Pipes, wind, and wood
During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of organ building firms were founded, dedicated to building mechanical-action pipe organs according to ancient principles. This proliferation has been generally called the “Tracker Revival,” among other names, but more to the point, it was a renaissance of the philosophy of building pipe organs in small workshops rather than in large factories. In the years leading up to World War II, the larger American organ building firms adopted mass-production practices and controlled expenses diligently, which diminished the artistic and musical content of the instruments.
The idea of building pipe organs by hand was revolutionary, and there was a steep learning curve for these artisans. Early in the twentieth century, most American organs used relatively high wind pressure. Four inches on a water column was common, and firms like the Skinner Organ Company routinely used pressures from four to six inches on the Great, six to eight on the Swell, and often included Solo Tubas on ten, twelve, and even twenty-five inches. Such high pressures in large organs were only made possible by the invention of the electric blower that could produce huge volumes of pressurized air. Historic European organs typically used pressures of three inches or less (remember that before about 1900 pipe organs were blown by human power), and twentieth-century American builders, starting more or less from scratch, had to learn anew how to make large organ pipes speak beautifully on low wind pressure.
A critical part of measuring wind pressure is volume. The output capability of an organ blower is measured in cubic feet per minute at a given pressure. And in a mechanical-action organ with slider windchests, the delivery of pressurized air from the blower depends on the dimensions of the windlines from blower to reservoir to windchests, of windchest tone channels, of pallet (valve) openings, toe holes sizes in both windchests and pipes, and many other minutia. Several years ago, I visited the huge Beckerath organ at the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal while the people of Juget-Sinclair were at work on the renovation and was amazed to see that small paper tubing was used to provide wind for the behemoth 32′ façade pipes, demonstrating that in the 1950s, venerable European firms were also busy learning how to do great things with low wind pressure.
E. Power Biggs released his influential two-record set, The Golden Age of the Organ, featuring the organs of Arp Schnitger and the chorale preludes of Ernst Pepping in 1968. That recording was a bellwether, as important as any single document in the inception of the new age of organ building. I wore holes in those LPs as a teenager, poring over the published specifications, gobbling up Pepping’s cheerful leaping music, and forming a lifelong relationship with Bach’s transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor. The gorgeous tones of the 8′ Principal in the Pedal with intertwining 4′ stops playing the violin are fully in my ears as I write.
John Brombaugh established his company in 1968 in Middletown, Ohio, and gathered a group of five partners that included John Boody and George Taylor. In the following years, an absolute who’s who of the twentieth-century pipe organ worked in Brombaugh’s shop, including many who went on to form their own companies. Brombaugh was one of the first to dig hard into the study of older organs in Europe, taking thousands of measurements, trying to learn what made those instruments sound so wonderful, and bringing that information back to the workshop to convert the numbers into music.
Ten years after starting the company in Ohio, when Brombaugh was eager to move the company to Oregon, George Taylor and John Boody chose to stay and form their own company in Middletown. As part of the dissolution of the partnership, Brombaugh passed on to them a contract for a new organ of two manuals and eighteen stops for the Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, Ohio. George and John set up shop in John’s garage to build the organ. It was completed in 1979, and Harald Vogel played the dedicatory recital.
As they were finishing the organ in Coshocton, they dreamed of purchasing a school building, thinking that with high ceilings, big windows, and wood floors, such a building would make a great workshop. George’s sister was graduating from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia. George and John drove down to attend, and a college friend of George’s suggested an old school in town that was available. During a short visit, they immediately started talking about the price and bought the building for $11,000. More than forty years later, Taylor & Boody is still building organs there.
John Boody and I have shared a special bond as I maintained the E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings organ (Opus 635, 1872) in the First Baptist Church in Wakefield, Massachusetts, where John grew up and where his grandfather had been pastor. (Sadly, the church and organ were destroyed by fire on October 24, 2018.) We have been friends for a long time and have shared many a meal, wiling away convivial hours, and we have collaborated a few times. I spent a cheerful ninety minutes on the phone with John on January 10, 2021, hearing his thoughts about the history of Taylor & Boody.
