The seat of the Bishop
I’ve always been a sucker for construction equipment. The other day I was walking up Second Avenue in New York, where a new subway line is under construction, and although I was on a schedule moving between appointments I couldn’t help but stop for five minutes to watch an enormous crane lowering an electrical transformer the size of a UPS truck into a hole in the street. You can read about this massive project on the website of the Metropolitan Transit Authority at <A HREF="http://www.mta.info/cap
constr/sas/">www.mta.info/capconstr/sas/"</A>. (sas refers to Second Avenue Subway!) I’ve been involved in a consultation project in New York that has led me to learn something about the city’s utility system, and I’ve seen maps and photos that show an underground labyrinth of train, maintenance, and utility tunnels, and electrical, gas, and steam lines. It seems unlikely that there’s any dirt left under the streets of the city. Knowing something about that subterranean maze helps me understand just a little of how complicated it must be to create a new tunnel some four miles long, and sixteen new underground stations. And hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt, stone, and rubble removed to create the tunnel has to be trucked across the city’s congested streets and river bridges to be dumped.
It’s a massive project that’s made possible by millions of dollars worth of heavy equipment, including my crane, tunnel-boring machines, payloaders, dump trucks, and heaven knows what else. Equipment like this has been improved immensely in the last 20 years by advances in hydraulic technology. The principal of hydraulics is that specially formulated oil (I know the root of hydraulic refers to water) is pressurized in cylinders, that pressure being great enough to lift heavy loads, turn rotary motors, or steer huge articulated equipment. Without these advances we wouldn’t have Bobcats, those snazzy little diggers with cabs like birdcages that can turn on a dime.
Sometime around the year 1250, the great cathedral in Chartres was completed. Nearly 800 years later it still stands as one of the great monuments to religious faith in the world. Tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists visit there every year. The cathedral houses one of Christendom’s most revered relics, the Sancta Camisa, reputed to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at the time of Christ’s birth. (Camisa and camisole come from the same root.) There is a labyrinth more than 40 feet in diameter laid in stone in the floor of the nave. The path of the labyrinth is about 13 inches wide and about 860 feet long (about a sixth of a mile), all twisted upon itself within the confines of the diameter. The towers are 300 and 350 feet tall, the ceiling of the nave is 121 feet off the floor, and the floor plan has an area of nearly 120,000 square feet, which is close to two-and-a-half acres.
Thousands and thousands of tons of stone lifted to great heights, and not a hydraulic cylinder in sight. The challenge and effort of building something like that with twelfth- and thirteenth-century technology is breathtaking. Most of us have been inside tall buildings, and most of us have been in airplanes, so we as a society are used to looking down on things. But imagine Guillaume, the thirteenth-century construction worker, coming home after a long day, flopping into a chair, taking a hearty pull from a mug of cider, and describing to his wife how that afternoon he had looked down on a bird in flight—the first man in town to be up that high!
On December 27, 1892, the cornerstone was laid for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, one of only a few twentieth-century stone Gothic cathedrals. Celebrated as one of the largest Christian churches in world—the overall interior length of 601 feet is the longest interior measurement of any church building—it serves its modern congregation, hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors, and as the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, it serves as a national centerpiece to the denomination.
While the full interior dimensions of the building have been completed, much of both the interior and exterior remain incomplete. The central tower, the transepts, much of the interior finish stonework, and the two west-end towers were never built, and the building carries the popular moniker, St. John the Unfinished. Given the staggering cost of this kind of construction, there are no plans for the completion of the building. Perhaps this stunning building stands as a metaphor for us who are all incomplete before God.
Two years ago the Organ Clearing House was privileged to work with the artisans of Quimby Pipe Organs installing the restored Aeolian-Skinner organ in the two chancel organ chambers, nearly 100 feet off the floor of the nave. We spent some three months in the building, working with humbling towers of scaffolding and an electric hoist that would have been the envy of those men in thirteenth-century Chartres. We had rare opportunities to see that grand building from angles not open to the general public—somehow a hundred feet seems higher indoors than out. And we witnessed some of the challenges of maintaining such a huge building. Fixing a roof leak is a big deal when you’re 150 feet up! That the cathedral’s administration can manage all this is hardly short of a miracle.
