In the Wind. . .

December 28, 2019

When you blow through here, music comes out.

The long-running syndicated cartoon, The Family Circus, features a mother and father and four kids, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and P. J. One early episode had Daddy, Dolly, and Billy coming home after attending a game. Daddy was bedraggled, carrying a blanket; Dolly and Billy were excitedly carrying team banners as they shouted to Mom, “. . . and we each had a bottle of soda. Daddy brought his own in his pocket.” There are several circulating versions that show the family leaving church, with one of the kids saying something hilarious. My current favorite shows Billy holding a trumpet and pointing at the mouthpiece, explaining to the toddler P. J., “when you blow through here, music comes out.”

That’s the magic of the pipe organ. When you blow through here, music comes out. We refer to the organ as a keyboard instrument. Fair enough. But the keyboards are nothing but user interface. The organ is a wind instrument. I believe that you can tell by listening if the player thinks of it as a keyboard instrument or a wind instrument. The legends of Aeolus, the god who in Greek mythology is the divine keeper of the winds, and who has given his name to at least two organ companies, can provide a fanciful magical idea of the power of wind. But in fact, a musical tone coming from a single organ pipe with the Pythagorean overtone series intact is magic that can be explained scientifically and can be left in the background as the tone soars through the air toward the listeners’ ears.

But wait. Draw twenty stops and play a four-note chord. Now you have eighty of those Pythagorean masterpieces singing at once. As I write, my tuner’s ears tingle with delight. Eighty different sets of overtones, each in the myriad a perfect interval, all clanging against the tempered intervals imposed by the rigors of the keyboards. No miniscule inflection by bending a string with your finger or squeezing your lips around a reed to tweak something into exact tune, just the thrilling clangor of pure and tempered intervals pushing against each other. It is like combining chili pepper and honey to make sweet-and-sour sauce, or warm pastry and cold ice cream to make baked Alaska. Bourbon and vermouth, gin and tonic, peanut butter and jelly.

Wendy and I are in Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the new Noack organ at Saint Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill. We arrived on the first day of the public impeachment hearings in Congress, and we were interviewed by NPR and FOX News as we ate lunch in a pub. Text messages and emails poured in during the evening as friends and family heard Wendy speaking on All Things Considered.

I stopped in the church after lunch to greet Philippe Lefebvre, the recitalist, and Didier Grassin of the Noack Organ Company, and was privileged to walk through the organ with Didier as Philippe worked on registrations. Inside the organ is the worst place to listen for balance, but it sure is fun—all those trackers flitting about. There is no better place to be reminded of Billy’s quip, “When you blow in here, music comes out.” There’s a whole lot of blowing going on inside a big organ like that.

That ingenious business

So reads the title of Ray Brunner’s monograph about America’s only eighteenth-century organbuilder, David Tannenberg, who built his first organ in 1770. Recently, I visited a couple of organs in Germany built earlier than that, both huge ebullient ornate masterpieces located in stupendously decorated churches. But think of America in the 1770s. In Lexington, Massachusetts, Minutemen were skulking along behind stone walls, peppering British Redcoats with musket fire. The buildings were all four-sided, wood-framed structures. Fun-loving Puritans felt that putting decoration on a wall might inspire dancing, and only heaven knows what that might lead to. By comparison, the monks in the Abbey of Saint Martin in Weingarten must have had plenty of fun. Remember, Weingarten translates to “wine garden,” and the organbuilder Joseph Gabler was treated to enough wine to fill the largest organ pipe as a completion bonus.

Since those beautiful and simple organs of Tannenberg, we have had the robust organs of E. & G. G. Hook, the innovative and expressive instruments of the Skinner Organ Company, the amalgamated workhorse organs of M. P. Möller, the powerful renegade early organs of C. B. Fisk, the procession of “boutique” tracker builders like Taylor & Boody, Paul Fritts, and Richards, Fowkes & Co., and the serene majestic work of Schoenstein.

The Noack organ at St. Peter’s represents a large part of that progression. The company’s founder Fritz Noack learned the trade at Beckerath in Hamburg, Germany. He worked for Klaus Becker, Ahrend & Brumzema, and Charles Fisk before founding the eponymous company in 1960. Early Noack organs were experimental, among the first to reintroduce tracker action to the United States. Some were quirky, some were wind sick, some were spectacular. Along with Fisk, the Andover Organ Company, and a few others, Noack was reinventing the wheel, bringing centuries of knowledge to a new forum.

Fritz Noack told me that Main Street in Georgetown, Massachusetts, is the only street in the United States zoned specifically for pipe organ building, so designated when he applied for a variance to convert an old school building into a workshop. Entering the workshop, you encounter a photo gallery showing each instrument, up to Opus 162 at Saint Peter’s in Washington. One hundred sixty-two organs is an impressive life’s work, produced over fifty-nine years, with the Washington organ being the first to be produced entirely under the leadership of Didier Grassin. One hundred sixty-two organs that represent the last five decades of the organ in America. The designs evolve from simple and unadorned to a variety of lavishly decorated styles and show the development of an artist over a long career.

The organ at Saint Peter’s combines elements of all these styles. It has sensitive mechanical keyboard action, quick and silent electric-solenoid slider stop action, a sophisticated solid-state combination action, two effective enclosed divisions, a beautiful solid oak case, and an elegant detached console, perfectly placed to allow an organist to lead a choir and to sit back a few feet from the organ to better hear the balance between divisions.

Make straight in the desert a pathway . . .

You may think that the act of building an organ is only just that, building an organ, but in fact, that is the easy part. Behind every new organ there are years of discussing, negotiating, and compromising before the people of a church ever talk with an organbuilder. Providing an organ with a comfortable political base is the first challenge. One might think that the process of creating a work of art is simple. Choose an artist, pay the money, and sit back and watch—but no. Start with the organist who “needs” a Flûte Harmonique, and the organbuilder who says it will not fit. Continue with the architect who resents the imposition of something designed by others being plopped into his perfect space. And what about the priest who considers the organ a distraction from the liturgy? A harmonica and kazoo duet would be less intrusive.

American comedian Allen Sherman (1924–1973, famous for Hello mudda, hello fadda, here I am at Camp Grenada . . . .) created a hilarious parody of Peter and the Wolf that he sang with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, which included the quip, “. . . and we all know the saying that is true as well as witty, that a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.”

Next week, my colleague Amory Atkins and I are traveling to visit a future client to discuss the preparation of a large church building for the installation of a new organ. When we arrive at the church, we will have time to inspect the building before participating in a meeting with architects, engineers, clergy, and musicians, with eighteen people present. No one from the company that’s actually building the organ will be there so we will be representing them in a conversation that will include people bringing at least four different points of view to the table. Eighteen people.

This may seem unwieldy and wasteful, and in fact, it probably will be unwieldy. But the point of the meeting is at least parallel and in some ways unrelated to the building of the organ. The point of the meeting is to prepare a place for the organ, making “the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” It will be our job to produce a level floor (place a marble on the floor, and it will stand still), square walls, neat and smooth surfaces, and to create an environment for the organ that will be dry, clean, and have an even and reliable climate. If the floor is not level, the organ’s soft metal pipes will be first leaning, then bending, then crimping at the rackboards and falling over. If the floor is not level, the mechanical parts will operate with extra friction. If the floor is not level, the organ will look cockeyed. If there is not a reliable climate, the organ will not retain tuning, and soft parts will get moldy, hard parts will oxidize, and the whole system will slow down.

A living art

The art of organbuilding came alive for me again last night as we sat in Saint Peter’s Church. The evening began with a service of sung vespers. The church’s organist Kevin O’Brien led choirs of children and of adults through the world premieres of several settings of antiphons, and Bishop Michael Fisher of the Archdiocese of Washington blessed the organ:

Lord God, your beauty is ancient yet ever new, your wisdom guides the world in right order, and your goodness gives the world its variety and splendor. The choirs of angels join together to offer their praise by obeying your commands. The galaxies sing your praises by the pattern of their movement that follows your laws. The voices of the redeemed join in the chorus of praise to your holiness as they sing to you in mind and heart. We your people, joyously gathered in this church, wish to join our voices to the universal hymn of praise. So that our song may rise more worthily to your majesty, we present this organ for your blessing: grant that its music may lead us to express our prayer and praise in melodies that are pleasing to you.

There was a collective gasp from the organbuilders present as the bishop sprinkled holy water toward the organ. We were in about the fifth pew from the front, a hundred feet from the organ so we could not really see, but I guessed that the water did not actually hit the organ—I suppose the bishop had been coached—but I am sure some choir members went home blessed.

After an interval before the recital, the Reverend Gary Studniewski, the gregarious pastor of Saint Peter’s, addressed the congregation, referring to the long history of parishioners who “provided the means” for this organ and to the “passion of not a few” as he introduced Didier Grassin, president of the Noack Organ Company. Didier poetically compared the role of the organbuilder at the dedication to the boat builder who launches his product on the sea, or the parent who launches a child into the world—the organ enters the world with its unique voice, and “ultimately, its soul.”

He pointed out that the pipes that are visible, including thirty polished Principal façade pipes and forty-two horizontal Trumpet pipes, are among the 2,599 pipes in the organ, and he colorfully compared the nine hundred cubic-feet-per-minute capacity of the organ’s blower to the breath of three thousand people. I like the imagery of the organ and the singing congregation sharing the same body of air to produce their tones, which I believe is a metaphysical argument in favor of acoustic pipe organs. It seems natural to expand that image to give the organ a three-to-one advantage in breath capacity over a congregation of a thousand people. Use it wisely, you organists. No one likes a bully.

Didier concluded with the image of the organbuilder returning to the workshop, taking on the next project, knowing that the organ would be present for the people of the church, “Sunday after Sunday.”

Parish organist Kevin O’Brien reflected on the seventeen years that have passed between expression of a vision and the dedication of the new organ. He acknowledged his gratitude for the opportunity to work with the several priests who led that journey. He thanked the choir for their companionship and musicianship, expressing his love for them and calling them the “hardest working people on Capitol Hill.”

Philippe Lefebvre’s recital was sensitively chosen and masterfully played. Each piece had significant chromatic content, especially Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. He neatly demonstrated the difference between eighteenth-century French and German music by juxtaposing Louis Marchand’s “Grand Dialogue” from his Troisième livre d’orgue and Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (listed in the program as Fantaisie chromatique et fugue, transcription by Lefebvre)—the organ showed the majesty equal to both the French king and the German duke. While some organists might refuse to play Franck’s Choral in B Minor on an organ lacking a Vox Humana, Lefebvre dipped into alchemy and invented one by combining Oboe, a flute, a string, and a tremulant. Dupré’s Cortège et Litanie, Debussy’s Claire de Lune as transcribed by Lefebvre, and Duruflé’s Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain joined as tribute to great organists, now deceased, who were important to Lefebvre. The closing improvisation opened with a fugue, and moved from impudent to Messiaenic (watch your spelling), from majestic to ferocious, and from academic to fanciful, all built on the deep harmonic understanding of a real master of music.

Why are we here?

I was fed by the prayer of dedication offered by Bishop Fisher as it eloquently summed up fifteen centuries of sacred music. “So that our song may rise more worthily to your majesty,” we design and build these instruments, placing their voluminous lungs in support of singing congregations.

“So that our song may rise more worthily to your majesty,” we tune and maintain these organs, keeping their tones true and pure, and their mechanical systems function reliably in support of the efforts and skills of those who play them.

“So that our song may rise more worthily to your majesty,” we practice diligently to develop the skills you have given us, learning and polishing the familiar and creating new music to offer in your praise.

“So that our song may rise more worthily to your majesty,” we lead and train choirs who offer music of praise in times of sadness and jubilation.

“So that our song may rise more worthily to your majesty,” we gather to dedicate and celebrate a new organ, and return to our workshops and rehearsal rooms with alacrity to repeat the cycle of praise, preparing the instruments for leading worship and the music that will be played on them, expressing our prayer and praise in melodies that are pleasing to you.

photo credit: Didier Grassin