Why it matters.
An hour ago, I finished my last “Christmas” tuning. It’s been a fun season involving lots of organs—some wonderful, and some a little less wonderful. I started tuning organs in Boston in 1984 when I joined Angerstein & Associates after returning from almost ten years in northern Ohio that included my years as a student at Oberlin, my first marriage, a long stint as director of music at a large Presbyterian church in Cleveland, and my terrific apprenticeship and friendship with Jan G. P. Leek. I still tune quite a few of the organs I first saw when working for Dan Angerstein in 1984—organs that were nearly new then and that have lots of miles on them now. In those churches I’ve outlasted as many as ten organists, five pastors, and who knows how many sextons.
It’s fun to return to these places several times each year, visiting the old friends who work in the buildings and monitoring the condition of the organs. Many of my tuning clients couple with a particular restaurant or sandwich shop. We were disappointed a couple weeks ago in Newburyport, Massachusetts, to see that the favorite sandwich shop near the church had been torn down. A sign indicates that they’ll reopen in a new building in the spring, but I think it will take twenty years to get the place seasoned so things taste right.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to be associated with some very special organs—special because of their size, their musical beauty, or their historical significance. It’s exciting to tune an organ that was played by Marcel Dupré, Lynnwood Farnam, or Pierre Cochereau. And I’ve had the thrill of preparing organs for concerts by such giants as Simon Preston, Madame Duruflé, Catharine Crozier, and Daniel Roth. You sit in the audience waiting for the artist to play that C# in the Swell Clarion you had so much trouble with two hours ago. Hold on, baby, hold on!
Of course, most of those experiences happen in big city churches with rich histories, fabulous artwork, heavy tourist traffic, and outstanding musicians. I’ve always felt it’s a special privilege to work behind the scenes in those monumental places, surrounded by all that heritage. But let’s not forget the importance of the small church with the seemingly inconsequential organ.
Yesterday, I tuned one of the older Möller unit organs known as The Portable Organ. The opus list of M. P. Möller includes something like 13,500 organs, and while we know plenty of big distinguished instruments built by that firm, by far the most of them were these tiny workhorse organs with two, three, or four ranks. They built them by the thousand, and you find them everywhere. Maybe you’re familiar with the newer Artiste models that have a detached console, and one or two, or even three eight-by-eight-by-four foot cases stuffed full of pipes like a game of Tetris. The model I’m referring to predates that—they were popular in the 1940s, had attached keyboards, and usually three ranks, Spitz Principal (they called them Diapason Conique—oo-la-la), Gedeckt, and Salicional. The ranks were spread around through unit borrowing, each rank playing at multiple pitches, and there were compound stops such as “Quintadena” which combined the Gedeckt at 8′ and the Salicional at 22⁄3′.
The particular instrument I tuned yesterday was originally in a Lutheran church in Bronx, New York. As that parish dissolved a few years ago, the Organ Clearing House moved the organ to another Lutheran church in Queens. There was no budget for renovation, so we simply assembled it, coaxed all the notes to work, gave the case a treatment of lemon oil, and off we went. It had been a year since the last tuning, and it was fun to find that all the notes were working, the tuning had held nicely, and the organ sounded nice. I spent less than an hour tuning the three ranks, chatting with the pastor, and cleaning the keyboards.
When I got home this afternoon, I had a quick lunch and took a look at Facebook to be sure everyone out there was behaving. I was touched to see a post by colleague Michael Morris who works for Parkey OrganBuilders in the Atlanta area. He had just tuned another copy of the same Möller organ and wrote this:
It’s not always the quality of the instrument that makes a tuning job enjoyable. For some years now, my last regularly scheduled tuning has been in Georgia’s old capital of Milledgeville. It’s usually a pleasant drive through farm country to get to the antebellum Sacred Heart Church.
This was Flannery O’Connor’s parish, the center of her spiritual life and an influence in her writing. In 1945 Möller delivered a three-rank unit organ and placed it in the heart-pine gallery. It’s not a distinguished instrument, but it’s always easy to tune and I enjoy the thought that this instrument was part of the fabric of her life.
