Cover Feature

May 2, 2017

Létourneau Pipe Organs, Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec, Canada

First Presbyterian Church, 

Tuscaloosa, Alabama


From the Organist

From my position at the organ console, I look up into the faces of the choir and at the impressive façade of the new Létourneau organ directly behind the singers. The pipes soar up to the ceiling with the horizontal pipes of the Festival Trumpet above the heads of the back row of the choir. It is indeed an impressive visual experience and many long-time members of the congregation have said, “Our church finally looks finished.”

Even though the organ is visually impressive, the sound of the organ is even more impressive with its colorful ranks of pipes that can crescendo from a mere whisper to the thunder that one would expect from a great European cathedral organ. I had a sound in my mind I hoped we could make into a reality; Létourneau has given us that sound—and more.

In my opinion, the first requirement of a truly effective church organ is to lead congregational singing. After reading the text of each hymn, I decide how to color what is being sung with appropriate choice of registration. With the variety of sounds from which to choose, even challenging texts can be painted with sounds that reinforce what the poet is trying to say. In so doing, even the less musical singers in the congregation hear and experience greater meaning in what they are singing.

After church recently, a man—who will freely admit to not having a musical bone in his body—approached me to comment about one of the hymns for that day, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. His comment was specifically related to the phrase, “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him.” He wanted to know how I made the phrase sound so “devilish,” so I introduced him to the 32 Contre Bombarde in the Pedal division! Even a hymn stanza with a text that relates to angels can benefit by use of the Zimbelstern! When average members of the congregation can be led to a greater understanding of a hymn text by merely hearing a difference in registration, this is a win-win situation for a church musician.

Providing colorful anthem accompaniments is easily done on this organ. With three enclosed divisions, a full registration including reeds and mixtures can be easily tamed so that the choir is not overwhelmed. On the other hand, beautiful solo voices can be used to color and enhance what the choir is singing. The Flugelhorn, Harmonic Flute, Clarinet, Gamba, Fagotto, English Horn, and Oboe can all get a “workout” with a bit of creativity. Simply put, orchestral color is all here. Thomas Trotter used every one of the organ’s orchestral stops while playing his own transcription of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and his performance brought the audience to its feet at the organ’s inaugural concert on April 8, 2016.

The instrument has not only had overwhelming success on Sundays and in solo organ recitals, but it made a grand statement in a recent concert that I played with the Tuscaloosa Symphony. Works featuring the organ were Handel’s Concerto No. 13 in F Major (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”), Albinoni’s Adagio, and Rheinberger’s Concerto in F. With the orchestra in the chancel area and the organ at the opposite end of the church, the enthusiastic audience was literally surrounded by exciting sounds.

Létourneau’s Opus 129 excels not only in hymn playing and anthem accompaniment, but also as an eclectic instrument capable of playing any of the standard organ literature. If one wants to play French eighteenth-century music, all of the necessary stops are present. The Great features two separate Cornets—one being a rare 16 bass Cornet—while the Choir division contains a third. Even the Pedal division contains the necessary elements for a 32 Cornet! There is an abundance of reeds at 16, 8, and 4 in the manual divisions while the Pedal includes a 32 reed and two choruses of reeds at 16, 8, and 4. Clearly, the essential foundation and reed tone for playing the entire French Romantic literature is also available.

It would be fair to say that the only limitation that this organ could have would be in the hands of the person who is playing it. Every sound that one would need to use in church services, weddings, and funerals is here in abundance. A recitalist could not wish for a more expressive or colorful instrument. Someone for whom I have high regard commented recently, “You know, I have always said there was no such thing as an eclectic instrument that could play all of the organ literature. After hearing this organ, I will seriously have to rethink that statement!”

—L. Jeffries Binford, Jr.


From the Builder

Opened in 1922, the present sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church was initially home to a Wurlitzer church organ in two opposing chambers above the chancel. The Wurlitzer was replaced in 1977 with a Casavant Frères pipe organ at the back of the sanctuary. The Casavant with its exposed pipework and minimal casework spoke from a raised platform into the nave through a sizeable central arch with secondary arches on either side. Its stoplist was fashionably Orgelbewegung with one-third of its 49 ranks being mixture stops; its small palette of softer colors limited its success in service playing.

