Wicks Organ Company, Highland, Illinois
First Congregational Church, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Opus 6419
From the spectacular display of floral color found at the annual Tulip Festival in Holland, to the ingenuity of the great Christopher Columbus Smith as he launched the first-ever Chris-Craft speedboat, Western Michigan has provided us with a rich cultural, artistic, and recreational history. Kalamazoo is no exception to this trend; in fact, when it comes to the presence and popularity of the pipe organ, Kalamazoo reigns as a leader.
When I first went to First Congregational Church in the year 2001, I was told that the new organ would be in the company of a host of large, new instruments. Moreover, I learned that these new organs were within walking distance of one another! The Congregational church’s organ would share turf with two instruments by Létourneau (one in the Methodist church and one in the Baptist church), two older Casavants (one in the Christian Science church and one in the Presbyterian church), a newer Dobson in the Episcopal church, a Kilgen in the Reformed church, and, of course, the soon to arrive Nichols & Simpson in St. Augustine’s Cathedral. Having so many intriguing, contrasting organs in such a small area is a true gift to the organ enthusiast and an invaluable tool to the deliberating organ committee. It was from this impressive list of instruments that the committee of First Congregational Church began to study.
The organ committee instructed the bidding builders to propose something special: something unique that would complement rather than duplicate the other instruments on the block. However, they were not yet sure of the actual style they desired. Even though several of the other organs on the square provide an interesting spectrum of tonal styles, representing varying degrees and spins upon the American-classic school of tonal design, they were not sure whether they wanted to venture too far from this tried and true “comfort zone.” Nevertheless, the Wicks team took a leap of faith and proposed an instrument of the firm’s so-called “Neo-Victorian” style—the first ever to be proposed in this region of the country. After many months of deliberation and soul searching, First Congregational Church selected the Wicks proposal; and, they too took a leap of faith with regards to this “new” Wicks style of tonal design, voicing, and construction.
The Wicks “Neo-Victorian” sound
The Wicks Organ Company of Highland, Illinois, has ventured into an exciting realm of tone, unknown by the firm or its customers for some fifty years. Indeed, this somewhat unique style is little known in most organ circles. Furthermore, it is rather shocking for most musicians to find out that Wicks is now building high-pressure organs, utilizing stops and tonal palettes that have not been typically associated with the firm.
The “Neo-Victorian” label is not one of our own making. Credit for this somewhat curious name of the new style must be given to the Wicks North Texas area sales director John Dill. When he played the first Diapason chorus on our display organ, Opus 6295 from 2002 (which still stands in shop’s erecting room), he coined this term, which I believe to be quite apropos on many levels. What he experienced was new for him, even as an experienced American organ man. He is among the many folk who, when they hear the description of “Victorian” applied to an American-made organ of the early 20th century, conjure up less-than-savory images to describe the sound. We have all been told in our organ studios that most Victorian organs have certain universal traits. Most of these traits have been described with words and phrases that we have all heard: “it’s so muddy,” “it just can’t articulate repeated notes in the texture,” “the action is so clumsy,” “this thing is so treble deficient,” “it’s tubby,” “it’s contrapuntally challenged and I cannot hear the voice leading at all,” “it is lacking in a solid classic chorus up through mixture,” and yes, I have even heard this one: “it’s so frumpy!”
So what makes Wicks Opus 6419 at Kalamazoo’s First Congregational Church “Neo” instead of “old-school” Victorian? Well, it is truly a long story, one that has been about 100 years in the making for the Wicks Organ Company! It is important to remember that Wicks has been around for more than 100 years. The firm has dabbled in virtually every 20th-century stylistic trend of American organbuilding. The first truly “solid” Wicks style came about in the 1930s with the arrival of Henry Vincent Willis on American soil. The 1950s stood as a transitional phase in which Wicks struggled with the arrival of the “American Classic style” from companies in parts east. The 1960s saw the dawn of the style most commonly associated with Wicks, the low-pressure, open-toe voicing era. And from the late 1970s through the beginning of the 2000s, Wicks has dabbled in various degrees of “American Classicism.”
Henry Vincent Willis was the son of Vincent Willis, the “other brother” who made up the “Willis II” era of the Willis firm in England. He came to Wicks with much the same knowledge and voicing skills that would have been utilized in creating some of England’s largest Willis masterpieces. Most of the American “Willis Wicks” organs, however, took on a slightly different role than their English, Anglican-inspired sisters.
In the days before Vatican II, many Roman Catholic churches in the U.S. commissioned either Kilgen or Wicks organs. Both were Roman Catholic companies, and both were experienced in building organs for the tradition. As a result, a majority of these Wicks organs were designed for the pre-Vatican II liturgy. They provided “Holy Hush” for the mystical parts of the liturgy, choral accompaniment for the singing of plainsong and other Mass ordinaries, and improvisation during the receiving of Communion. As a result, such organs were resplendent with silvery undulating stops, warm and subtle accompanimental flutes, full and luscious Willis-voiced diapasons, and powerful, yet accompanimental Willis-voiced chorus reeds.