There’s a peculiar type of quiet present in such a building. The interior space is large enough that true quiet is probably impossible. When it’s very quiet inside, one is aware of the distant sounds of the city, and even of a kind of interior wind blowing. Sitting in the nave or the Great Choir in this special quiet, I imagine the hustle and bustle of construction: how workers managed 60-foot granite pillars that were quarried in Vinalhaven, Maine, transported to New York on barges, and hauled across the city by steam-powered tractors in 1903; how workers hoisted tons of precisely cut stones to form the fabric of the vaulted ceilings; how workers created stone spiral stairways inside the cathedral’s walls leading to such places as organ chambers; and how workers created the ornate spectacular 10-ton marble pulpit—festooned with such delicate carvings that during the installation of the organ we built a heavy plywood barricade around it so as not to damage it with a battering-ram in the form of a 32-foot organ pipe!
And let’s not forget what could be considered the real work—the evangelizing, preaching, persuading, and cajoling necessary to raise the money for all this, unfinished or not.
A house for all people
Why do we go to all this trouble? This cathedral has been host to countless extraordinary events, held there because of the extraordinary scale and dignity of the place. Twelve-thousand-five-hundred people attended the funeral of Duke Ellington in 1974. (I wonder how much the cathedral organist had to do with that.) In 1986 Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who had walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, performed his work Ascent inside the cathedral, accompanied by the music of the Paul Winter Consort. Petit is listed on every service bulletin as one of the cathedral’s artists-in-residence. In the documentary film about his twin-tower feat, <i>Man on Wire</i>, Petit wore a “Cathedral of St. John the Divine” t-shirt.
In 1986, Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached an anti-apartheid sermon. In 1990, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and the rest of the Muppets helped celebrate the life of their creator, Jim Henson. In 1997, South African President Nelson Mandela preached at a memorial service for anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. And in 2000, New York Mayor John Lindsay’s funeral packed the place. My wife Wendy attended that service and came home raving about how cathedral organist Dorothy Papadakos had played the crowd out at the end of the service with Leonard Bernstein’s tune, <i>New York, New York, It’s a Wonderful Town</i> (immortalized by Frank Sinatra), complete with fanfares from the State Trumpet under the west end rose window—perfect.
We need special places like that for events like those.
Wendy and I have been in New York for two months, living in an apartment in Greenwich Village we’ve borrowed from my parents’ next-door neighbors. While Wendy has been working with editors in publishing companies promoting the manuscripts produced by her clients, the Organ Clearing House has tuned a few organs, and dismantled a marvelous, pristine E. M. Skinner organ from a closed church building in the Bronx for relocation to the new worship space of an active Lutheran parish in Iowa, to be restored by Jeff Weiler & Associates of Chicago. Last year we renovated and relocated a 1916 Casavant organ to a church in Manhattan—the dedication recital is in a couple days, and we spent the last week tweaking and tuning it in preparation.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is on my mind because we attended Evensong there last Sunday evening. It was a beautiful service, loaded with music, prayer, scripture, and a moving sermon. We sat in the ornately carved oak pews of the Great Choir, surrounded by magnificent decoration and in the midst of a modest congregation. The choir’s singing was wonderful, the organ was played with true inspiration, and I was aware that we were participating in regular weekly worship in that place where so many of the world’s most powerful and revered figures have led and participated in worship. The sense that the place equipped to welcome thousands to a huge event is open and welcoming to us on an ordinary Sunday afternoon was moving to me. You don’t often sing hymns in the presence of an organ with 150 ranks.