I’m always done just before the parishioners start the Rosary before noon Mass. I have lunch at a Mexican restaurant, then drive back to Atlanta knowing I have put another tuning season behind me.
Nice work, Michael.
Flannery O’Connor (1925–64) was a devout Roman Catholic. After earning a master’s degree at the University of Iowa, she lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, with classics translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife, Sally. In 1952, O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus (from which her father died in 1941) and returned to her childhood home, Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.
Her writing is spiritual, reflecting the theory that God is present throughout the created world, and including intense reflections on ethics and morality. The modest little organ in Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville was present for her whenever she worshipped. On such a personal level, that three-rank organ is every bit as important as the mighty 240-rank Aeolian-Skinner at The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston or the iconic Cavaillé-Coll at Saint-Sulpice in Paris.
How did you get started?
After his ordination as an Episcopal priest, my father was rector of a small church in Somerville, Massachusetts. Subsequently, he was the first rector of a new parish in Westwood, Massachusetts, starting there when it was formed as a mission. I was two years old when we moved into the rectory next to the church building. The church building was designed as a very simple structure, sort of an A-frame with a linoleum floor. It was furnished with folding chairs, so the single room could be used for worship, dinners, and all sorts of other things. A few years later, the planned second phase was executed. An adjoining parish hall was built, and the original building was turned into a proper church with towers, stained glass, pews, and a rear gallery for organ and choir. The organ was also planned in stages. It was one of the first instruments built by Charles Fisk, back in the days when he was of the Andover Organ Company. It had six stops, mechanical action, and a detached-reversed console, all mounted on a six-inch-high platform down front. Get it? It was the console and Rückpositiv of an organ that could be expanded to include two manuals and pedal. When the second phase was under construction, there was a moment when the roof was off—and that’s the moment they moved the organ. They lifted the whole thing with a crane, pipes and all, and placed it in the new balcony. I would have a fit if someone did that with one of my organs today, but seeing that organ hanging from the hook of the crane is one of my earliest pipe organ memories. It was more than twenty years before the second case containing Great and Pedal was built.
When I was ten, we moved to Winchester, Massachusetts, where Dad became rector of the Parish of the Epiphany, home to an Ernest M. Skinner organ built in 1904 (Wow! That’s an early one.), during the time when Robert Hope-Jones was working with Mr. Skinner. I started taking organ lessons a couple years after we got there and was quickly aware that the organ was on its last legs. I didn’t play the Skinner organ much, because less than a year after I started taking lessons, I was playing for money at other churches. That organ was replaced by a twelve-stop Fisk in 1974, their Opus 65. Six additional stops that were “prepared for” were added in 1983. The on-site installation of those stops was under way when Charles Fisk passed away. A 16′ Open Wood was added in 2012.
My organ lessons continued a few blocks away at the First Congregational Church in Winchester, home to Fisk’s Opus 50.1 During my high school years, I was assistant organist to George Bozeman at the First Congregational Church in neighboring Woburn, Massachusetts, where I played on the fabulous 1860 three-manual E. & G. G. Hook organ, which at 156 years old is still one of the very few remaining pre-Civil War three-manual Hooks. I didn’t know how lucky I was until I got to Oberlin a few years later and started hearing about the organs my classmates got started on.
All my college buddies were terrific organists, but I learned that some of them had never played a pipe organ before their audition at Oberlin. And while I had free access to those glorious organs by Fisk and Hook, some had only ever played on modest electro-pneumatic unit organs. The first time I played a tiny electro-pneumatic pipe organ was in a practice room at Oberlin! But thinking back and knowing that all of them were wonderful organists when they were in high school, I’m sure that thousands of parishioners in those few dozen churches were moved and excited to hear such young people play those organs so beautifully.
A matter of scale
Many composers and musicians consider the string quartet one of the purest forms of music-making. The composer working with four musicians and four independent parts is writing intimately and minimally. Each measure, each individual chord is specially voiced and tuned for the moment. There is no blurring of the edges; everything is exposed. Compare that to a symphony orchestra with twenty first violins. Conductors are fond of saying that an instrumental or choral ensemble is only as strong as its weakest member. I’ve always thought that was baloney. It’s a great cheerleading sentiment, but it seems to me that in a twenty-member violin section, the stronger players inspire and encourage their colleagues, helping them to achieve new heights. I’ve led volunteer church choirs whose collective ability far outshone the individual skills and musicianship of the weakest member.