Having formed a committee under the leadership of Dr. Daniel Potts to address the instrument’s shortcomings, the church invited us, among others, to put forward our ideas in 2005. Having visited a number of instruments in the south-eastern United States, the committee was enchanted with our instruments in Hodges Chapel at Samford University in Birmingham and at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. It soon became clear that Létourneau was the committee’s choice as First Presbyterian Church’s future organbuilder.

In 2009, First Presbyterian Church purchased Skinner Organ Company Opus 350 with the intention of redeploying it in the empty chambers above the chancel. Without so much as a 4 Principal, the Skinner contrasted sharply with the Casavant at the other end of the sanctuary. A 15-rank instrument over three manuals and pedal, its Great was all of one rank—a colossal 8 Diapason made from zinc and lead—plus five stops duplexed from the Swell. The Swell and Choir’s voices included the Concert Flute, a Flugelhorn, an English Horn, a Clarinet, and two more substantial 8 diapasons. Later in its life, the Skinner was enlarged through the addition of three ranks made by the Æolian Organ Company: a pair of muted string ranks—today’s Choir 8 Vox Ætheria II—and an 8 Vox Humana.

Once the scope of the project had come into focus and various administrative approvals had been received, First Presbyterian Church signed a contract with Létourneau to build a new pipe organ in 2014. The instrument, Létourneau’s Opus 129, would incorporate pipework from the Skinner and Casavant organs as a measure of stewardship and, in the case of the Casavant, as a gesture towards continuity. The project presented an intriguing challenge to us as organbuilders: reuse pipework of vastly different vintages and tonal aesthetics alongside our own materials to provide a uniquely cohesive pipe organ. It was a task we approached with enthusiasm and seriousness in equal measure.

A team from Létourneau brought the Skinner to our workshops from its location in storage in December 2014. Two months later, we dismantled the Casavant organ in Tuscaloosa, and it too came back to St-Hyacinthe. A detailed evaluation of the Skinner, Æolian, and Casavant pipework was then carried out in our pipe shops with final adjustments being made to the organ’s tonal plan. Our experienced pipemakers were invaluable in compiling a detailed inventory of pipework with all the data being annotated in Opus 129’s file. Whether repairing the Skinner’s pipes for another century of service or lengthening the zinc pipes of the Casavant 16 Prinzipal to produce a 16 Violonbass, no challenge was too big or too small.

Originally voiced on low wind pressures, the Casavant materials were assimilated into the new tonal plan with some transposition and rescaling. For example, the former Great 8 Prinzipal rank was reworked to become the Great 4 Principal after we rescaled the rank four pipes larger (e.g., 8 G# was cut down to give 4 C). Likewise, the former Great 16 Quintaden became the Swell 16 Quintaton, but the addition of five new bass pipes effectively increased its scale for a fuller, rounder tone. Three Casavant reed stops were reused: the Swell 8 Oboe, the Choir 8 Cromorne, and the Pedal 4 Schalmey. All were revoiced with new shallots and, in the case of the Schalmey, new caps were provided at the tops of the resonators.

Like its predecessor, Opus 129 resides at the back of First Presbyterian Church’s sanctuary. The casework was designed by Claude Demers and is made from richly stained red oak; it displays polished tin pipes from the Pedal 16 Principal, 8 Octave, and 4 Choral Bass as well as the Great 8 Principal. The horizontal 8 Festival Trumpet is also prominently arrayed around the central part of the façade. The instrument is divided behind along its center line, with the Choir and Enclosed Great divisions on the lowest level to the left and right, respectively. The Swell division sits on top of the Choir on the left, though the resonators of the Swell 16 Bombarde and its 32 Pedal extension are offset so the lower portions of these pipes can stand one level lower within the Enclosed Great. The unenclosed Great division is above the Enclosed Great to the right of the Swell. The Great’s 16 mutations and their Pedal 32 extensions are just behind the façade in front of the Enclosed Great division, while the Pedal is divided between the extreme right and left of the instrument. The instrument is winded by two blowers located in a dedicated room beneath the instrument; their motors produce a total of 13 horsepower.