Larger instruments had some of the more fanciful stops like the 4¢ Magic Flute, the Silvestrina II, the French Horn, or the Orchestral Oboe, all of which were very “English Willis-like” in nature. Although choruses were very “singing” and quite contrapuntally clear, very rarely, except in the largest of organs, would there be more than one independent stop of 2¢ pitch. In the same spirit, mixtures were usually not even a whimsical thought for a designer of these organs, with the exception of the Dulciana-scaled Harmonia Aetheria!
By and large, however, these organs make up one of the most uncelebrated chapters of American organbuilding history. Most of them are still in decent working order (thanks to those famous leather-free Direct-Electric® units!), and they deserve greater recognition from organ historians and appreciators, as they are quite remarkable. Certainly, they have provided the present-day Wicks Organ Company with living examples of good Victorian work, which we have studied with high-powered microscopes.
Wicks responded to the arrival of the Classic revival in American organ building, in a full-throttle manner beginning in 1965. Almost all of the scaling and pipe-making/voicing techniques of the past were set aside in order to embrace what customers were demanding. Often, instruments could reach the 10–15 rank mark without having a single 8' Open in the manuals. Languids and lower lips were left unscathed by the ravages of the nicking knife, and regulation was accomplished at the lower lip of most metal pipes. Gone were the Sylvestrinas and Salicionals, VDO’s, Clarinets, and French Horns in favor of Gemshorns, Schalmeis, Barpfeifen, and other neo-classically inspired sounds. All this was done, of course, as an answer to the demands of the times. People were demanding clear, contrapuntally precise choruses inspired by the notion of the Werkprinzip.
The company indeed answered the call. My predecessor, John Sperling, designed, voiced and finished several of the most elegant neo-classic-style organs to be found anywhere. In fact, he has just spearheaded the restoration, re-installation and revoicing of this era’s magnum opus, which has been provided for Mary, Mother of Hope Catholic Church in New Castle, Pennsylvania. I fear that this and other notable organs of this vintage are also unduly ignored by the organ public. However, the pres-ent tonal administration has learned a great deal from the importance that was placed on chorus building and contrapuntal clarity in this vintage of Wicks.
From the organs of the 1930s–1940s, the Neo-Victorian Wicks Opus 6419 rediscovers and celebrates the beauty of the individual stop. Nevertheless, from the organs of the 1960s and 1970s, the Neo-Victorian Wicks upholds the importance of clarity in ensembles in performing horizontal musical textures. Indeed, in Opus 6419, one can draw any one stop of unison pitch and be satisfied for hours just playing upon it alone. Not only will the stop’s individual timbre inspire with a singular beauty of tone, but the player will be amazed that something so rich will allow his choir or congregation to clearly identify every voice in a four-part texture! Furthermore, the musician can come out in the organist when he or she sits at the console of Opus 6419, for the stops are a sonic painter’s palette. Every voice is designed to work well in ensemble with what seems to be an endless array of other voices in combination.
Back again are the full, rich, yet contrapuntally clear Diapasons (of which this organ possesses six of 8' pitch!). Some familiar 1930s flutes, like the Melodia and the Transverse Flute, as well as favorite strings, like the 16' Violone and the 8' Violoncello, also have resurfaced. We seized the distinct opportunity of working with select ranks of 1920s pipework that were still present in the church’s 1920s/1970s Austin organ. The strings of the Swell and the Choir were restored to their 1920s glory—they stand as a testimony to the enduring legacy of Austin Organs, Inc. The new chorus reeds certainly show a 1930s influence with their powerful, yet accompanimental/blending characters. The color stops like the Magic Flute, English Horn, Harmonic Flute, Bassett Horn, and Oboe recall the great sounds of the symphonic-style organ, but they can also serve as clever coloration for the creative ensemble-building, orchestral-minded musician. The Great Tromba towers over the full ensemble in a firm, powerful, yet non-abrasive manner. The 32' Double Trombone, voiced on 15" of wind with its pocketed teardrop shallots undergirds the entire organ with a fundamentally powerful rumble rather than a “jack hammer.” And last, but certainly not least, the 20" wind-pressure Subterranean Tuba, a stop located in the basement and speaking up through the floor behind expression shades, truly envelops the listener with a firm sonic thrill rather than piercing him with a strident “laser beam” of sound.
Sometimes a leap of faith is a scary proposition, and the Wicks Organ Company team always will be grateful to the kind people of First Congregational Church for taking the plunge and entrusting us with this exciting commission. The church and the firm built an initial trust that allowed Wicks to build an organ in the new tonal style. The organist, Mrs. Helene S. Stuurwold, understood the tonal vision for the organ, recognized the vastly expanded musical parameters the organ would offer, and therefore embraced the project wholeheartedly.
The organ committee did the church and the firm a great service by appointing one of their own, Charles Krenick, as the liaison between the church and the company. Charlie was most helpful in coordinating the building plans with the arrival of the organ. He also did so much to ensure that our installation crew did not run into any hurdles.
