O praise ye the Lord! All things that give sound;
each jubilant chord re-echo around;
loud organs, his glory forth tell in deep tone,
and sweet harp, the story of what he hath done.
—William Henry Baker
So goes the third verse of hymn 432 in The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church. It is set to a soaring tune by C. Hubert H. Parry that is supported with rich and compelling, even dramatic harmonies. The tessitura is high, which allows space for broad chords—it is a doozey of a hymn that is a blast to sing. And of course, anyone who has devoted a big part of life to playing, building, and working on pipe organs will be a sucker for this one. It does not take a rocket scientist to think of punching General 12 to start that third line, and do not forget to play the comma after “organs” for all it is worth. It was Claude Debussy who said, “Music is the silence between the notes.”
On Saturday morning, October 6, several hundred gathered at New York City’s Church of the Heavenly Rest, proudly placed on Fifth Avenue between the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (the former home of Andrew Carnegie) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic masterpiece, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, for the memorial service of Steven Earl Lawson. Steve was the assisting organist at Heavenly Rest for twenty-one years, and a tireless active member of the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. You can read his obituary in the October 2018 issue of The Diapason, but it bears repeating that he has made contributions of inestimable value to the organ world through his creation of the New York City Organ Project, which chronicles hundreds (thousands?) of pipe organs in New York City, including specifications, photographs, and histories accompanied by histories of the buildings and parishes. For example, take a look at http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/HeavenlyRest.html and see what Steve had to say about the organs at his church.
In addition to the New York City Organ Project, Steve contributed mightily to the Organ Historical Society Pipe Organ Database, where you can type keywords into a simple form and find documentation of thousands of pipe organs nationwide. Hundreds of us who work daily with pipe organs routinely reap the benefits of Steve’s dedication.
Standing in that church last Saturday, surrounded by valued colleagues, I was moved to be reminded of the purpose of our work as organists and organbuilders. A tag-team procession of organists shared the bench, including Steve’s prolific and beloved octogenarian teacher, Wilma Jensen, each offering their talents in his memory. The large and talented choir, including many volunteers, gave freely of their autumn Saturday, singing a variety of beautifully chosen music including the sublime “Sanctus” from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Fauré’s genius was evident in the shimmering ascending lines sung by the sopranos and later by the organ—vivid pictures of the freeing of a human soul to rest and life eternal.
It is hard work to devote one’s self to artistic expression. As you walk through a grand museum, you see countless examples of physical labor. I am not sure I have read anything about Renaissance painters suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, but consider this: Peter Paul Rubens lived sixty-three years between 1577 and 1640. According to the catalog compiled by Michael Jaffé in 1989, there are 1,403 works attributed to Rubens. Rubens finished his apprenticeship and entered an artists’ guild in 1598, so let’s assume his first documented paintings were completed around the time he was twenty years old. That means he produced an average of more than thirty paintings a year. And that was before the Utrecht chain of art-supply stores was founded. Rubens had to spend a lot of time “hunting and gathering” the materials and supplies needed to make his paints.
A gallon of today’s latex paint weighs a little over eight pounds, and I assume that Rubens’s paints were heavier than that. At those rates, I suppose he shoveled a couple tons of paint onto canvas over his career, a dab at a time. Based on my experience of painting rooms in our house, I know that there were thousands of days when Rubens went home with aching arms and wrists. I read that he died of “complications from gout.” I share the diagnosis of the “disease of kings” and can add that along with his aching carpal tunnel, Rubens suffered a lot of serious pain in his life.
And I have to ask, just how did he do it? How can it be that a 375-year-old painting shimmers with life? Can you buy a tube of “Rubens’s Sunset” or “Rubens’s Nacreous” at a Utrecht store? No? I guess that is the definition of genius.
Antonio Stradivari lived from 1644 until 1737. He built around 1,100 instruments including 960 violins, of which something like 500 are extant. As a young teenager, he apprenticed with Nicolai Amati and started making instruments under his own name around 1666. He was 93 years old when he died—let’s assume he stopped making violins at age ninety. That works out to about sixteen instruments per year across a sixty-nine year career, or an average of more than one each month. His work must have included traveling from Cremona, the city where he lived and worked, into the forested mountains to acquire materials. Along with his legendary professional career, he had an active personal life with ten children, three of whom worked in his shop.
Like Rubens’s paintings, Stradivari’s violins have stood the test of time, shimmering with life after 300 years. In recent days, we have heard the newest chapter in the dramatic story of a Stradivari violin. The “Ames” Strad was built in 1734, when Stradivari was ninety years old. It was owned by the virtuoso Roman Totenberg who taught at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After a concert there in 1980, the instrument was stolen from Totenberg’s office by Phillips Johnson, an aspiring young violinist. Following Johnson’s death in 2015, his ex-wife and her present boyfriend were cleaning out closets and found the violin. She took it to an appraiser who gave the classic response, “I have good news, and I have bad news.”
The violin was returned to Totenberg’s daughters Amy, Jill, and Nina by the FBI through the office of New York District Attorney, Peet Bharara. Nina Totenberg’s stories about her father’s violin have been broadcast and published by National Public Radio where her voice is well known as NPR’s legal affairs correspondent. Her most recent story was published on October 9. You can read it at https://www.npr.org/2018/10/09/654490918/the-tale-of-the-stolen-totenbe….
In that story, Ms. Totenberg continues by telling of how she and her sisters have chosen to dispose of the instrument. She wrote that they “could sell it for oodles in Asia but would likely never hear it again.” They had placed the instrument in the hands of Rare Violins in New York City, where Ziv Arazi and Bruno Price were restoring it when “an angel” came forward, offering to buy it and place it on loan to deserving students. Eighteen-year-old Nathan Meltzer, a student of Itzhak Perlman and Li Lin at the Juilliard School, is the first to receive use of the instrument on a long-term loan. Nina Totenberg reports that he “already has enough of a career to pay the considerable insurance and maintenance costs.”
According to The New York Times, the “angel” paid between five and ten million dollars to purchase the instrument, which sounds like oodles to me but is a fraction of the record sixteen million paid for a Stradivari violin. An even more rare Strad viola was sold at auction in 2014 for $45,000,000. The Totenbergs chose this path in honor of their father’s devotion to teaching, and in the interest that his beloved instrument would be heard on the world’s stages “long after we’re gone.”
Some people think pipe organs are expensive but consider this: violins weigh between 400 and 500 grams, or something close to one pound which means violins can cost as much as $15 million a pound! In comparison, a three-manual pipe organ with sixty or seventy stops, a solid wood case, and steel frame weighs around 65,000 pounds and costs $1.5 to $2 million which is around $30 per pound. That’s quite a bargain!
Last Saturday at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, sitting among a throng of colleague organbuilders, listening to the beautiful music and singing those rousing hymns, I was reflecting on the nature of organbuilding. I thought of the math and physics involved in the production and projection of acoustic tone. I thought of the myriad skills required, like woodworking, metalworking, engineering, logistics, rigging, and hoisting. A good organbuilder is well schooled in the history of the instrument including geographical influences, in the flow and volume of air, and the physics of musical tone.
There is a huge amount of pure heavy physical labor involved. That 65,000-pound organ I mentioned includes 65,000 pounds of parts that have to be built, painted, soldered, joined, and carried around the workshop countless times. That is 65,000 pounds of stuff that has to be sorted, wrapped, packaged, and loaded onto trucks, then taken out of the trucks and carried up the steps into the church. Sometimes when relocating a vintage organ, we take it apart, pack it and load it into trucks, unload it into storage, take it from storage to an organbuilder’s workshop, and then move it from the workshop to its final destination. That means lifting, carrying, sorting, and stacking 65,000 pounds of gear three times. That is a lot of cardio training.
Building a twenty-five-foot-tall organ case involves deriving a cutting list from drawings and running thousands of feet of rough lumber through jointer, thickness planer, table saw, and cut-off saw. It means cutting joints, gluing up panels and frames, cutting and mitering moldings, making everything fit together, and hoisting it all into place. Making wood trackers for a big organ is another long shift at the table saw, ripping carefully planed boards into hundreds of two-millimeter strips. Casting the metal for organ pipes means lifting sixty-pound ingots of metal into a melting pot. Be careful not to splash.