John expressed gratitude for the opportunities he and George had to study European organs. He talked especially about their encounter with the 1702 Schnitger organ in the Aa-Kirk in Groningen, the Netherlands, where with Lynn Edwards and Cor Edeskes they had the privilege of removing the pipes from the iconic organ for exact measuring. They measured the windlines and other components of the wind system, measured critical dimensions of the windchests, and analyzed the structure of the organ. John spoke with reverence about blowing on those ancient pipes and how the experience defined the future of their work. “That really set the pace for us. That was before we plugged in a machine.”
After that first organ in Coshocton, Ohio, several modest contracts came their way. Arthur Carkeek, professor of organ at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, advocated Taylor & Boody to build a twenty-two-stop organ for the First Christian Church in Vincennes, Indiana (Opus 4, 1981). There followed a twenty-stop organ in Cincinnati, twenty-four stops for Richmond, Virginia, and a couple of one-manual organs, before they got to Opus 9 (1985), a four-manual organ with fifty-two stops for Saint Joseph’s Chapel at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Late in our conversation, I asked John how he would define the work of Taylor & Boody. “It’s that sound we made at Holy Cross where we had all those lead pipes working together. We never built a squeaky organ like other people thought Baroque organs should be; our organs have that dark, chocolate, choral sound, the core of the organ was different. I think that really grabbed people’s attention, and that has worn well. And Grace Church, New York, still has that, and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. So that has stuck with us. And I think that, for me, that’s what makes an organ an organ. It’s that Principal, choral sound.” Their first few organs were built with the memories of that Schnitger organ fresh in their minds, and the opportunity to build the large organ at Holy Cross established the identity of their work.
John and I talked generally about the work of some of our colleagues, and I made the comment, “there’s a group among us who tip their hat to Mr. Skinner every time they get out of bed.”
Boody: “That’s good, and that’s bad. I would say we have to move ahead.”
Bishop: “Somebody listening to what John Boody just said would answer, haven’t you been looking 300 years back ever since you first had a chisel in your hand?”
Boody: “No, exactly the opposite. We were looking to the future. We wanted to build organs that stand tall into the future, that people would love on their own merits.”
Bishop: “So how do you translate the influence of Niehoff and Schnitger into the future?”
Boody: “You have to go with the music. You have to think of all the mechanical parts and other components you make in the shop as a conduit to making music. And you have to think about how all those parts work together. We focused on the music.”
The means of Grace
The Taylor & Boody organ at Grace Church in New York (Opus 65, 2013) was both a departure and continuation in the history of their work. Wendy and I live at Broadway and East 9th Street in Manhattan (Greenwich Village), Grace Church is at Broadway and East 10th. While the organ installation was underway, I shared some grand evenings with John and his co-workers, both in neighborhood restaurants and in our apartment. They were working on a complex instrument (tracker action in three separate cases with a remote console, and an “action tunnel” under the floor of the chancel), and those evenings were bright and fun.
That landmark organ with four manuals and seventy-six stops combines the Schnitger heritage of those marvelous “choral” choruses of lead Principals with the expressive range of the best Skinner organs. Acoustic scientist Dana Kirkegaard stipulated the construction of the expression boxes: two-inch-thick poplar lined on both sides with three-quarter-inch plywood, making a massive and dense enclosure, and shutters everywhere, even on the back of the box, shutters with an unusual range of motion, the whole providing an astonishing expressive effect. All that, plus a sophisticated solid-state combination action, sensitive mechanical action, and a few solo voices on really high pressure, combine to make an exciting instrument capable of countless effects. But wait, there’s more! Standing in the rear gallery, more than a hundred feet from the organ, are the lowest twelve notes of the 32′ Open Wood Diapason, all that remains of Skinner Organ Company Opus 707, built for Grace Church in 1928. Those twelve pipes were restored with a discreet wind supply and wired as an extension to the new 16′ Double Open Diapason of the Taylor & Boody organ, a fitting bottom to the grand new organ and testament to the musical history of the church.
As John Boody and I talked about the Grace Church organ, he spoke especially of the wind system. Superficially, we think of the pipe organ as a keyboard instrument. In fact, it is a wind instrument operated by keyboards. The organ at Grace Church has more than a dozen 16′ stops and twenty 8′ flue stops. Making an organ like that go is all about moving wind. John spoke proudly of the fellow in their shop primarily responsible for the wind system with large capacity wood wind ducts with curves for turns rather than right angles, those gentle turns moving the wind in different directions without creating eddies that can disturb the speech of the pipes.
