Cover Feature

March 3, 2016

Noack Organ Company, Georgetown, Massachusetts

Richard Houghten,
Milan, Michigan
Church of the Incarnation,
Dallas, Texas


From the consultant

Church of the Incarnation has a music program any traditionalist would envy. Each Sunday has two music-rich morning services and an afternoon Evensong. Professional singers anchor the strong choir, while talented volunteers are also welcomed; the ensemble sings 52 weeks a year. Wonderful acoustics and a true reverential atmosphere complete the picture, with incense adding a final touch at Evensong. The only issue was the organ.

Scott Dettra invited me to survey the 1994 Noack in the fall of 2012, a trip that brought to mind earlier visits to the parish. The first was in 1992, to research the original 1960 Aeolian-Skinner then still in place. Like other Texas projects for the Boston company, Opus 1370 had been meticulously installed by James Williams and his wife Nora and tonally finished by Roy Perry. But the musical result was a long way from the justly famous Perry-finished Aeolian-Skinners in Kilgore, Longview, or Shreveport. This was due partly to the tonal design (more eccentric than some), but mostly to a chancel chamber of complex shape and unhelpful depth, and the manner in which the Aeolian-Skinner had been installed within it.

When I next stopped by Incarnation in March 1995, the Noack Organ Company had provided a new organ, re-using about half the Aeolian-Skinner pipes and a few mechanisms. In an adroit bit of engineering, Fritz Noack had placed his Great on two compact slider windchests within each chamber arch, fronting the whole with a handsome tin façade. He then arranged the three swell enclosures to form a wall behind the Great, ensuring its tone would reflect outward. The fact that the bold 16 and 8 Great Diapasons were in façade, with the chorus close behind, made an immeasurable difference in terms of clarity and impact in the nave. The increased bass and brilliance was exactly what was needed for congregational leadership, and in the room the organ had unquestionable excitement. Unfortunately, the enclosed departments were as inconsequential as the Great was effective, particularly a cramped Swell whose reeds and shutter motions barely registered behind so much as Great foundations. Two later additions, a searing gallery chamade and a hapless 32 reed, did not help.

When Scott Dettra arrived in August 2012, his immediate concern was the chronic failure of pallets inside the slider windchests. Their glued tails detached with some frequency, causing frustrating chest-wide ciphers. Clearly some remedy would be necessary, along with a review of other items that kept the organ from reaching its full potential. New Swell reeds seemed in order, as well as some review of the leftover Aeolian-Skinner material, much of which sounded pale from under-winding. The console had its own issues, principally stemming from the unbushed keyboards; weighted and balanced to emulate the feel of tracker action, they ended up feeling merely sluggish and uncertain.

The console revision was entrusted directly to Richard Houghten, who in turn relies upon his trusty associate Vladimir Vaculik and also Joseph Zamberlan. Houghten’s work saw new keyboards from Organ Supply Industries, a revamped pedalboard area, new expression shoes, and other small refinements. As for the organ itself, the process unfolded as such things do: the rector commissioned a task force to review the situation, then invited three qualified builders to visit, draw their own conclusions, and sell a project. The church endeavored to convey that this wasn’t an ordinary sales effort, and that they took organbuilders’ time and effort seriously. Instead of a rigid Request for Proposal, each builder was encouraged to devise its own solution after hearing Scott’s concerns; a stipend was provided to defray travel expenses.

There was one obvious wrinkle: none of the bidders was Noack. A seeming indifference from that concern, coupled to the poor 32 reed addition, caused many on the Task Force to think: why return to the source of the problems? Midway through the bidding process, I got a call from Didier Grassin, the new president of Noack. Didier, Scott, and I had worked together at Washington Cathedral, and far from a sales call, Didier’s seemed one of genuine enquiry alongside concern for his company’s good name. I laid out the picture as I saw it, that he was welcome to consider a situation unfavorably disposed to his firm.