In March of 1982, my former wife and I were expecting our first child. In the days leading up to the “due date,” I was drilling holes in the rackboards of an organ. It was not a large organ, fewer than 1,000 pipes, but that was several days of work, changing the bit to a larger size every couple of holes. (Always start with the smallest holes, because if you make a mistake it is easier to make a hole bigger than to make it smaller!) I do not remember if I was making mistakes with drill sizes because I was preoccupied with the idea of becoming a father. Michael was born on a Thursday night, so I had to cancel choir rehearsal. We shipped that organ to Annandale, Virginia, that June, and Michael is now six foot, four inches and a magician with tools and sailboats.
If you are drilling 1,000 rackboard holes in a fifteen-stop organ, you are also drilling 1,000 holes in sliders and 1,000 holes in windchest tables. A big part of the art of organbuilding is knowing where to put the holes.
Many organ companies, including the Organ Clearing House, have heavy schedules of seasonal organ maintenance. We are in the north where the climate changes twice a year. While some organists like to have the organ tuned for Christmas and Easter, because organ tuning is affected by temperature, we like to think of the schedule as winter and summer. It is defined specifically by when the church’s heating system comes into use. If we tune in mid-to-late November, the organ will be ready for the winter season, and around here, Easter is still typically a winter holiday. We tune again in May, and the organ is ready for summer weddings.
I go to about forty organs each season. We arrange the schedule to group neighboring churches. Some organs can be serviced in a couple hours, so we can do three in a day. Most are half-day tunings. This adds up to about three weeks of driving from one church to another, carrying toolboxes into organ lofts, and climbing ladders. Today we have snazzy battery-powered work lights with brilliant LEDs. They are light and compact and have hooks and magnets on them so you get them to stay just where you need the light. But “back in the day,” we had “trouble lights,” incandescent bulbs with metals cages around them powered by heavy yellow cords. It was a trick to keep the cord out of the mixture, and when you were making a difficult repair in a tiny space, there was nothing like the feeling of that hot light scorching the sweaty skin on the inside of the arm.
If that repair involved making a new solder joint, there was nothing quite like that drip of solder on your cheek. I drew laughter from a co-worker when I dubbed a certain move the “Skinner Jerk.” That is when you kneel on a loose screw on a concrete floor, jump up, and hit your head on the torn slot of a bottom-board screw, and pull away leaving a tuft of hair caught in the compression spring. I can hear colleagues chuckling over this because I know we have all done it.
Why do we go to all that trouble? Why do we go to all that expense, $30 per pound at 65,000 pounds? Why do we tax our bodies and our brains? That question was answered eloquently for me at Steve’s memorial service. There is a mighty organ at Church of the Heavenly Rest, with plenty of power to support lusty singing, and ethereal affects for the most-tender moments. That organ is maintained by Jim Konzelman, a familiar figure in the New York metropolitan area. He was present for the service, and I know he had spent many hours the previous week preparing the organ for Steve’s service. So many of Steve’s friends were there to play it. So many of Steve’s friends were there to listen and to participate.
We do this work because the results move people. I was surely moved last Saturday. It was a special thrill to sing with other organ tuners. It occurred to me that hardly any choir can tune accidentals and leading tones as well as a choir of tuners, there was just something about it.
The memories of a lifetime of hard work have been in mind all week. I know I have shared the story of façade pipes in Cleveland in these pages before. It was the summer of 1977, between my junior and senior years at Oberlin, and my mentor Jan Leek and I joined a crew of Hollanders from Flentrop to install the marvelous three-manual organ at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio. Jan is a first generation Dutchman and was a great friend of the Flentrop firm. The mahogany case was erect, and we were installing the façade pipes. It is a sixteen-foot façade of polished tin, and the pipes are very heavy and require careful handling. I was wearing a harness that could have been used to carry a flagpole in a parade. The toes of those huge pipes sat in the cradle, and as a team we climbed ladders and hoisted from above, guiding the precious and massive pipes into place.
When the day was over and Jan and I were walking down the nave to leave the church, we turned to look at the organ and saw those spangly new pipes reflecting a brilliant blue and red wash of afternoon light coming through the stained-glass windows. I burst into tears.
That’s why we do this.