Division by division, the Great 16 Violonbass and 16 Bourdon together provide a solid foundation for a 16 principal chorus while the Bourdon alone serves as the basis for the 16 cornet décomposé. Meanwhile, the narrower 223 Quint and 135 Tierce together give a sesquialtera effect, adding spice to the principal chorus or offering another solo possibility. The Enclosed Great can build on its unenclosed counterpart with an array of foundation stops; it can also function as a separate Solo division thanks to transfers to other manuals. On 7 inches wind pressure, some of the Enclosed Great’s unique colors include a pair of flared gambas, a robust English trumpet rank, and two Skinner reeds, the 8 Flugelhorn and the 8 English Horn.

The Swell division is as well equipped for liturgical work as for the French Romantic repertoire. The smallest of the Skinner diapasons is the basis for the Swell principal chorus, which builds up to a five-rank Plein jeu mixture. The 8 Chimney Flute combines with the 4 Harmonic Flute and 2 Octavin for a nimble chorus appropriate for the scherzos of Vierne and Duruflé. The Skinner strings’ distinctive warmth gives way smoothly to the two-rank Flute Celeste’s mysterious shimmer, which in turn dissipates into the delicate Æoline. Finally, the Swell’s 16-8-4 trumpet ranks dominate the full Swell; these stops are equipped with dome-headed French shallots throughout and have harmonic trebles.

The Choir offers a number of colors and effects to set off the Swell. The Skinner 8 Concert Flute is naturally at home here and blooms handsomely as one ascends up the manual. The two-rank Vox Ætheria stop has become a favorite of Jeff Binford for its uncommon blend of delicacy and pungency of tone; its use with the octave coupler is captivating. The full range of flutes and mutations through 1 within the Choir gives the organ a second cornet décomposé as well as offering possibilities for Italian baroque music. Similar in appearance, the Choir’s two 8 cylindrical reeds contrast strongly: the smooth Skinner 8 Clarinet has the expected orchestral quality while the revamped 8 Cromorne offers fizz and snap in its tone. The new 16-8 Fagotto rank is a very mild trumpet stop, which, with the tremulant, is a perfect sonority for Flor Peeters’s Aria.

The Pedal division offers tremendous variety, including a principal chorus from 16 through mixture and two mutation stops to fill out the 32 harmonic series. The 32 Contre Bombarde extension of the Swell 16 Bombarde has proven itself chameleon-like, slipping in easily under light or heavy registrations and being enclosed, its effect can be moderated with the Swell shades. The generously scaled Pedal 16-8-4 reed sounds on 512 inches wind, giving the Trombone and the organist’s feet the final word.

Four of the Casavant windchests from 1977 were reused after undergoing the necessary modifications and a thorough restoration in our workshops. Otherwise, the organ’s windchests are all new with pitman-style electro-pneumatic actions. The instrument is played from a three-manual console with all manner of sub-octave, unison, and octave couplers, as well as the divisional transfers for the Enclosed Great division. Other features include 256 levels of memory, a Great-Choir manual transfer, an All Swells to Swell function, and a record-playback function.

Opus 129 stands as a showcase for our abilities in seamlessly incorporating older materials within a new instrument. Its creation—from conception through construction through installation through final voicing—was a process we savored intensely, and we are grateful to First Presbyterian Church for entrusting us with such a complex and rewarding project. The result is an unusually rich musical instrument capable of great power and subtlety, one that will serve worship at First Presbyterian Church for many generations to come. 