We can draw an analogy with pipe organs. A tiny chamber organ with four or five stops is every bit as beautiful as a big-city monster with two hundred ranks. It’s almost unbelievable that both are called by the same name. When you’re playing a chamber organ, you listen to the speech of each individual pipe, but when you’re whipping through a big toccata with a hundred stops drawn, each four-part chord involves four hundred pipes. There might be an individual stinker in the Swell Clarion (remember, the pipe I was having trouble with), or a zinger in a Mixture that stands out in the crowd, but otherwise, you’re really not listening to individual pipes any more than you single out an individual violist in a Brahms symphony.
If we agree that a tiny chamber organ and a swashbuckling cathedral job are both beautiful organs, we should also agree that they serve different purposes and support different literature. I suppose we should allow that it’s likely to be more effective to play Sweelinck on a hundred stops than Widor on five. But we’re lucky that we still have organs that Sweelinck knew, so we can imagine and even reconstruct how his playing sounded. I don’t know if Widor had much opportunity to hear others play his music, but I bet he wouldn’t have liked hearing “that Toccata” on a small two-manual organ in a two-hundred-seat church.
Will it play in Milledgeville?
I’m sure my colleague Michael Morris did a lovely job tuning that little Möller organ. I assume, or I hope that some caring person will be playing lovely music and our favorite Christmas carols on the organ in the next few days. Maybe the congregation will sing “Silent Night” while holding candles, lighting that simple sanctuary with magical twinkling. Maybe that lovely effect will make people’s eyes go moist. Families will go home after Mass, whistling and humming those familiar tunes.
We know that Flannery O’Connor worshipped in that church during bleak moments in her life. There was that first Christmas after she was diagnosed with the disease that killed her father. There was that last Christmas before she died, when she must have been in terrible pain. But there was that organist doing that special thing that adds so much to worship at any time, and on any scale. And the organ was in tune.
One more thing . . .
I’ve tuned around forty organs in the last month. Some days it seems that all I do is carry my tools back and forth to the car. I’ve seen a ton of Christmas decorations—some gorgeous, and some horribly tacky. The brightly colored life-sized inflatable plastic Nativity scene was the nadir. I expect there will be some snickering going on there on Christmas Eve.
The sacred spaces that are the most worshipful are almost always beautifully kept. There are no ragged stacks of last Sunday’s bulletin, no wastebaskets overflowing with Styrofoam coffee cups, and no inflatable Santas.
Wendy and I worship at Grace Church on lower Broadway in New York. It’s a beautiful Gothic-inspired building with magnificent stained-glass windows, elaborate carvings around the pulpit and choir stalls, a big, shiny brass eagle holding up the lectern, and a fabulous organ built recently by Taylor & Boody. John Boody has a degree in forestry and a special affinity for beautiful wood. I believe that Taylor & Boody is alone among American organbuilders in harvesting trees and milling and curing their own lumber. And the Grace Church organ sure looks it. Intricate enchanting grain patterns abound. The two facing organ cases and the massive freestanding console add their gleam to the place. It’s nice that I’ve never seen a stack of music on the console.
There are lots of organ consoles that look like the day after a fire at a Staples store. Everything from Post-it notes to rubber bands, from cough drops to hair brushes festoon the cabinet. The organ console is a worship space, especially when it’s visible from the pews. I know that the console at your church is your workspace. I know you have to view it and use it as a tool, a workbench—something like a cubicle. But you might think of creating a little bag that contains all your supplies, or installing a neat little hidden shelf to hold your hymnals. I bet your organbuilder would be happy to build you one.
Please don’t let the state of your organ console intrude on someone’s worship. Every week you’re playing for people who are suffering, scared, sick, or worried. Be sure that everything you do is enhancing their experience of worship. That’s why we’re there. ν
1. On the Fisk website, this organ is referred to as Winchester Old and Opus 65 is Winchester New. Another similarly cute organ nickname belongs to the Bozeman-Gibson organ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline, Massachusetts—Orgel-brookline.