Undaunted, Didier flew to Dallas, took stock of things, and tendered a proposal that boldly suggested the best course of action. Noack would address not merely the symptoms but the problems: moving the Solo so that the Swell could grow to its proper height and no longer bottle up its tone; increase wind pressures; fix the windchests; fit new shutter fronts on all enclosures; replace or revise those stops that had not stood the test of time, while reviewing and as necessary improving those that had. And, all of this at a price within the church’s budget, one that would save the pride of Noack while giving Incarnation an opportunity it could not refuse.

If the first job of a builder is to provide a musical work of art, the first task of the consultant is to prevent a “horse-opera.” Noack’s proposal didn’t seem like a risk so much as it seemed too good to be true, particularly as they could not point to any project like the one they were proposing. But apparently not even Texans can resist the charms of a Frenchman, and Didier presented his case with such conviction and sincerity (and one whopper of a guaranty)—backed by Fritz Noack’s own endorsement and acknowledgment of original shortcomings—that the church said yes.

Noack removed what was necessary to Massachusetts, including most of the enclosed pipework and the Pedal 32-16 reed. At the Noack workshop, new shutter fronts were constructed, along with those windchest elements that needed revision for tonal changes. Noack’s voicer, David Rooney, reviewed all of the Swell, Choir, and Solo flues; he also voiced a handsome new Choir Geigen. In most cases, Rooney returned the Aeolian-Skinner material to its original voicing, while taking the 1994 material to a new and richer place. He and ex-Casavant voicer Jean-Sébastien Dufour worked together on the Pedal Trombone, transforming a lazy jackhammer into something noble and appropriate. Dufour voiced a new Swell reed chorus and mild Tuba (with pipes provided by A. R. Schopp’s Sons), also reworking several other reeds.

Back on site, the windchest pallets were re-glued, the wind system reworked, and pressures adjusted higher on Swell and Solo. As a result, the slider chest actions work promptly and repeat well, without “treble burble.” The musical transformation is equally one of balance and tone. In some instances, the change has been slight; the Great and Pedal are essentially as they were, merely better regulated and tuned. The Solo, placed farther back in the chamber but now on 8-inch pressure, is more refined and about as strong, while the Choir makes a similar but more organized impact than it did previously. The greatest makeover has occurred in the Swell: the strings are vibrant, the foundations make sense, the chorus says something, and the new chorus reeds are first class—the star feature of the entire project. Most importantly, rather than a weakling swamped by the Great, the Swell now pulls its weight and provides the very soul of the ensemble. Capping the whole is the mild Tuba and revamped Pedal Trombone, with a strong 16 region and milder 32 octave. As a final touch, Noack reduced the wind pressure on the gallery chamade, making it if not more of a Massachusetts lady, then certainly a touch less Texan.

In organ write-ups, one often reads that “expectations were exceeded.” If that holds true here, it must be said that expectations were realistic from the outset. The bones of this organ were strong; if the weak parts could be made equally strong, a workable instrument would result. But in a rebuild, many elements are pre-determined, beyond the control of those doing the work or the available budget. Thus, while all hoped for a credible result, I suspect even Noack is surprised at just how well everything turned out. This is an unexpectedly grand organ, and in the end a thoroughly American one, however much individual aspects might hint at this or that precedent. In hindsight, we can see now that no one should have underestimated the abilities either of the Noack team or of the resolve of Didier Grassin to keep the Noack nameplate proudly on this console. As another customer of mine recently reflected, “Art rarely happens without risk.”

—Jonathan Ambrosino

From the builder

The challenge of creating a successful organ in a side chamber is always daunting. In a perfect world, an organ should be gently present in the chancel, accompanying the choir while being able to boldly support congregation singing in the nave. A chamber such as at the Church of the Incarnation puts the organ in the most unfavorable of conditions. The voicing has to be pushed to get the acoustical energy out (in this case through two narrow openings fronting the chamber), and that gentle articulation that gives life to organ sound is all but lost in the wash. There are many rabbits a skilled organbuilder can pull out of his hat, but the organ-in-chamber situation is probably the most tricky one to solve. There cannot be a better illustration of this than at the Church of the Incarnation, where organbuilders battled this challenge, bringing at each period of its history, the rabbit of their time.

