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Cover feature: Schoenstein & Co. Opus 183

April 16, 2024
Schoenstein organ
Schoenstein & Co. Organ Builders Opus 183

Treasure in the hills: French Romantic organs in a silver boomtown

When searching for sung daily offices, a French-style abbey church, and two French Romantic organs, one might look in Europe, but not in Silverado, California. The city and its namesake canyon, located east of Los Angeles in the Santa Ana range, hold scenery found in old Western films: dusty mountainsides that turn pink at dusk, tumbleweed blowing across the winding two-lane road, a creek with little more than eight ounces of water in its bed, old mine shafts from the silver boom.

Yet here in the California mountains stands Saint Michael’s Abbey, a spectacular new Romanesque building patterned after nineteenth-century French cathedrals. Everything about it is exceptional: the location, the building, the people, the liturgy, the music. Our challenge was to build an organ worthy of these extraordinary attributes.

The Abbey and the Norbertine Fathers

The Norbertine Fathers trace their heritage back to twelfth-century northern France and have several monasteries across the globe. The fathers who founded Saint Michael’s Abbey were fleeing communist rule in Hungary in the 1940s. After arriving in New York and staying with fellow canons regular in Wisconsin, they eventually settled in California in 1961.

With deep ties to France and a passion for singing, the fathers sang in the first abbey church—a smaller edifice with dry acoustics and no pipe organ. When they had the opportunity to build a new church, they chose to pattern it after French cathedrals, with round arches and barrel vault ceiling.

A twenty-year pipe dream

Father Jerome Molokie, an organist and canon regular at Saint Michael’s, was first introduced to our work on a visit to San Francisco in 2002. As plans for the new abbey church began to materialize, Jack Bethards and Father Jerome sketched ideas for two organs, one in the quire and one in the tribune (rear balcony).

Thanks to Father Jerome’s advocacy, the abbey purchased one of our French choir organs, Opus 116A, which was in need of a new home. They made this purchase several years before the new abbey church was completed, showing total confidence in the organ as a priority in the design of the new facility.

The tribune organ was considered to be the old cliché—a pipe dream—until after the abbey was completed and the Janet Curci Family Foundation came forward as benefactor of the new instrument. We had a singular directive from the abbey: build an organ to play French Romantic repertoire. Designing such an organ is easy on paper, but achieving the French Romantic sound required us to return to our detailed study of French organs.

A French Schoenstein?

The tribune organ at Saint Michael’s is our largest French Romantic organ, but it is far from our first. In 1985 we made a thorough study of French Romantic organs for two reasons: first, to add new tone colors to our eclectic symphonic organs; and second, to find the secrets of the Orgue de Choeurminiature instruments that carry the main load of French service music. We thought these “little giants” could be the answer for American Catholic churches who at that time were moving singers and organists from the gallery to often-inadequate makeshift spaces near the sanctuary.

The study tour included twenty-five organs, with fifteen documented in detail. We engaged Kurt Lueders to be our guide. Jack Bethards, David Broome, Brant Duddy, Steuart Goodwin, and Robert Schopp made up the study team. These many hands made it possible to take detailed scale measurements of flues and reeds, take photographs, make recordings, and document special features of each instrument.

Upon our return, sample pipes were made and voiced. Eventually we built several instruments in strict French Romantic style, all ten ranks or smaller. Small instruments in this style work well in this country; however, a large instrument that is true to the French style requires a cathedral acoustic. After nearly forty years, we found that acoustic and musical need at Saint Michael’s Abbey.

The tribune organ

Although the tribune organ is a luxury unto itself, its tonal design had to be economical. Cavaillé-Coll’s signature “four fonds” (Montre, Flûte harmonique, Gambe, Bourdon) are only effective when each can be heard as a meaningful addition to the ensemble. The beauty of these organs is the ability to make myriad tonal variations with simple voices. No voice is superfluous.

With so many stops of the same type throughout the organ, it is critical to vary scale, construction, and voicing in an organized manner to achieve a satisfying tonal result. In addition to several diapasons, there are six open flutes (four of which are harmonic), five strings, three stopped/tapered flutes, and a variety of French-style reeds. Most fonds are treble-ascendant and slotted, and the live acoustic allowed for a Cavaillé-Coll approach to chorus scaling all the way up through the Fourniture.

Exceptional uses

Saint Michael’s Abbey has already incorporated the organ into its exceptional offerings of daily offices and Masses, all of which are sung. To hear a full quire of priests who sing several times each day feels otherworldly, especially when one recalls they are just an hour from Hollywood. Hearing that singing in a cathedral acoustic, accompanied by the choir organ, with musical commentary from the tribune organ throughout, is astounding.