—Andrew Forrest, Artistic Director

Fernand Létourneau, President

Dudley Oakes, Project Consultant

GREAT – Manual II – 85mm pressure

16 Violonbass 61 pipes rescaled Casavant

16 Bourdon 61 pipes new

8 Principal 61 pipes new (façade)

8 Bourdon 61 pipes rescaled Casavant

513 Gros Nasard 61 pipes new

4 Octave 61 pipes rescaled Casavant

4 Open Flute 61 pipes rescaled Casavant

315 Grosse Tierce 61 pipes new

223 Quint 61 pipes new

2 Super Octave 61 pipes new

135 Tierce 61 pipes new

113 Mixture IV–V 288 pipes new


Great 16–Great Unison Off–Great 4

8 Festival Trumpet 66 pipes new (façade)



ENCLOSED GREAT – Manual II – 180mm pressure

8 Diapason 61 pipes Skinner

8 Harmonic Flute 61 pipes new, harmonic at a34

8 Viole de gambe 61 pipes new

8 Gamba 61 pipes new, flared

8 Gamba Celeste 61 pipes new, flared

8 Flugelhorn 61 pipes Skinner

8 English Horn 61 pipes Skinner

16 Double Trumpet 12 pipes ext 8 Trumpet

8 Trumpet 66 pipes new, harmonic at c37

4 Clarion 24 pipes ext 8 Trumpet


Chimes 25 tubes

SWELL (enclosed) – Manual III – 95 mm pressure

16 Quintaton 61 pipes rescaled Casavant

8 Diapason 61 pipes Skinner

8 Salicional 61 pipes rescaled Skinner

8 Voix Celeste 61 pipes rescaled Skinner

8 Chimney Flute 61 pipes rescaled Casavant

8 Æoline 61 pipes Skinner

8 Flute Celeste II 110 pipes 1st rank: Casavant, 2nd rank: new

4 Octave 61 pipes rescaled Casavant

4 Harmonic Flute 61 pipes rescaled Skinner

2 Octavin 61 pipes new

2 Plein jeu III–IV 232 pipes new

16 Bombarde 61 pipes new

8 Trompette 66 pipes new, harmonic at f#43

8 Oboe 61 pipes Casavant with new shallots

8 Vox Humana 61 pipes Æolian

4 Clairon 78 pipes new, harmonic at f#31


Swell 16–Swell Unison Off–Swell 4

Enclosed Great on Swell

CHOIR (enclosed) – Manual I – 115 mm pressure

16 Gedeckt 61 pipes Skinner with new bass

8 Diapason 61 pipes Skinner

8 Concert Flute 61 pipes Skinner

8 Gemshorn 61 pipes Casavant

8 Gemshorn Celeste 54 pipes Casavant

8 Bourdon 61 pipes Casavant

8 Vox Ætheria II 122 pipes Aeolian, new bass for 2nd rank

4 Principal 61 pipes rescaled Casavant

4 Flûte à fuseau 61 pipes Casavant

223 Nasard 61 pipes Casavant

2 Flûte à bec 61 pipes Casavant

135 Tierce 61 pipes Casavant

113 Larigot 61 pipes Casavant

1 Sifflet 61 pipes new

16 Fagotto 61 pipes new

8 Clarinet 61 pipes Skinner

8 Cromorne 61 pipes Casavant with new shallots

8 Fagotto 12 pipes ext 16 Fagotto


Choir 16–Choir Unison Off–Choir 4

8 Festival Trumpet Great

Harp digital Walker Technical Co.

Celesta digital Walker Technical Co.

Enclosed Great on Choir

PEDAL – 85mm, 95mm, and 140mm pressures

32 Contra Violone digital Walker Technical Co.

32 Contra Bourdon digital Walker Technical Co.

16 Principal 32 pipes new (façade)

16 Violonbass Great

16 Subbass 32 pipes Skinner with new bass

16 Bourdon Great

16 Lieblich Gedeckt Choir

16 Quintaton Swell

1023 Grosse Quinte 12 pipes ext Great 513 Gros Nasard

8 Principal 32 pipes new (façade)

8 Violoncello Great

8 Bourdon 32 pipes Skinner

8 Lieblich Gedeckt Choir

625 Grosse Tierce 12 pipes ext Great 315 Grosse Tierce

4 Choral Bass 32 pipes new (façade)

4 Flute 32 pipes Casavant

223 Mixture IV 128 pipes new

32 Contre Bombarde 12 pipes ext Sw 16 Bombarde

16 Trombone 32 pipes new

16 Trumpet Enclosed Great

16 Bombarde Swell

16 Fagotto Choir

8 Tromba 12 pipes ext 16Trombone

8 Bombarde Swell

4 Tromba Clarion 12 pipes ext 16Trombone

4 Schalmey 32 pipes Casavant with new shallots

8 Festival Trumpet Great

Chimes Enclosed Great


Three manuals; 85 total stops; 75 ranks; 4,014 pipes


Great Mixture IV–V


c1 to b12 19 22 26 29

c13 to f18 15 19 22 26

f#19 to f30 12 15 19 22 26

f#31 to f42 8 12 15 19 22

f#43 to d51 5 8 12 15 19

d#52 to c61 1 5 8 12 15


Swell Plein jeu III–IV


c1 to b12 15  19 22

c13 to b36 12 15 19 22

c37 to b48 8 12 15 19

c49 to c61 1 8 12 15


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