominable synthesizers. But those rivals could never dethrone the regal pipe organ that is still, as Mozart christened it, The King of Instruments.

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