Cover Feature: M. P. Rathke Opus 12

November 19, 2022
Choir singing
M. P. Rathke Opus 12, Grace Episcopal Church (photo credit: Regina Newport)

From the builder

When Father Steven Wilson, rector of Grace Church, first invited us to submit a proposal for a new pipe organ, he had my undivided attention from the start. Father Steve spoke of a historic 1869 Episcopal church with a distinguished tradition of liturgy and music, as well as a longtime focus on drama and the visual arts. Subsequent conversations led to the commissioning of our Opus 12, whose future arrival both church and organ builder looked forward to with fine enthusiasm.

First, though, we were challenged with designing a successful organ for a dry acoustic, in a space as compact and intimate as it is beautiful, and likely utilizing a somewhat unorthodox placement. Father Steve quipped that our reputation for engineering 10 lbs. to fit the proverbial 5-lb. bag would surely be tested here, and his words were to prove prescient.

Precisely where the organ would go was our first decision. The existing instrument, a decaying pipe/electronic combination whose metal pipework was nonetheless of extraordinary quality, if not voiced to its full potential, included a set of deep flower box-style windchests hung from the end wall of a shallow transept (see photo: “Removing pipework”). This singular arrangement did locate pipework high in the room, thus engaging the ceiling and helping carry sound out into the nave; it also created rather a claustrophobic atmosphere, looming darkly over choristers below, blocking light from a trio of high windows above, and literally overshadowing the transept. My first reaction—which some might consider unusual for an organbuilder—was “Father Steve, whatever we do, we’ve got to uncover those windows and get those pipes down off the wall.” Easily enough said, of course, but then where could they go, with floor space already at a premium?

The building helped make that decision for us. There was really only one location suitable for the choir in this small church: the transept, where the choir already sat. And the organ clearly needed to be close to the choir, not only for musical reasons, but also so that organist/choirmaster Peter Frost could continue to conduct from the console. Father Steve, himself a talented chorister, saw potential benefits in my suggestion that the main organ case be located per Sketch A, with the attached keydesk oriented as shown.

This is admittedly an unusual blind-corner placement for any significant portion of a pipe organ, let alone the sole two manual divisions, whose resources generally speak to better advantage directly into the main body of the church. But in this case, because the room is quite dry and because we had no opportunity to place manual pipework behind a façade fronting the swell shades—there simply wasn’t enough available depth without crowding the window—we were keen to obtain maximum blend by any legitimate means. It occurred to me that if we allowed sound to mix first in the transept, then reflect once off the front wall, both blend and projection might be served. And that’s exactly what happened. Early listening during finish voicing disclosed the uncanny illusion that all sound was actually emanating from the front walls (somehow!), producing a clarity and presence in the nave that both puzzled and pleased us.

Grace Church’s lack of acoustical resonance also informed Opus 12’s size and specification, for this is certainly a good-sized organ for a relatively small room. Although sound generally gets around well enough, music doesn’t really bloom, and appreciable reverberation is basically nonexistent. Never having previously designed and voiced for a space like this, I went back to the stately Hook & Hastings instruments I knew, played, and admired during my apprenticeship with C. B. Fisk, Inc.
H & H’s general approach, which greatly informed our work at Grace Church, was to saturate the space with plenty of rich fundamental tone, undergirded by manual doubles (here, one in each department) and supported by a generously scaled and winded Pedal. Reeds would almost invariably be on the smoother side, upperwork colorful but by no means aggressive.

Guided by Dr. Susan Marchant of nearby Pittsburg State University, the church settled on a two-manual, 24-stop specification with suspended mechanical key action, apart from the largest bass pipes, which are winded via conventional electro-pneumatic chests. Most of these large pipes reside in the so-called “Attic Pedal” division behind a speaking tin façade fronting a shallow chamber with limited headroom. Most interior Attic Pedal pipes are thus placed horizontally, as are notes #1–19 of the Great 16′ Bourdon, the latter located beneath the choir platform. The full-length 16′ Double Trumpet stands within the main case.

The pipework has truly eclectic origins. From the previous instrument we retained six choice ranks of 30% tin, superbly crafted by Stinkens, the renowned Dutch pipemaking firm. (The original voicers having really done no meaningful voicing, we were able to start essentially from scratch with fresh, unvoiced pipes.) Several lovely stops of pine, poplar, and oak were acquired from a church that was set to be demolished in a neighboring town. The remainder of Opus 12’s pipework is new.

Casework design was the result of a close and lengthy collaborative effort between Father Steve and me. Happily, both of us wished the organ to look as if it had always been there. The results reflect Father Steve’s and my firm conviction that, where possible, an organ’s casework and ornamentation should be in congenial dialogue with the room’s architecture and appointments.

Carvings were designed and executed by noted Boston-area sculptor Morgan Faulds Pike, who wrote the following in preparation for the organ’s dedication:

The carved white oak panels—above the console, above the swell shades, and in the attic pedal case—represent flora and fauna which symbolically resonate with the church interior, the city of Carthage, and, most endearingly, Father Steven Wilson’s specific requests for a carefully camouflaged “sparrow and her nest” (Psalm 84:3) and “somewhere, a little mouse.” Our design process was a stimulating collaboration from which Father Steve’s wishes and my design drawings produced something more like a working friendship than a design challenge.