The tribune organ was dedicated in what the abbey hopes is the first of many recitals by acclaimed artists. Paul Jacobs played a varied program on December 2, 2023, reminding us how versatile a successful organ can be, no matter its accent.

We hope the tribune organ, coupled with the choir organ, singing, mosaics, windows—all of what makes the abbey special—will inspire the fathers and visitors for decades to come. It was a privilege to contribute to an exceptional institution’s offerings and a joy to build an organ for such an exceptionally beautiful place.

Many people helped bring this project to fruition, including the Janet Curci Family Foundation; Father Jerome Molokie; Father Justin Ramos; Father Gregory Dick; Kevin Shaffer, director of construction; Gabriel Ferrucci, business advisor; Enzo Selvaggi, case design advisor; and the Schoenstein & Co. staff:

Jack Bethards

Louis Patterson

Bryan Dunnewald

David Anderson

Erik Asprey

Dean Belgarde

Drue Berti

Ann Bharoocha

Glen Brasel

Timothy Fink

Christopher Hansford

William Holt

Valentin Ivanov

Yolanda Mascote

Humberto Palma

Patricia Schneringer

­—Bryan Dunnewald, Tonal Director, Schoenstein & Co.



Photo credit: Louis Patterson

Grand-Orgue (I)

16′ Bourdon (ext) 12 pipes

8′ Montre 61 pipes

8′ Flûte harmonique 61 pipes

8′ Gambe 61 pipes

8′ Bourdon 61 pipes

4′ Prestant 61 pipes

4′ Flûte douce 61 pipes

2′ Doublette 61 pipes

1-13 Fourniture (IV) 244 pipes

8′ Trompette 61 pipes

4′ Clairon 61 pipes

Grand-Orgue 16′

Positif expressif (II)

8′ Salicional 61 pipes

8′ Unda-Maris (TC) 49 pipes

8′ Cor de nuit 61 pipes

4′ Flûte 61 pipes

2-23 Nazard 61 pipes

2′ Flageolet 61 pipes

1-35 Tierce 54 pipes

16′ Basson 61 pipes

8′ Trompette 61 pipes

8′ Clarinette 61 pipes


Positif 16′

Récit expressif (III)

8′ Flûte traversière 61 pipes

8′ Viole de gambe 61 pipes

8′ Voix céleste 61 pipes

4′ Flûte octaviante 61 pipes

2′ Octavin 61 pipes

8′ Trompette 61 pipes

8′ Basson - hautbois 61 pipes

8′ Voix humaine 61 pipes


Recit 16′

Recit 4′


32′ Soubasse† (ext) 12 pipes

16′ Contrebasse 32 pipes

16′ Soubasse 32 pipes

16′ Bourdon (Grand-Orgue)

8′ Flûte (Grand-Orgue)

8′ Salicional (Positif expressif)

8′ Bourdon (Grand-Orgue)

4′ Flûte (Grand-Orgue)

32′ Bombarde 32 pipes

16′ Bombarde (ext) 12 pipes

8′ Bombarde (ext) 12 pipes

†Quint length pipes C–F#






Positif/Grand Orgue 16′


Récit/Grand-Orgue 16′

Récit/Grand-Orgue 4′


Récit/Positif 4′


1. Three-manual and pedal French-style open drawknob console with bench and music rack all of hardwood designed and finished to complement the organ case.

2. Bone and ebony covered keys with articulated touch.

3. Polished ebony drawknobs on brass shanks.

4. Solid state, capture combination action:

• 5,000 memories—assignable, lockable with back-up and level indicator

• 14 General pistons and toe studs (8 left, 6 right)

• 6 Grand-Orgue pistons

• 6 Positif pistons

• 6 Récit pistons

• 1 Set piston

• 1 General cancel piston

• 2 memory level pistons

• Programmable piston range for each memory folder.

5. Grand-Orgue to Pédale reversible piston and toe lever.

Positif to Pédale reversible piston and toe lever.

Récit to Pédale reversible piston and toe lever.

6. Two balanced expression pedals of brass.

7. Piston Sequencer (European mode, controlled by (+) toe stud and piston, and (–) piston. Indicator showing piston employed.

8. Record/playback system.

9. Pedal light, coupler rail light, and music light.


Three-manual and pedal Tribune Organ

31 voices — 34 ranks

Electric-pneumatic action

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