1863 E. & G. G. Hook Opus 322 Church of the Immaculate Conception Boston, Massachusetts Part 3

September 4, 2017

Michael McNeil has designed, constructed, and researched pipe organs since 1973. He was also a research engineer in the disk drive industry with 27 patents. He has authored four hardbound books, among them The Sound of Pipe Organs, several e-publications, and many journal articles.

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this article was published in the July issue of The Diapason, pages 17–19. Part 2 was published in the August issue, pages 18–21.


Re-pitching of the Pedal 

In Figure 23 we see the C side of the Pedal 16 Trombone in the front row, and the Pedal 16 Open Diapason in the back row. Both stops have their pipes in the original position. Note the crude addition of boards to the top of the Trombone pipes as the means of lowering the pitch from A450 to A435 Hz. Relative to its original voicing, this stop is choked off in power and brilliance. Also note the more professional lengthening of the resonators of the Pedal 16 Open Diapason pipes.


Impact of the Solo division 

The Solo division was added in 1902 as Opus 1959 of E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings, placing the windchest over the C# side of the Pedal and Great divisions. Figure 24 is a view from below up into the bottom of the Solo chest. The Pedal wood Trombone pipe in the center is speaking directly into the bottom of the Solo chest, muffling its tone. The Trombone pipe on the left has been mitered to clear the Solo chest.

In Figure 25 one can see that the low C# pipe of the Great 16 Trumpet speaks directly into the bottom of the Solo chest. In an effort to restore the tuning and power to the pipe, the entire scroll has been crudely forced open. In Figure 26 one can see the more normal scroll of the unobstructed low C pipe of the Great 16 Trumpet. The diatonic differences heard in the voicing of many bass pipes are entirely due to the unfortunate placement of the Solo division. The craftsmanship and engineering skills of 1902 were clearly inferior to those of 1863.

The change of pitch

The organ was originally pitched at A=450 Hz. Sometime before 1902 the organ was repitched to A=435 Hz.6 The current pitch of the organ, 435.3 Hz at 74 degrees F, was measured in June 2000 with a Widener electronic tuner using the 4 Octave of the Great as the reference pitch, while confirming that this stop was in good tune with itself and the rest of the chorus. The tuning of the organ is quite stable as a result of the use of scrolls in the bass pipes, cone tuning for the trebles, and generous pipe flueways, which do not easily become choked with dust. 


Resonator lengths of the reeds

How did this change of pitch affect the timbre of the reed chorus? Raising the pitch of a reed pipe by pushing down on its tuning wire will eventually force it to overblow to its octave. As an overblowing reed pipe’s tuning wire is slowly raised and the pitch flattened, the pipe will at some point flip back to its fundamental pitch. This is called the “flip point,” and it represents the pitch with the warmest fundamental power. As the wire is raised further, tuning to yet lower pitches, the fundamental will weaken and the harmonics will strengthen in power. The same effect will occur if the resonator is shortened at the flip point. Most reed pipe resonators are adjusted to a length where the flip point is just slightly sharp of the desired pitch—the speech is faster and the harmonic balances are more pleasing with good fundamental warmth and some fire in the harmonics. A good resonator length is not so close to the flip point that it “flips” to the octave when it is tuned on the wire to the flue pipes on the hottest summer days, but it is close to that condition.

With this in mind, the author saw an opportunity to explore the flip points of the Hook chorus reeds. With the exception of the low C pipe, which was added when the organ was repitched to 435 Hz, the resonators of the 4 Clarion were cut dead length with no scrolls and no evidence of having been shortened. This afforded the opportunity to explore the timbre of these stops relative to what they might have been in 1863. 

The reeds were tested for flip points at 70 degrees Fahrenheit when the tuning of the 4 Octave was 434 Hz. The pipes were tuned on the wire sharp to their overblowing octaves, then tuned down carefully to their flip points, and the pitch of the pipe relative to A was measured on a Widener electronic tuner. The table below (Figure 27) shows the flip point frequencies for the Great reed chorus and Pedal Trombone.


16 8 4 2 1

Gt 16 434.2 441.4 434.3 434.5 445.2

Gt 8 435 444.2 435.8 434.5

Gt 4 444.1 439.2 449

Pd 16 437 434.6 432.6

Pitch @ 70° 434 434 434 434 434

Figure 27


When looking at this table we need to bear in mind that the flip point frequencies need to be higher than the relative pitch of A to which we want to tune the chorus, i.e., these flip points should be significantly higher than 434 Hz. What we find are values ranging from 432.6 Hz to 449 Hz. The direct inference, assuming that the pipes have not been otherwise modified, is that the original chorus was significantly brighter than what we now hear. The dead length reed resonators were apparently not shortened and their tuning wires were used to achieve A=435 Hz, pushing many of the pipes very close to, or even beyond, their flip points. This is a significant offset in the flip point from the original voicing. It is clear that as beautiful and inspiring as it is, we hear a darker approximation of the original 1863 reed chorus in the present organ.


