In the wind. . . .

September 4, 2017

Keeping up appearances

Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue in New York City run north and south, parallel to each other a block apart. Together they form one of the world’s premier high-end shopping districts starting around 34th Street and continuing north. On Fifth Avenue, the shopping district ends at 59th Street, which is the southern edge of Central Park, a few blocks north of Trump Tower, and on Madison Avenue it continues north to perhaps 86th. That’s where you find the shops where people pay more for a handbag than I pay for a car. Saks Fifth Avenue, Shreve, Crump & Low, and Tiffany & Co. are some of the big landmarks. Rolex, Ferragamo, Versace, and Louis Vuitton continue the roster along with a host of lesser but equally dear names. The NBA Sportswear Store and the Disney Store are newer arrivals that cater to a different crowd.

Manhattan’s Upper East Side boasts some of the most expensive residences in the world. There’s a four-floor, 20,000-square-foot, 16-bedroom place on Central Park South that’s listed for $250,000,000. If you can afford a place like that, you can certainly afford a $100,000 handbag.1

The sidewalks in that neighborhood are full of designer people with designer handbags, designer dogs, and designer facelifts, doing their expensive best to show the world who they are. While I expect many of them live in multi-million dollar homes and can actually afford all that, I’m sure there are people spending above the reasonable limits of their disposable income, going deep into holes to keep up appearances.

I’m reminded of an exchange I overheard 40 years ago in an auto parts store in Oberlin, Ohio, when a fellow customer asked the clerk for a CB antenna. The clerk asked what kind of radio he had, and the customer relied, “I don’t have a radio, I just want people to think I do.” That CB antenna had a lot in common with a $100,000 handbag.


What you see is what you get.

The pipe organ is the only indoor monumental musical instrument, and the only one with the possibility of having an architectural identity. Of course, many organs are housed in chambers, separate from the rooms into which they speak. Some of those have façades of organ pipes, while others have simple screens of cloth and wood. I’ve always felt that there’s something dishonest about concealing an instrument behind a grille. I love the feeling of walking into a building and knowing right away that I’m in the presence of a pipe organ. Whether the organ displays a simple fence of pipes with some woodwork surrounding to hold them up, or it has a grand decorated case, either freestanding or projecting from the front of a chamber, the visual information about the instrument is an exciting prelude to hearing it.

We can argue about when the development of the modern pipe organ began, but since I’m the one writing and there’s no one else here just now, and since I know I can back this up simply enough just with photos, let’s say that things were rolling along pretty well by the middle of the 16th century. By then, many organs had been built that had multiple manuals, stop actions that were easy to operate, and highly decorated architectural cases. An important feature of many of those cases was the fact that one could tell a lot about the content and layout of the organ with only visual information. The layout of the façade directly reflected the number of manuals, the principal pitches, and even the layout of the windchests.

There’s typically a Rückpositiv installed on the balcony rail, which is necessarily played by the bottom manual, because the tracker action would go down to the floor behind the knee panel (sometimes called kick-panel) and then under the pedalboard to the balcony rail. There’s an impost, the heavy molding that traverses the organ case above the console, forming the transition from the narrow base of the organ to the wider upper case. That upper case contains the Hauptwerk (Great), which includes the central Principal Chorus, the tonal foundation of the organ. The layout of that façade might show that the windchests are arranged diatonically (odd-numbered notes on one side, evens on the other), and it might further show that the trebles of the chests are arranged so major thirds are adjacent to each other. That’s when the “C side” (whole tones C, D, E, F#, G#, A#) is split, so one side reads “C, E, G#” while the other reads “D, F#, A#.” Likewise, the C# side of the organ is split so one side reads “C#, F, A” and the other reads “D#, G, B.”

That may seem complicated, but it’s a simple reordering of the notes that results in lovely symmetrical visual appearance. Also, in an organ tuned in a historic temperament, when major thirds are adjacent, chords draw beautifully in harmony with each other.

If there are three manuals, the top one might be a Brustwerk (literally, “Breast Work”) located above the music rack and below the impost. That division would be based on a higher Principal pitch, and would contain smaller, lighter stops—likely an 8 stopped flute such as a Gedeckt, a single 4, mutations, upper work, and a reed with short, fractional resonators such as a Schalmei or Regal.