The Alpha and Omega shades on the Attic Pedal directly relate to other A & Ω carvings in the room. The maple and oak leaf designs are representative of Carthage, Missouri (“The Maple Leaf City”) and the organ’s quartered oak casework, respectively. Above the console two panels, one depicting a Marian rose, the other the ancient Holly and Ivy of pre-Christian ritual, echo motifs that appear in more simplified forms elsewhere in the church. The designs evolved in keeping with Father Steve’s desire for the case to have everything to do with the church interior and the greater community; I must say here that they also reflect his own remarkable and unselfconscious aura of holiness. He wished the sparrow and her nest to be discretely perched within one of the swell façade shades, to be discovered only after some study. We based the sparrow on a North American song sparrow that was nesting at the time in a bush beneath Father Steve’s window. Her beautiful song might just allude to the choir singing beneath her perch above the swell louvres. The mouse, “a creature of great personal valor,” is a cheeky surprise, clinging to the lower frame of an otherwise-smooth front pipe shade.

This organ has been at once the most difficult and most rewarding we’ve ever undertaken, owing partly to the fact that so much of it is densely woven into the fabric of this lovely historic structure, one where nothing is truly level, plumb, or square. We thank the parishioners and staff of Grace Church for their unswerving support, friendship, and patience during installation and finish voicing. We sincerely hope our Opus 12 will serve this remarkable church for years to come.

—Michael Rathke

Builders of the organ

Saskia Croé

Rebecca Madison

Lauren McAllister

Stella O’Neill

Michael Rathke

Caleb Ringwald

Jefimija Zlatanovic

 

We are deeply grateful to the following individuals and organizations:

†The Reverend Steven Wilson (project leadership)

Dr. Susan Marchant (consultation)

Brad White (technical assistance)

Peter Frost (onsite voicing assistance)

Paige Rhymer (onsite voicing assistance)

A. J. Rhymer (onsite voicing assistance)

Will Endicott (onsite voicing assistance)

Jerin Kelley (onsite voicing assistance)

Chris Church (onsite voicing assistance)

Morgan Faulds Pike (carvings)

Nami Hamada (tonal finisher)

Casey Dunaway (tonal finisher)

Vladimir Vaculik (solid state installation)

Patrick J. Murphy & Associates (casework)

 

Diagram and photo credits

All photographs by Regina Newport except as noted:

Sketch A – Michael Rathke

Removing pipework – John Hacker, The Joplin Globe (used by permission)

 

From the organist/choirmaster

It was my great fortune to accept the position of organist/choirmaster at Grace Episcopal Church in 2017, just as the organ committee was reviewing proposals for a new instrument. Happily, the group needed little persuasion to select M. P. Rathke, Inc., to build their new organ. (By coincidence, I had just completed a summer internship in the Rathke workshop.) We worked with the builder to create a stoplist to fulfill a variety of needs: accompanying the choir, supporting congregational singing, and convincingly playing the repertoire, all while occupying a decidedly small space.

In addition, the 1890s nave would undergo significant cosmetic changes that, while uncovering original details of the building, might potentially be jarring for parishioners. Melinda Wilson, a gifted artist, fashioned an elaborate and clever gingerbread organ and choir layout based on the contract drawings so church-goers had an early 3-D explanation of the new look they could expect as the instrument took shape. The late Reverend Steven C. Wilson motivated the parish to fund the continuation of a well-established tradition of Anglican music. In signature Father Steve jest, threats of an “Organ Donor Dinner,” at which would be served the internal organs of various critters, resulted in many generous donations. The Reverend Joseph Pierjok expertly followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, continuing to support the construction of Opus 12 and bolstering the legacy of traditional worship at Grace.

Upon completion of Opus 12, the congregation immediately became less cautious singers, now being supported by the organ, rather than drowned in electronic sound. The choir enjoys improved acoustics: where they’d previously been tucked under imposing “flower boxes” that both stifled their sound and covered original stained glass, the transept is now open all the way to the ceiling. Voices now fill the space with ease, and the design of the case blends seamlessly into the architecture of the building.

Opus 12 is a welcome addition to the shrinking inventory of traditional instruments in southwest Missouri. It has been a great joy to help create an organ that will be an integral part of worship at Grace Church for generations to come.

—Peter Frost

GREAT (expressive, Manual I)

16′ Bourdon white pine & red oak 58 pipes

8′ Principal zinc & 50% tin 58 pipes

8′ Chimney Flute 30% tin 58 pipes

4′ Octave 50% tin 58 pipes

2-2⁄3′ Twelfth 50% tin 58 pipes

2′ Fifteenth 30% tin 58 pipes

1-3⁄5′ Seventeenth 30% tin 54 pipes

2′ Mixture III 50% tin 174 pipes

Zimbelstern

SWELL (expressive, Manual II)

8′ Dulciana (1–11 façade) zinc & 50% tin 58 pipes

8′ Celeste (TC) 50% tin 46 pipes

8′ Stopped Diapason white oak 58 pipes

4′ Principal 50% tin 58 pipes

4′ Open Flute 30% tin 58 pipes

2-2⁄3′ Quinte 30% tin 58 pipes

2′ Doublette 30% tin 58 pipes

16′ Bass Clarinet zinc & 50% tin 58 pipes

8′ Trumpet zinc & antimonial lead 58 pipes

PEDAL (unenclosed)

16′ Subbass poplar and 50% tin 30 pipes

16′ Bourdon (Great)

8′ Open Diapason (12–30 façade) pine & 70% tin 30 pipes

8′ Bass Flute (ext Subbass) 12 pipes

4′ Octave (ext Open Diapason) 12 pipes

16′ Double Trumpet (ext Swell) zinc & 30% tin 12 pipes

8′ Trumpet (Swell)

 

Three unison couplers

General tremulant

Direct mechanical key action apart from certain large bass pipes

Electric stop action with solid-state combination action

24 stops, 21 ranks, 1,182 pipes

 

Builder’s website: www.rathkepipeorgans.com

 

Church’s website: gracecarthage1869.org/

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