The magnitude of the deficit

The issue of pitch is complicated. Figure 28 shows a graphic depiction of the problem. The shift in pitch at middle A from 450 to 435 Hz is a change of 15 Hz. The distance between a half step at this pitch is about 25 Hz, and when the pipes were moved up a half step, middle A was then repitched to about 425 Hz. The 10 Hz deficit between 425 and 435 Hz was corrected by retuning the pipes. In the case of the dead length reeds, the tuning wires were simply pushed down to raise the pitch, so we know that the original Hook pipes in the table in Figure 27 would have “flipped” at frequencies about 10 Hz higher (at middle A) than what we measured in the table. To bring the pipes back to their original timbre at the current 435 Hz, the resonators would need to be shortened on all reed pipes by an amount that would produce about a 10 Hz increase in pitch at middle A. This may be inadvisable as it would reduce the scale of the resonators.

The Pedal Trombone was not moved up a half step, but large flaps of wood were added to drop its pitch from 450 to 435 Hz, covering the tops of its resonators and reducing its power and brilliance (Figure 23). The correction would entail the removal of the flaps and a lengthening of the resonators, which may be also inadvisable, as it would increase the scale of the pipes, an effect opposite to the correction needed for the reed chorus pipes of the Great division. 

The flue pipes suffered a similar fate and were retuned 10 Hz higher by one or both of two methods: making the pipes shorter and/or opening their toes. Of the two methods, the opening of the toes had a major effect on the timbre and power of the pipes. The impact of such changes is described in the notes on the 16 Open Diapason and the 8 Open Diapason Forte, with the result that the current balances deviate markedly from the original intentions of the Hooks. The correction would entail a reduction of the toes where they were opened, and a further shortening of the pipes. Since nearly all façade pipes have had their scrolls rolled down to the maximum extent, or even removed, the correction would require deeper cutouts and new scrolls on all pipes, not a simple or necessarily desirable proposition.

Raising the pitch from 435 to 440 Hz would push some reeds beyond the flip point, further darkening the sound, and it would increase the tuning deficit to 15 Hz. Such an increase in pitch would require further deepening of the façade pipe scroll openings, most of which are already at their limit. Further opening of the toes of the façade pipes would make their timbre and power even more imbalanced than their current state. All of these reasons suggest why the organ was never repitched to 440 Hz. 



The Hook organ was put back into regular service use during the tenure of Fr. Thomas Carroll, SJ, as the director of the Jesuit Urban Center at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Many notable organists at that time visited the church and played the instrument in concerts that were warmly and appreciatively received. 

It is hoped that the research presented in this study will inform those who restore this organ at a future date. Virtually all of the tonal modifications made to this organ resulted from the change to its pitch and the addition of the Solo division; the rest is vintage and very well preserved E. & G. G. Hook. 

Serious consideration should be given to the relocation of the Solo division in a manner that does not encroach upon the tuning of the original Hook pipes or limit the sound egress of the original Hook layout. The raw data indicate that the 1902 installation of the Solo division had a major impact on both counts. If the decision is made to remove the 1902 Solo division from the organ, and that conclusion should not be reached lightly, it should be carefully crated and stored, not discarded. It is a part of the Romantic tapestry and history of this organ.

Three possibilities now suggest themselves: 

1) Leave the organ at 435 Hz and reposition the Solo division to allow sufficient clearance to the Great and Pedal bass pipes. This preserves the current sound but corrects for the tonal and mechanical damage inflicted by the Solo division installation. It does not address the darker character of the reed chorus or the tonal imbalances of the 16 and 8Open Diapasons.

2) Same as Option 1, but shorten the manual reed resonators to their original flip points, i.e., about 10 Hz shorter at middle A. Lengthen the wooden resonators of the Pedal Trombone and remove the obstructing boards. Restore the toes of the Diapasons to their original values and further deepen the tuning slots of all façade pipes. This involves significant expense in pipework restoration, it comes closer to the original Hook sound and power balances, but it permanently and perhaps inadvisedly changes the diameter scales of the many reeds that are cut to length.

Note that most of the scrolls on the reed pipes in Figure 29 (see page 22) are excessively rolled down in an effort to achieve 435 Hz; restoring the original pitch would correct this, so . . .

3) Repitch the organ to its original 450 Hz and move the pipes back to their original positions and voicing, restore the toes of the two Diapasons back to their original values, and restore the tuning scrolls of all pipes back to their original positions. This restores the original sound of the Hook. Repositioning of the Solo division is still essential.

Option 3 would not be the exact sound familiar to those of us who have heard the organ at Immaculate Conception, but it would be faithful to the original intent of the Hooks. The reed chorus would come alive. The author strongly recommends Options 1 or 3 over Option 2. Repitched to 450 Hz, the organ will not be compatible with orchestral instruments tuned to 440 Hz, but neither is the present organ compatible at 435 Hz, and the pipework will clearly not support 440 Hz. The argument can be made that we have a great many organs tuned to 440 Hz in our concert halls, while we have very few large Hook organs in their original state designed for superb acoustics like those of Immaculate Conception. Hook Opus 322 presents us with a unique challenge: it has been passed down to us in superb condition by the careful attention of the Lahaise family, and it may be the best opportunity we have to hear a large, well-preserved Hook chorus of Civil War vintage designed for a stunning acoustic.

The importance of the choice we make of the restoration options pales in comparison to the decision of the site of the organ’s new home. Much of this organ’s fame was the result of its placement in the stunning acoustics of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. When selecting or building a new acoustic for this organ it is important to realize that architects are not accustomed to the requirements of pipe organs. Be especially aware that definitions of reverberation by architects will not even remotely correlate with your musical perception of those acoustics. See The Sound of Pipe Organs, p. 32, for a detailed discussion of this ubiquitous problem. If the Church of the Immaculate Conception still exists in its original acoustical form, an unlikely event, take the architects there and make the accurate replication of those acoustics a requirement. If that acoustic doesn’t exist, take the architects to the Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina. Architects will know how to measure it, but they will be stunned by the request to replicate it. The fame of the Hook organ and its original acoustical environment are inseparable. As any organbuilder will tell you, the best stop in any organ is the room in which it is placed, or to put it more bluntly, a wonderful organ placed in a mediocre room will sound­—mediocre.

Professor Thomas Murray, Yale University organist, has been deeply involved with this Hook organ, has made recordings of it (listed in the discography), and possesses a deep knowledge of the Romantic literature. Future restorers of this organ could benefit from his advice. 

We are incredibly fortunate to have at least some detailed data on the Hook organ, and we owe the Jesuit community and especially Fr. Thomas Carroll, SJ, a great debt for the opportunity to acquire it. Fr. Carroll now resides at the Collegio Bellarmino in Rome, Italy, a home to a community of more than 70 Jesuits representing more than 35 countries. He is the spiritual director for many of the Jesuits pursuing advanced theological degrees, conversing with about half in English and half in Italian. He provides guidance for young Jesuit scholars in the preparation of theses written in English, and for whom English may be a second, third, or fourth language.


Notes and Credits

All photographs, tables, graphs, and data are by the author except as noted.

1. Owen, Barbara. “A Landmark within a Landmark: The 1863 Hook Organ,” undated typescript.

2. Excel files with all raw data taken on the Hook and the spreadsheets that produced the graphs and tables may be obtained at no charge by e-mailing the author at: [email protected].

3. McNeil, Michael. The Sound of Pipe Organs, CC&A, Mead, 2012, 191 pp., Amazon.com.

4. Huntington, Scot L., Barbara Owen, Stephen L. Pinel, Martin R. Walsh, Johnson Organs 1844–1898, OHS Press, Richmond, Virginia, pp. 17–18.

5. Elsworth, John Van Varick. The Johnson Organs, The Boston Organ Club Chapter of the Organ Historical Society, Harrisville, New Hampshire, 1984, p. 45.

6. Noack, Fritz. Preliminary Report about the Pipework of the 1863 E. & G. G. Hook Organ, July 9, 1999.


Murray, Thomas. The E. & G. G. Hook Organ, Immaculate Conception Church, Boston, Sheffield Town Hall Records, Album S-11 (ACM149STA-B), Santa Barbara, CA.

Murray, Thomas. An American Masterpiece, CD, AFKA SK-507.


Useful References

Cabourdin, Yves, and Pierre Chéron. L’Orgue de Jean-Esprit et Joseph Isnard dans la Basilique de la Madeleine à Saint-Maximin, ARCAM, Nice, France, 1991, 208 pp.

Huntington, Scot L., Barbara Owen, Stephen L. Pinel, Martin R. Walsh, Johnson Organs 1844–1898, The Princeton Academy of the Arts, Culture, and Society, Cranbury, New Jersey, 2015, 239 pp.

McNeil, Michael. The Sound of Pipe Organs, CC&A, Mead, 2012, 191pp, Amazon.com.

Owen, Barbara. The Organ in New England, The Sunbury Press, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1979, 629 pp.

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