While the original 1960 organ relied on higher pressures, the 1994 rebuild addressed the limitations by bringing as much pipework as possible out of the chamber. This created a successful, clear, and articulate Great, positioned at the two openings of the chamber. The three enclosed divisions were brought as close as possible to the arch, but it may ultimately have been counterproductive by creating congestion, as each swell box forms a physical barrier to any sound generated by other divisions.

Furthermore, for budgetary reasons, the 1994 Swell and Choir had retained the rather short swell shades from 1960, making the amount of opening relatively small compared to the face of those enclosures: for example, less than half of the front of the Swell enclosure had shutters. Even at its fullest, only so much sound could be forced out.

The 2015 project did not throw away previous layers of history, but rather built on them. The most notable change concerns the Swell, which gained a great deal of power thanks to an expanded and reinforced enclosure, new heavy swell shades, and a new reed chorus. Its new dynamic is such that it now wants to be used with care!

Once the basic principles were set, the rest of the work unfolded naturally. Mechanical issues were addressed, pressures were increased where necessary (e.g., the Solo now placed further back was raised to 8 inches), Aeolian-Skinner strings re-united to their original celeste ranks, reeds renewed or revoiced appropriately.

While the logistics of the work entailed certain complexities (the organ was out of commission only two Sundays during the entire project), the task was clear thanks to the way the musicians and consultant were able to articulate most precisely their musical objectives, while trusting the organbuilder to define the means to attain them. There is no doubt that the cordial communication between all the parties has been one key to the success of the work.

Similarly, the project would not have happened without a team of skilled and dedicated organbuilders: Mary Beth DiGenova, Brett Greene, Eric Kenney, Dean Smith, Aaron Tellers, helped by Amory Atkins, Dean Conry, Alex Gilson, David Preston, and Graham Schultz, and of course the talented voicers David Rooney and Jean-Sébastien Dufour.

—Didier Grassin

President, Noack Organ Company





Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, Opus 1370, 1960. New organ in new church; 43 voices, 54 ranks, 3,203 pipes.

Noack Organ Company, Opus 127, 1994. New organ, incorporating many Aeolian-Skinner pipes; 58 voices, 72 ranks, 4,087 pipes.

1998 Festival Trumpet, rear gallery, 61 pipes

2007 32 Trombone extension, 12 pipes

2015 Renovation, re-engineering, revoicing, six new ranks; 59 voices, 74 ranks, 4,110 pipes

Richard Houghten, 2014. New keyboards, balanced swell shoes, other console modifications.