The top manual of a three-manual instrument could also be an Oberwerk, a separate division above the Hauptwerk at the top of the case. If there are four manuals, you might have both Oberwerk and Brustwerk in addition to the Hauptwerk and Rückpositiv.

Some people are better at judging measurements than others, but I’m guessing that if challenged, most anyone could tell the difference between 16 and 32 feet. And, you could also pretty easily guess at a succession of lengths, each half as long as the one previous. So you know all you need to know to judge the pitches of the divisions in an organ with classic case design. If you’re sure that the largest pipes in the pedal towers are 16-footers, then you can tell that the Principal pitch of the Hauptwerk is 8, the Positiv is 4, and the Brustwerk is 2. If the Pedal has 32 Principal, the Hauptwerk is 16, the Positiv is 8′, and the Brustwerk is 4. In a four-manual organ, the Oberwerk is likely to be an 8 division, with smaller scales than the Hauptwerk.

Are you not sure you could tell the difference between a 16 or 32 pipe? Sixteen feet is a length or width measurement for a room in an average home. Our bedroom in New York is about 16 feet long. If you could get a 32-footer into your living room, you live in a big house!2

Werkprinzip is a twentieth-century term coined to describe an organ that’s arranged in clearly defined divisions that can be easily identified by viewing the façade. This simple and elegant style of organ design evolved from the simplest ancient organs where the keyboard of the Positiv division was on the back of the Positiv case, and the organist had to turn around to play it.


The Hamburger Schnitger

Arp Schnitger (1648–1719) was a prolific organbuilder whose work influenced all of organ history since then. Forty-eight of his organs survive, a great achievement by modern standards. But when you realize that he accomplished all that without electricity, power tools, trucks, or even FedEx, Mr. Schnitger’s output seems staggering. I was introduced to his work as a kid by E. Power Biggs’s 1964 recording, The Golden Age of the Organ. Biggs was right in choosing that title. Schnitger’s organs were the epitome of the high Baroque with thrilling voicing, marvelous complex actions, and stunning architectural cases.  

One of his largest organs is in the Jacobikirche in Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city. It has four manuals, 60 stops, and is a terrific example of a classic Werkprinzip organ. There are two 32pedal towers, a 16 Hauptwerk, and an 8 Rückpositiv visible. There are two additional divisions that cannot be identified just by looking at the façade, an 8 Oberpositiv (at the top of the organ), and an 8 Brustpositiv above the keydesk.3

The façades of the Hauptwerk and Rückpositiv cases reflect the windchest layout of major thirds. On either side of the large center towers, there are fields (flats) of façade pipes arranged with the largest in the center, the pipes getting smaller in each direction. I don’t know exactly which note is in the center of the flats, but by counting the pipes in the center and side towers, I’m guessing that it’s A# (below middle C) on the left, and B (below middle C) on the right. So starting in the center of the lower left flat and going toward one side, the pipes would be A#, D, F#, A#, D, F#—and in the other direction C, E, G#, C, E. To the right of the center tower, starting in the center, you have B, D#, G, B, D#, G#—and in the other direction C#, F, A, C#, F. If you’re confused, just think of these sequences as every other whole tone.


What window?

The First and Second Church in Boston, Massachusetts, is located at the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough Streets in the neighborhood known as the Back Bay. The fifth church building on that site was a large stone Gothic structure, built in 1867 with a large rose window and a tall stone steeple. The building housed a large Aeolian-Skinner organ—no coincidence, as William Zeuch, vice-president of Aeolian-Skinner, was organist of the church from 1930 until 1958, and famously played weekly organ recitals on Sunday afternoons to huge audiences.

There’s a story about that rose window. Leo Collins was organist at First and Second Church from 1964 until 1997. Shortly after he started there, interested in the newly emerging movement of the return to classic styles of organ building, he assembled an organ committee to research the possibilities of replacing the Aeolian-Skinner with a new tracker organ. Rudolf von Beckerath was invited to propose a new organ, and he traveled to Boston to present his design to the committee. Predictably enough, his drawing showed a tall free-standing organ case with pedal towers in front of the rose window. An elderly and proper woman, denizen of the Back Bay, asked him, “Mr. Beckerath, what about our window.” He replied, “We have covered windows lovelier than this.”