Many thanks must also be given to the Michigan area Wicks director, Larry Boekeloo. Larry was an invaluable resource to both the church and the firm, spending many weeks with Helene and members of the committee to ensure the proposal was well understood. He was also available at the drop of a hat to get little details for our design team, and he spent countless hours on site with the installation crew from the factory assisting with much of the initial installation.
Finally, credit must be given to the “A-Team,” the factory installation crew who worked for many months on site. Jack Haase, chief installer; Mae Knaebel, Robert Stoker, and Steve Thompson labored for three months installing this instrument. Furthermore, they worked to make some important onsite mechanical upgrades to the instrument, making it even better and more serviceable. The installers also worked for two weeks with the tonal finishers to help lift some very tall pipes as fine adjustments were made.
The tonal finishing and final voicing was then accomplished by Mark Scholtz and me over four weeks in January 2005. A spectacular flue voicer and a first-rate organist, Mark was, nevertheless, new to the world of tonal finishing. However, during this “initiation by fire” he has become quite skilled at the art of fine adjustment and balancing of sounds. I am certain that Mark’s tenure at Wicks will be one characterized by the finest, most musically finished instruments in the company’s history. The resulting organ stands as a masterpiece in that everyone, the 60 craftsmen and women at Wicks, as well as the committee and congregation of First Congregational Church, believed in the dream. The leap of faith has landed with success.
Tonal Director (2002–2006)
From the church
It is never easy to bid farewell to an old friend, but that was the situation facing the congregation of First Congregational Church in the late 1990s. The church’s venerable 1928 Austin organ was showing grave signs of trouble, most stemming from several “modernization” attempts in the late 1960s. Such was the love of the congregation for their beloved Austin that every possible avenue to save and rebuild it was thoroughly examined. Finally, the sad fact had to be faced that very little of the original pipework was left after the modernization attempts. Our very capable councilor, Jonathan Tuuk, helped us realize that the best stewardship would be to purchase a new pipe organ.
Thus began the long, arduous process of selecting an organbuilder. Mr. Tuuk was an invaluable help to the committee with his extensive organ knowledge, hard work, and never-failing optimism. The committee listened, learned, debated, and finally selected the Wicks Organ Company of Highland, Illinois, to build the new organ. The Wicks firm was chosen for several reasons: their willingness to listen to our needs and desires, their high-quality product, their longevity in the organbuilding business, and their talented and dedicated craftspeople.
The committee felt strongly that they wanted their instrument to be all pipe with no digital sounds, and Wicks was up to the challenge. Wicks representative Larry Boekeloo and Wicks tonal director Bill Hamner determined that eight ranks still remaining from the 1928 Austin could be refurbished and reused in Wicks Opus 6419. Wicks craftspeople also spent extra effort to rebuild the original 61-note Austin harp because it had special meaning to the congregation. Exciting stoplists were prepared, revised, and reworked until everything seemed in good balance, both tonally and financially. Then, we waited.
When the organist played the first chords on the new Wicks Opus 6419 set up in the factory, tears sprang to her eyes: it was better than she had hoped for. That first impression has proven true as luscious sounds fill the sanctuary Sunday after Sunday. The congregation is delighted, the organist is thrilled, and the hymn singing is more energetic than ever before. We look forward to many years of exciting exploration of Wicks Opus 6419.
The Wicks Organ Company will be taking attendees of the 2006 AGO national convention in Chicago to visit this instrument on Tuesday July 4. A bus will be leaving from Chicago at 8:00 am. A lunch will be provided, and the bus will be back in Chicago for the evening events. To reserve your space on this bus, please contact the Wicks offices by calling 877/654-2191, or using the contact form at
Cover photo by Wicks Organ Company; shop photos by Brent Johnson.
8' First Open Diapason
8' Second Open Diapason
8' Harmonic Flute
4' Night Horn
4' Flute Octaviante
V Full Mixture
8' Tromba (Ch)
8' Subterranean Tuba (Echo)
16' Minor Bourdon
8' Horn Diapason
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Viola Celeste TC*
4' Octave Diapason
4' Transverse Flute
22?3' Flute Twelfth
2' Harmonic Piccolo
V Chorus Mixture
8' Vox Humana
8' Subterranean Tuba (Echo)
8' Violin Diapason
8' Muted Viol*
8' Viol Celeste TC*
4' Magic Flute
22?3' Gemshorn Twelfth
2' Tapered Fifteenth
8' Basset Horn
8' English Horn
8' Subterranean Tuba (Echo)
ECHO (enclosed, floating)
8' Open Diapason*
8' Chimney Flute*
4' Octave Diapason
8' Subterranean Tuba
32' Acoustic Bass
16' Major Bass
16' Violone (Gt)
16' Minor Bourdon (Sw)
8' Violoncello (Gt)
8' Stopped Flute (Gt)
32' Double Trombone
16' Waldhorn (Sw)
8' Subterranean Tuba (Echo)
8' Tromba (Ch)
8' Trumpet (Ch)
4' Tromba Clarion (Ch)
4' English Horn (Ch)
* Reused pipework from original 1928 Austin organ