GREAT – 61 notes, unenclosed, 31Џ4 wind pressure

16 Diapason 1–7 A-S Pedal 16 Kontra Bass, 8–61 Noack 1994, partly in façade

8 Diapason 1–61 Noack 1994, partly in façade

8 Second Diapason 1–61 A-S Great 8 Principal

8 Spielflöte 1–12 Noack 1994, 13–61 A-S Positiv 4 Gemshorn

8 Bourdon 1–61 Noack

4 Octave 1–61 A-S Great 4 Octave

4 Harmonic Flute 1–61 A-S Swell 4 Flute Harmonique

223 Twelfth 1–61 A-S Great 223 Grossnasat

2 Fifteenth 1–61 A-S Positiv 2 Oktav

135 Seventeenth 1–61 A-S Positiv 135 Tierce

Mixture IV 1–61 A-S Great Mixtur IV–VI, reworked

Sharp III 1–61 Noack 1994

16 Trumpet 1–61 A-S Swell 16 Bombarde (1–12 half-length)

8 Trumpet 1–61 Noack 1994

4 Clarion 1–61 Noack 1994

SWELL – 61 notes, enclosed, 5 wind pressure

16 Bourdon 1–12 Noack 1994, 13–61 A-S Swell 8 Gedeckt

8 Diapason 1–8 A-S Choir 16 Gamba EEE–BBB, rescaled 8 notes, 9–61 Noack 1994, revoiced 2015

8 Gamba 1–61 A-S Choir 8 Gamba

8 Celeste 1–61 A-S Choir 8 Gamba Celeste

8 Chimney Flute 1–19 Noack 1994, 20–61 A-S Positiv 223 Quintflöte, revoiced 2015

4 Octave 1–61 A-S Swell 4 Prestant, revoiced 2015

4 Koppelflöte 1–61 A-S Positiv 4 Koppelflöte

2 Principal 1–61 Noack 2015

Mixture IV 1–61 Noack 1994, revoiced 2015

Cornet III, g20–d51 223: Noack 1994, revoiced 2015

2: A-S Great 2 Hellflöte, revoiced 2015

135: Noack 1994, revoiced 2015

8 Oboe 1–61 Noack 1994, recycled early 20th-C. American

16 Bassoon 1–61 Noack 2015

8 Trumpet 1–61 Noack 2015 (A-S 8 Fanfare Trumpet shallots)

4 Clarion 1–61 Noack 2015


CHOIR – 61 notes, enclosed, 4 wind pressure

16 Gemshorn 1–12 A-S Great 16 Spitzflöte, 13–61 Noack 1994 8 Flute Dolce, exchanged and revoiced 2015

8 Geigen 1–61 Noack 2015

8 Gedackt 1–61 A-S Positiv 8 Holzgedeckt (all metal pipes)

8 Flute Douce 1–61 A-S Swell 8 Flute Celeste II, rank 1

8 Flute Celeste FF 6–61 A-S Swell 8 Flute Celeste II, rank 2

4 Principal 1–61 Noack 1994, revoiced 2015

4 Rohrflöte 1–61 A-S Great 4 Rohrflöte

2 Blockflöte 1–61 A-S Choir 2 Blockflöte

113 Larigot 1–61 A-S Great 16–8 Spitzflöte + random A-S trebles

Mixture III 1–61 A-S Choir Mixture III

8 Trompette 1–61 A-S Swell 8 Trompette

8 Clarinet 1–49 1994 Noack Swell 16 Bassoon, revoiced 2015, 50–61 A-S Choir 8 Krummhorn flue trebles

8 Vox Humana 1–49 A-S Swell 8 Vox Humana, 50–61 A-S Great Mixture IV–VI, doubled trebles


SOLO – 61 notes, 8 wind pressure


8 Harmonic Flute 1–12 A-S Choir 8 Wald Flute (stopped wood), 13–61 Noack 1994, revoiced 2015 (harmonic 31–61)

8 Salicional 1–61 A-S Swell 8 Viola Celeste, revoiced 2015

8 Celeste 1–61 A-S Swell 8 Viola Pomposa, revoiced 2015

4 Open Flute 1–61 1994 Noack, revoiced 2015

8 French Horn 1–61 1994 Noack (recycled early 20th-C.); revoiced 2015

8 English Horn 1–61 A-S Swell 8 English Horn, revoiced 2015



8 Tuba 1–56 Noack 2015

57–73 A-S Great 8 Fanfare Trumpet

8 Festival Trumpet 1–61 Noack 1998, gallery, pressure lowered 2015

PEDAL – 32 notes, unenclosed, 4 wind pressure

32 Bourdon (ext) 1–4 Noack 1994, 1023 (these notes also play 16 Stopt Bass), 5–12 A-S 32 Bourdon

16 Open Wood 1–32 Noack 1994 (recycled early 20th-C.)

16 Diapason Great

16 Stopt Bass 1–32 A-S

16 Gemshorn 1–12 Choir, 13–32 A-S Great 16-8 Spitzflöte

8 Diapason 1–32 A-S Pedal 8 Principal

8 Gedackt 1–32 A-S Great 8 Bourdon

4 Octave 1–32 A-S Pedal 4 Choralbass

Mixture IV Ranks 1 and 2: A-S Pedal Mixture II

Ranks 3 and 4: from A-S Swell Plein Jeu IV

32 Trombone (ext) 1–12 Noack 2007; revoiced 2015, 6 wind pressure

16 Trombone 1–32 Noack 1994; revoiced 2015, 6 wind pressure

8 Trumpet 1–32 A-S Pedal reed unit, revoiced 2015

4 Clairon (ext) 1–12 A-S Pedal reed unit, revoiced 2015


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