That project never happened because the building burned in 1968, leaving only the east wall with the rose window and the steeple. A new building was designed by architect Paul Rudolph that incorporated the remains of the stone edifice. Leo got what he wanted. The church commissioned a fine mechanical-action organ by Casavant Frères (Opus 3140, 1972) with three manuals and 64 ranks.4 I assume that the organ was paid for with the help of the insurance settlement after the fire. I first tuned the Casavant organ when I joined the staff of Angerstein & Associates in 1984, and six organists later, I still maintain the instrument.

While it may seem apocryphal, the story about Beckerath and the rose window was told to me by Leo Collins, who was present at that meeting. That’s a good way to lose a job.


A new way to look at it

The Casavant organ at First Church in Boston is a great example of a modern Werkprinzip organ. If you’ve been paying attention as you read, you can tell instantly just by looking at the photo that the Pedal has a 16 Principal, the Great (at the top of the main case) has an 8Principal, and the Positiv has a 4. The modern adaption of the style allows for a large Swell division above the keydesk. You can see that the Great and Positiv are arranged in major thirds: the largest pipes in each of the spiky towers, from left to right, are C, C#, D, and D#. So the “C” tower has C, E, G#, C, E, G#­. The next has C#, F, A, C#, F, A. The next has D, F#, A#, D, F#, A#. And the last has D#, G, B, D#, G, B.

Though you can’t see it, behind the shutters, the Swell is arranged in major thirds, mirroring the Great and Positiv.

The arrangement of the Pedal tower is unconventional. There are three towers that start with C, C#, and D, so minor thirds are adjacent. That means that tuning the Pedal is arpeggios on diminished chords. I assume that the three-tower arrangement is for visual effect. The three spiky pedal towers nicely answer the four of the main case. Perhaps Paul Rudolph was involved in that design.

While tuning the minor-third Pedal division is arpeggios on diminished chords, tuning the major-third divisions provokes a parody on the main theme of Johann Strauss’s An der schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube), which starts with the three notes of a major triad. Altering that theme by playing two adjacent major thirds, with the answering treble triads adjusted accordingly, provides a comical effect—just the right tonic after tuning all the mutations and mixtures in that fully equipped organ.


While I’m talking about pipe organ façades, there’s another interesting thought to share. Many organ cases, both ancient and modern, have large towers in their façades. Some are round or multi-sided in plan, while some are “pointed,” triangular in plan. It’s easy to identify them as purely architectural elements, but they also conserve space within the organ case, as they bear the largest pipes of an organ outside the confines of the case. Giving them rounded or pointed profiles also diminishes the width of the entire instrument. Standing five or seven 32 pipes next to each other would add up to a lot of additional width.


Of course, many wonderful organs have been built with clearly defined internal divisions whose façades don’t reflect the internal design. The massive Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Sulpice in Paris is a good example. There is a massive wood case festooned with a procession of larger-than-life statues that take up so much space that it’s a wonder the sound can get out at all. What appears to be a Rückpositiv is actually concealing the back of the console. Of course, that’s not a reflection on the quality or content of the organ, just another way to present the instrument as a monumental work of visual art.

I’ve been in many churches where a modest organ is concealed behind a huge case. In some of those cases, the organ is a small, cheaper replacement for a much larger original instrument. But sometimes, the monumental case was designed by the architect of the building, and there was no funding for an instrument of appropriate size. That’s the equivalent of the guy in the auto parts store who didn’t have a radio but wanted an antenna for appearances, or buying a $100,000 handbag to imply that you live in a $100,000,000 house. Who’s going to wash the windows?



1. Maybe you think I’m kidding. Google “Hermès crocodile bag” and see what you get.

2. Our standard pitch designations refer to the “speaking length” of a pipe, which is the measurement from the bottom of the pipe’s mouth to its tuning point. Almost all façade pipes are two or three feet longer than speaking length to allow for the height of the pipe’s conical foot, and any “false length” at the top to allow for a tuning slot at the back. So a 32 façade pipe is often close to 40 feet long. A standard semi-trailer passing you on the highway is 53 feet long. I’ve been working with pipe organs for more than 40 years, and I still marvel at the idea of a 32 organ pipe, a thousand-pound whistle that can play one note at one volume level.

3. You can see the specifications of the Hamburg Schnitger organ here:

4. You can see the specifications of the First Church Casavant organ here: