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In the Wind: One-stop shopping

March 23, 2023
Organ under construction
New organ under construction for Saint James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, La Jolla, California, Parsons Pipe Organ Builders (photo credit: John Bishop)

One stop shopping

The age of the internet has brought us a new world of shopping. Tap an icon on your phone, type a few letters in a search window, click “buy now,” and Bob’s your uncle. If you are buying something easily recognizable or definable, you are not likely to be disappointed, and if you are disappointed, most online retailers are good at managing returns or substitutions. I am concerned about the environmental cost of all that shipping, delivery, and packing materials. I am dumbfounded by how much bubble-wrap and how many air pillows I take out of oversized boxes to find the little thing I ordered. On the other hand, I am embarrassed to remember how many times I have left a workshop or jobsite to drive to a hardware store because I needed ten of a certain size of screw.

It is no surprise that UPS and FedEx are the two largest trucking companies in the United States, and I am willing to bet that Amazon will pass one of them now that they are building their own fleet of trucks. They cater to our Amazon and eBay habits, rushing essentials to us a day or two after we place an order. In Maine, we have a half-mile driveway, as do many of the houses on our rural road, so Phil, our UPS driver, has to drive a mile on our private road to deliver to our house. He typically arrives around 6:00 p.m., and it takes him two hours to finish his route after he leaves us.

There are two kinds of birds . . .

. . . those you can eat, and those you cannot. I maintain the website for the Organ Clearing House, updating it every couple weeks as organs come and go, and I receive all the inquiries generated by the “Contact” page. There are two kinds of inquiries, those from people who know about pipe organs and those who do not. They ask when it could be delivered; some have asked if next-day delivery is available. As it happens, no. It is not like ordering shirts from L. L. Bean where you check a box for a monogram and another to state that it is a gift. Maybe I should add boxes on our website so you can check boxes to choose Kirnberger, Werckmeister, or equal temperaments.

I correspond with dozens (hundreds?) of people each year who are wondering how to acquire a pipe organ. Only a fraction get traction, and I can often tell from the first email or phone call if it is not going to lead anywhere. When I receive an inquiry from an organist and we correspond several times without anyone else being mentioned, I ask if we could have a conference call with some other people from the church. That winnows out those who are dreaming and have not mentioned the idea to anyone else.

I think the inquiry from someone who admits to not knowing much but sincerely wants to acquire an organ is a special responsibility. I try to respect their intention while at the same time describing the process clearly. In those instances, the first issue is almost always cost. During a preliminary conversation, I cannot be specific about the potential cost of an organ for a given church, but I can say that a modest-sized organ for a local church costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Often enough, that is the end of a conversation, but if we get past that barrier, we can start to get creative.

Sometimes, initial inquiries refer to specific organs on our website, listing three or four instruments that have nothing in common. Once again, this is not like ordering shirts. We need to have a thoughtful conversation about what would constitute an ideal organ for a given church. We need to consider architecture and engineering. The organ should complement, even improve the interior of the church, and the building must safely sustain the weight of the organ. We need to consider the musical traditions and preferences of the parish. Is strong hymn singing the main goal? Complicated and sophisticated choral accompaniment? Recital literature? How might the placement of the organ enhance the church’s worship? What should the organ include to make it as useful as possible?

For many congregations, these are questions that are best answered with the help of an organ consultant, independent of the urge to promote a particular builder or type of organ. The most important role of the consultant is to educate a church’s organ committee or task force so they know what to ask when finally talking with potential organ builders.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Most of the conversations that lead to the purchase of an organ involve my making a site visit, which is the only way for me to get an accurate sense of a building and its community. I charge a fee plus travel expenses—a church’s willingness to bear some expense clarifies their intent. During those visits, I have my eyes open for where an organ might be placed. The location of the existing or previous organ might not be the best place in a room for an organ. I think of this as harvesting space. Where could we place a blower and wind supply? Where should the console be placed so the organist can see the choir, the clergy at the altar, and the bride waiting at the back of the church? Where should the organ be placed so its sound projects well, so it is safe from roof failures, so it looks its best? How can we ensure that the organ will be surrounded and supplied by temperate air to promote stable tuning? Answers to all these questions inform me and the people of the church as to what would bring the best result.

Tracker or electric?

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published in 1952, and the New Testament was further revised in 1972. My father, rector of my home church, was introducing the new revision when a parishioner famously declared, “If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” I supposed she did not realize that Jesus could hardly have been aware of a book published in 1611.

Many organists have strong opinions about what type of organ they prefer or prefer not to play. “If a tracker organ was good enough for Bach, it’s good enough for me.” Before about 1900, there was no choice. Every organ had mechanical action, and every organ was hand pumped. There are countless examples of ancient organs that were placed in the ubiquitous rear gallery, high up on the central axis of the room. I suppose many of them were built without anyone wondering where the organ would go.

The introduction of electric actions and electric blowers at the beginning of the twentieth century introduced a new world of possibility for organ placement. The keyboards no longer needed to be physically attached to the body of the organ; a console could even be placed hundreds of feet from the instrument. It became common in England and the United States to place an organ on either side of a church’s chancel, with the choir divided between the two sides, and the console placed on one side. With electric playing actions that plan became very common, and as I wrote in the March issue of this journal, when my home parish was facing the end of time for its 1905 “chancel plan” Skinner, they chose to install a mechanical-action organ by C. B. Fisk, Inc., in a new rear gallery. That is a room of Gothic style and proportions, so the classic placement in a rear gallery was very effective.

That church, the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, Massachusetts, has two classic locations that are ideal for organ placement. Perhaps the next organ there will be another chancel plan job. After all, the Fisk will be fifty years old next year. But it is more usual for a modern American church to have only one proper spot for an organ if there is space for a pipe organ at all.

Many church buildings cannot accommodate a mechanical-action pipe organ, no matter how much the organist might want one, but in those that could have either type, there is plenty of room for discussion. Well-built modern tracker-action organs are not clunky and awkward to play, and even very large organs with mechanical action allow ease of control and expression. They can have electric stop actions with complex combination actions, and some modern builders produce dual-registration systems with both mechanical and electric stop actions.

Electric and electro-pneumatic organs allow lots of versatility of registration and freedom of placement. You can have special effects like antiphonal or echo divisions, and you can “borrow” stops from one place to another using unit actions. Thousands of small unit organs with three or four ranks of pipes spread across multiple keyboards at many pitches have been built, and they are useful in many situations, but in larger electric-action organs, there are useful borrows, also called duplexes, made famous by Ernest Skinner and other innovative twentieth-century builders that do not compromise the integrity of the organ’s choruses. One of Mr. Skinner’s classic borrows is found in a Swell division with an 8′ Trumpet and maybe 4′ Clarion along with 8′ Oboe. The Oboe is extended to 16′ pitch and made to be playable independently in the Pedal at 16′ and 4′ pitches. That one rank forms the quiet solo voice on the Swell, the 16′ member of the Swell reed chorus, a gentle 16′ reed for the Pedal, especially useful as it is under expression, and a 4′ Pedal solo reed, ideal as the cantus firmus in a Baroque chorale prelude, with tremulant. That is a lot of bang for the buck. If there was space and budget for an independent 16′ reed, Mr. Skinner often included a Waldhorn 16′ that was duplexed to the Pedal.

Who’s going to build it?

Addressing all those issues and answering all those questions informs the organ committee as to which organbuilders should be asked for proposals. If the building could accommodate both tracker or electric-action organs, you would do well to have proposals for each. This is when your consultant can be most useful, guiding you through a list of possible companies considering their strengths and weaknesses.

Last summer, we replaced the roof and painted our house in Maine. Contractors visited to give us estimates, taking a few measurements, and scribbling on a pad taken from the dashboard of the pickup truck. There was no charge to us, and almost no cost to the contractor to provide those estimates.

It does not work like that when estimating the cost of a new organ or organ renovation. The builder will spend at least a day studying the building, several days if it is a large building and a potentially complex organ. Besides the time spent on the road, there are travel and lodging expenses. All that is followed by many days back at the workshop calculating, sketching, drawing, and writing. It is common for an organbuilder to invest $10,000 or more to develop a serious proposal for a large organ. Who should bear that expense? When soliciting proposals, some churches offer to reimburse travel expenses. Some organbuilders respond to invitations by asking for a fee.

How many proposals do you need? If an organ committee is well educated and can choose builders who are well suited for the project at hand, three should be enough. If the church feels the need to compare more than three proposals, they should be prepared to pay fully for all of them to avoid spending people’s time unnecessarily. As an organbuilder and organ contractor, I relish the opportunity to work with a thoughtful and well-prepared committee, even if I do not get the job, and I appreciate their respect for my time and effort.

Go Yuja.

A few months ago, I wrote about a concert Wendy and I attended at Tanglewood, when the scheduled piano soloist was replaced by the brilliant young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang playing a piano concerto by Liszt. I have been following Ms. Wang on social media for years; she has a formidable presence on Facebook where she (or someone working with her) posts videos of her performances, photos of her terrific (some say outlandish) performance costumes, and photos of her at leisure, always glamorous, always smiling.

On Saturday, January 28, Ms. Wang stunned the music world with her marathon performance of all four of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin at Carnegie Hall. But wait, there’s more. She also played Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Five of the most monumental and difficult of all compositions written for piano and orchestra were presented in a single four-and-a-half-hour concert. 

In his review published on January 29, Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times wrote, “She didn’t seem to have broken a sweat—neither on her face nor in her music-making, which had been calmly dazzling all the way through the final flourish of the Third Concerto at the program’s end.” “Calmly dazzling.” How many of us would like to be described that way? You can read the entire review at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/29/arts/music/yuja-wang-rachmaninoff-ca…;

Woolfe continued, “To these scores’ vast demands she brought both clarity and poetry. She played with heft but not bombast, sentiment but not schmalz. Her touch can certainly be firm, but not a single note was harsh or overly heavy; her prevailing style is sprightly, which is why the concert didn’t feel like eating five pieces of chocolate cake in a row.”

After all that, her encore was “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo et Euridice, a simple, tender melody that floated from her huge piano like the smell of a flower garden on a gentle breeze. The last paragraph of Woolfe’s review is a lovely comment on the juxtaposition of unimaginable virtuosity and stunning concert attire. Go read it for yourself.

I do not know the name of the technician who prepared that piano for this incredible concert. Although Zachary Woolfe promises that Ms. Wang does not bang on the keys, she sure gives them a workout. The speed of repeated notes, the breathtaking passages in octaves, and the clarity of the instrument in tender moments would not be possible without a brilliant technician. And after four-and-a-half hours of the most vigorous playing, the tuning of the piano was still “concert fresh” for the sweet little Gluck encore. We know the stories about how Franz Liszt had a spare piano ready for the second half of the concert because he beat the daylights out of the first one. How he would have loved to play on Ms. Wang’s Steinway.1

I comment frequently to friends and colleagues and in writing about how fortunate we are to have so many brilliant virtuosos playing the organ. Like Ms. Wang and her Rachmaninoff, those organists blaze through the most difficult works of Reger and Demessieux without breaking a sweat. It is exciting to have the intricacies and majesty of those seemingly unattainable works revealed to ordinary listeners. Let’s keep building organs for them to play.


1. In the February 2021 issue of The Diapason, I wrote about Nanette Streicher,  “who built Beethoven’s pianos.” She inherited a piano factory from her father at the time when artists like Beethoven were venturing out of private salons and into concert halls seating 800 or 1,000. Realizing that pianos of that time were not adequate for developing virtuoso playing or for projecting in larger halls, Streicher increased the scaling of strings in her pianos that made necessary heavier cases and stronger interior bracing and frames. Her innovations led to today’s powerful instruments.

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