Cover feature

Casavant Frères, Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada

Principia College, Cox Auditorium, Elsah, Illinois, Opus 3838

The history of Principia dates from 1897 when Mary Kimball Morgan began home schooling her two sons in order to give them a “fuller” education than what she found in the public schools in St. Louis. Mrs. Morgan, a Christian Scientist, based her educational philosophy on the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. Soon, when other parents began to observe the difference between her sons and their children, she was asked to take them as students. In 1898 the name Principia was chosen, and by 1906 the first high school graduation was held. A junior college—one of the first in the United States—was added in 1912, and in 1934 the first graduates of the senior college emerged to begin their careers. Today, although it is not an official institution of the Christian Science Church, Principia is staffed by Christian Scientists to serve Christian Science students from infants through adults. Principia maintains two campuses. The college itself is magnificently located on limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Elsah, Illinois.

The architect for the college campus, Bernard Ralph Maybeck (1862–1957) of San Francisco, California, was retained in 1923 to prepare a master plan. He decided to use an English village as the inspiration for his creation, to which he referred as his “favorite child.” Construction began in 1931 during the Great Depression, and by 1935 the college moved to the new location in Elsah. In 1993 the Principia College campus was granted National Historic Landmark status by the United States Department of the Interior for its unique plan and distinctive original buildings.

A large auditorium was constructed in 1964, primarily for the annual Principia Public Affairs Conferences. It was soon realized that a much wider variety of activities were using the building and that a pipe organ would be a valued asset. Detlef Kleuker Orgelbau of Brackwede/Westfallen, Germany, installed a two-manual, 32-rank instrument with electric-slider action in 1967. The organ was mounted on a platform hung from a sidewall, the console being positioned in front of stage center. Virgil Fox performed the inaugural concert. Various mechanical problems developed within a short period, and the tonal quality of the instrument proved to be inadequate for the size of the auditorium. Principia decided in 1983 to have the organ rebuilt and enlarged. The result was unfortunately even less successful, both tonally and mechanically, than the original Kleuker. With two failures, the school administration was understandably hesitant to consider another organ project for Cox Auditorium. Yet, a reliable and highly versatile instrument continued to be a demonstrated need for the building. The Music Department, led by college organist Dr. John Near, initiated discussions with the administration in 2000 to have several organ builders visit the campus and provide proposals for a mechanical action organ that would reflect many of the tenets found in the organs of Cavaillé-Coll. Casavant Frères was awarded the contract in August 2002 after several individual donors and the college classes of 1952 and 1953 generously provided funding as their 50th reunion gift to Principia.

When the Casavant team of Jacquelin Rochette (tonal director), Didier Grassin (tracker workshop director), and Carroll Hanson (Casavant representative) visited the site for the first time, we clearly realized the challenges that Cox Auditorium would bring. The 1100-seat auditorium is a shoebox-shaped room 180¢ long and 72¢ wide with a rising seating floor and a large stage. Despite the concrete floor and brick sidewalls, the acoustics are fairly unforgiving. This is mostly due to the thin suspended ceiling, heavy stage curtains and padded seats. The proposed placement of the organ at the back of the stage was enough to depress any weathered organbuilder. The instrument would have to share the space with an active ballet and theater program; it would be allowed a strictly limited footprint that could not interfere with the stage lighting; and it would be subject to potential damage due to the maneuvering of backdrops and decors required by various performances. In addition, a thick proscenium dropped about 8¢ from the ceiling at the front of the stage. Seen from the back of the auditorium, the top portion of the organ would have been hidden. Budget and other administrative practicalities did not allow us much leeway.

We walked away scratching our heads, wondering what layout would minimize the effect of this unfortunate placement. We investigated the possibility of moving the organ forward for musical events, studied the floor strength, and researched the feasibility of air cushions. We were ready to try anything in order to get the sound out of the stage.

That is when the ballet program came to the rescue. After a particularly successful ballet evening, the dance group effectively argued that the loss of precious stage floor would drastically restrict the breadth of their shows. The organ had to go elsewhere.

The move off the stage was certainly good news, visually and tonally. We gave a sigh of relief, although the placement question was still not solved. The previous defunct organ was set against the left wall on a small platform, but such a position would not have been adequate for the large three-manual scheme that was envisioned. The college was ready to explore all options. The possibility of adding a side extension to the building opened the door to a viable solution. It was felt that the organ should not speak entirely sideways to the audience, and sketches were prepared to study the feasibility of an angled case whose platform would link with the main stage. It quickly transpired that steel columns supporting the building could be neither suppressed nor moved. This added another layer of technical difficulties, as we would have to build the organ either beside or around the immovable pillars. Any viable solution encompassing a steel column would have to give good access to the windchests and pipework for maintenance and tuning. After many careful studies, we were able to propose a solution in which the organ would be angled by 20 degrees, with the Récit key action trackers brushing past a steel column. The success of the placement would have to rely on the precision of the new building extension and our own manufacturing, as both organ and building would have to fit like hand and glove. It turned out that the construction of the new chamber was superbly crafted under the college’s supervision, and 30' tall walls were impeccably vertical and placed within a quarter of an inch of the required dimensions.