A study in scale
Some months ago I brought a group of friends to see the cathedral. Organist Stephen Tharp was practicing in preparation for his presentation of the complete organ works of Jeanne Demessieux. As we listened, I told them a little about the size, resources, and complexity of the organ, and one asked me why you would need so many stops. I pointed out ornate decorations throughout the building—carved pews, filigreed lamps, Gothic arches and vaults, tiled stairways, wrought-iron gates, bronze medallions inlaid in the floor—and suggested that such a large organ complements a building with more than a dozen chapels and all this finery. We love the sound of a string celeste. It’s even better to have two celestes to choose from. But this organ has eight sets of celestes—unimaginable wealth, especially when you consider that all the celeste ranks except the Swell Unda Maris go all the way to low C! When an organist moves skillfully around this organ, the range of tone colors seems limitless—a kaleidoscope of tone color, with a range of volume from the roar of thunder to a barely audible whisper—exactly in scale with the size and decoration of the building itself.
And cathedral organist Bruce Neswick did just that in his improvised closing voluntary last Sunday—he morphed away from the tune of the recessional hymn into a harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated fantasy, gave a climactic fanfare on the State Trumpet, then melted seamlessly from the robust full organ to the whisper of that Unda Maris. You could hardly tell when the music stopped.
When the installation of the renovated organ was completed and the organ had been given a chance to “settle in,” the cathedral presented a series of dedicatory recitals by such distinguished artists as Daniel Roth, Olivier Latry, Gerre Hancock, Thierry Escaich, and Peter Conte. What a thrill to hear such programs on such an organ. But take it from me, Neswick shares that organ with the Sunday afternoon congregation as if the Queen was in attendance. Perhaps it’s his joy of sitting on the bench of such a distinguished and stunning instrument. Perhaps it’s his sense of the privilege of presenting music in worship in such a place. Certainly it made me feel like royalty to be so treated, the tariff being what I chose to drop in the basket during the offertory.
Another example of the relationship between the scale of the building and the scale of the organ is the State Trumpet—a single eight-foot rank of trumpet pipes mounted horizontally under the rose window facing east down the length of the nave. This must be the most famous single organ stop in the world. It plays on wind pressure of 50 inches—something like the pressure of the air in a tractor tire, and nothing like the levels of pressure commonly used in organs. The pipes are shackled in place to prevent them from launching as missiles down the nave. And there’s an octave of dummy 16-foot bass pipes. They don’t speak—they’re there to make the rank of pipes look like something in that vast space. The thing is majestic. It’s almost 600 feet from the organ console—two football fields. It would take a little more than six seconds to cover that distance in a car traveling at 60 miles per hour. It seems as though you can draw the stop, play a note, and eat a sandwich before the sound reaches your ears. (No mayo on the keys, please.) The sound is broad and powerful, sonorous and thrilling. There can be no building better suited to enclose such a sound.
But here’s the problem. When the new State Trumpet was introduced in the cathedral as part of the 1954 expansion and rebuilding of the organ by Aeolian-Skinner, every ambitious organist wanted one. And too many organists got their wish. Today there are hundreds of modest parish churches cursed with the sound of a too-loud but not-too-good Trompette en Chamade, searing the airways six feet above the too-big hair of the bride and her attendants. The proud organist can’t get enough of it, but everyone else can. Just because St. John the Divine has one, the pretty church on the town square doesn’t need one.
It’s a matter of scale
All of us who have toiled in the vineyards of church music have experienced the “big productions” of our parishes—a Christmas pageant, the wedding of the pastor’s daughter, Easter Sunday with trumpets and timpani. Imagine the big production for the cathedral organist. The country’s president might be attending a memorial service. National television cameras are often present. And on a festive Sunday morning, 1,800 people might come to the altar to receive Communion. That’s a lot of noodling around with <i>Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees</i>.
Our two months in New York have brought lots of great experiences, dozens of subway rides, and the rich experience of getting familiar with all that a great city has to offer. I encourage and invite you to visit the city and to hear some of the great organs and great organists in some of the world’s great churches. Start with St. John the Divine, and work your way around town. The New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists has a fine website with a calendar of events.
And after Tuesday’s recital, I’m looking forward to going home next week where there really is dirt under the streets.
Photos of St. John the Divine courtesy Quimby Pipe Organs.