Multiple parallel-rise reservoirs ensure that there’s plenty of volume available to make those big sounds and that the wind is regulated effectively so there is no whiplash from a sudden shift from ffff to ppp. There is a lifetime of thought and experimentation in the wind system of each Taylor & Boody organ.
There are a number of companies in the United States and Europe that make organ pipes to the specifications of the organ builders who order them. Pipe making is a complicated art that involves considerable specialized equipment for melting, blending, casting, planing, hammering, cutting, and soldering metal. It takes a lot of investment and effort for a small company to develop those abilities, but Taylor & Boody committed early to the idea that they should make their pipes. There is a room in their workshop with the cauldron for melting and mixing alloys and a ten-foot-long casting table. Molten metal is ladled and poured into a wood hod that runs on rails along the sides of the casting table. When the hod is full, two workers walk it swiftly down the table, leaving a thin pool of shiny molten metal. I have witnessed this process there, marveling at the moment a few seconds after the sheet is cast when the metal flashes over from liquid to solid.
When the sheet has cooled, it is rolled up like a carpet so it can be safely transported to the next steps in the process. John talked about the importance of the precision of making pipes. If a pipe is not neatly made, the voicer has to try to correct the pipe maker’s mistakes. John’s daughter-in-law B. J. Regi makes all the smaller pipes. John said, “she makes exquisite pipes. And you know, that’s the deal. If you go to start voicing an organ and everything’s lined up well, the mouths are beautiful, and the windways are pristine, you can make good sound right away.” Robbie Lawson heads the pipe shop, and B. J. helps him with the larger pipes.
John Boody attended the forestry school at the University of Maine at Orono (he holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in vocal performance) and has loved and respected wood throughout his career. Taylor & Boody has a sawmill where they cut all the lumber used in their organs. After it is sawn into boards, the wood is dried in a kiln made from a retired refrigerated (and therefore insulated) semi-trailer. The lumber is stacked neatly in piles, separated by the organ. In 2009, Wendy and I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, and we spent a night with the Boodys. (We were treated to fresh eggs from John’s chickens for breakfast.) John showed us the huge oak logs from which the matching organ cases of the Grace Church organ would be made.
The sawmill provides the company with the most desirable wood, especially quarter-sawn white oak. Black walnut has beautiful grain patterns and rich color. It is very expensive to purchase from a hardwood supplier, and it is typically used only for decorative casework and furniture. But since walnut trees are plentiful in their area and they are messy to have in your yard, neighbors often cut down walnut trees and offer the logs to the T&B sawmill. This allows them to use the stable and beautiful wood to make action parts and wood organ pipes. Carefully milled, beautiful lumber is a hallmark of Taylor & Boody organs.
John’s affinity with wood is so widely respected that he has recently started writing a regular column for the journal of the International Society of Organbuilders called “The Wood Guy,” in which he answers colleagues’ specific questions and writes about the wonders of wood, that most natural of materials.
And the hope of glory
Eighty organs in forty years. Some are small continuo organs. Some are larger one-manual organs. Many are two-manual organs with twenty or thirty stops. There are a bunch with three manuals, and a couple of four-manual doozies. As the company produced all those organs, they also produced a clan. John has retired from the workshop, though he still runs the sawmill, the “light-duty” job for the older guy, and George is preparing to retire. John’s son Erik is running the company, and his daughter-in-law B. J. and son-in-law Aaron Reichert are both part of the workshop.
John is a prolific gardener. Looking at his Facebook page during the summer, you might think they were going to make zucchinis into organs. There is a swirl of grandchildren about. I recently saw a photo of a wee lass pushing a broom in the sawmill. It’s been a lifetime since those twenty-something partners were digging into that Schnitger organ in Groningen, understanding what the old master had to offer, and converting that experience into a creative career.
Halfway through our conversation, the name of a mutual friend and colleague came up, and John’s gregarious personality shone through. “He’s a dear man. And you think of our whole trade, we have great people. I love to go to APOBA meetings, I love to go to the AIO. Right down to the little one-man-shop guys, there are some great people out there.” John Boody and George Taylor have been faithful members of that band of great people. Their organs have influenced countless musicians around the world, and they reflect and amplify the harmonies of the workplace they founded in the schoolhouse on the hill.
Photo caption: Taylor & Boody workshop, Christmas 2020 (photo courtesy Taylor & Boody Organbuilders)