The internal parts of the instrument are organized in two layers: the Grand Orgue, the Positif, and the Pédale upperwork occupy the front section in the protruding casework, while the Récit Expressif and the large pedal pipework stand behind in the new chamber. The organ is set on symmetrical windchests laid out in major thirds from tenor C for the manual divisions. Since the case follows a strict Werkprinzip, one can read the placement of the main divisions on the façade: the Positif, just above the console, is crowned by the Grand Orgue and its Montre 8'; the Pédale is on either side behind the 16' Montre. The Récit division has been split in two sections: the flues, Hautbois, and Voix humaine are at the front, and the battery of 16', 8' and 4' reeds are at the back. The key action has been realized with traditional wooden trackers, wooden squares, and steel rollers. The electric drawstop action is complemented with a generous capture system. The winding is done through large single rise reservoirs and wooden trunks.

The case design itself is a reflection of the very successful Maybeck architecture that graces the college buildings. We tried to emulate the elegant Arts & Crafts feel by mixing strict main lines with gently curved pipeshades. Great care has been given to enhance the verticality of the overall composition by breaking any potential horizontal lines. The case is made of stained solid American walnut throughout, with highlights of natural maple in the pipeshades. The polished tin façade provides a strong contrast with the soft grain of the walnut. The ensemble warmly glows in the auditorium.

Despite its curved drawstop terraces and porcelain stop nameplates, the console is not trying to copy any Cavaillé-Coll examples. The various elements and their arrangement have been chosen for their elegance and feel. It is a play of simplicity and richness with the walnut highlighted by thin strips of ebony. All the electronic controls, with the exception of a small readout, are discreetly hidden behind small doors.

The tonal architecture of the instrument is thoroughly grounded in the 19th-century French tradition. Dr. Near’s passion for French organ literature, especially that of Charles-Marie Widor, had to find a good vehicle through a full and noble sound. Jacquelin Rochette shaped a tonal structure that continues the musical principles set in the highly successful organ of Brick Church in New York City and which serves effectively the immense corpus of the French repertoire. The organ is articulated around a traditional 16¢ Grand Orgue. The Récit Expressif is typical of the large Récit found in late grand Cavaillé-Coll organs, with the exception of the 16¢ Bourdon that Dr. Near preferred to have in the Positif. The Positif is treated more classically with its series of mutations and a large-scale Cromorne. The Pédale is richly endowed from 32' upwards, although it is the division with the most compromises, as the large reeds and stopped flutes have been obtained through extensions.

Thanks to the wealth of foundation stops, many built with “entaille de timbre,” the organ is solidly grounded, and the generous basses contribute a wonderful gravitas to the instrument. Given the musical goals of retaining clarity throughout the entire compass and achieving nice initiation of speech, the mixtures have been purposely kept under control to avoid any aggressiveness. At the same time, though, the large number of reed stops—twenty percent of the ensemble, built with full-length resonators and designed with Cavaillé-Coll shallots—provides a thrilling tutti of great richness without ever being shrill.

This instrument was not without technical difficulties, and we have been fortunate to work alongside a college whose search for excellence has encouraged us to challenge ourselves. This exhilarating experience was greatly facilitated by their continuing support and assistance. A special thanks goes to Dr. John Near for his valuable guidance and his deep involvement during the entire project. Dr. Near will inaugurate the organ on May 11.

Didier Grassin

Jacquelin Rochette

Casavant Frères

A note from the college organist

Principia is thrilled to have this magnificent new organ in Cox Auditorium. It brings a much-needed new dimension to the performance opportunities at the college, and it is a wonderful addition to the musical landscape of the greater St. Louis community. I want to express my gratitude to the many generous donors who made the project possible, and to all the Casavant personnel who worked so tirelessly to make the instrument such a fine success.

John R. Near

Professor of Music

Casavant Opus 3838

3 manuals, 42 stops


Grand Orgue

16' Montre

8' Montre

8' Violoncelle

8' Bourdon

8' Flûte harmonique

4' Prestant

4' Flûte ouverte

4' Doublette

22?3'Cornet III

11?3' Fourniture IV–V

16' Bombarde

8' Trompette

4' Clairon

Récit Expressif

8' Diapason

8' Bourdon

8' Viole de gambe

8' Voix céleste (TC)

4' Octave

4' Flûte octaviante

2' Octavin

2' Plein jeu V

16' Basson

8' Trompette harmonique

8' Hautbois

8' Voix humaine

4'' Clairon harmonique

Tremblant

Positif

16' Bourdon doux

8' Principal

8' Cor de nuit

4' Prestant

4' Flûte à fuseau

22?3' Nazard

2' Quarte de nazard

13?5' Tierce

11?3' Larigot

1' Mixture IV

8' Trompette

8' Cromorne

Tremblant

Pédale

32v Soubasse

16' Montre (G.O.)

16' Contrebasse (prepared)

16' Soubasse

16' Bourdon doux (Pos.)

8' Octavebasse

8' Contrebasse (prepared)

8' Bourdon

4' Octave

4' Flute (prepared)

32'Contre Trombone

16' Trombone

8' Trompette

4' Clairon



Pos/G.O.

Réc./G.O.

Réc./Pos.

Tirasse G.O.

Tirasse Pos.

Tirasse Réc.

Leave A Comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt><dd><i>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.