The Future of the Pipe Organ

During the year 1999 and on into the beginning of the new century, the question about the future of the pipe organ was the subject of lively discussions at various organ gatherings throughout Europe, as well as the United States. Probably the turn of the century provided the right occasion for bringing up this debate. I was invited to speak at one of these events in Switzerland, along with 3 other well- known organ-builders.

When I prepared for this occasion I realized that there is really no clear answer to the question. Then, after listening to the statements by my colleagues, my assumption was confirmed. One can say that a little of everything is being built these days: from style copies to historical imitations, to contemporary design. Furthermore, all systems, such as mechanical, electric, pneumatic or others are being used. All different musical styles from French, to German or baroque are evident. Obviously, each of these different types of organ has its admirers; otherwise there would be no demand for them.

Our concern is that not enough wholly contemporary organs are being built these days. Where is the creativity for organ cases of stunning contemporary design? Such designs are not easy to realize, for it is in fact very difficult to fit an organ into the various styles of architecture organ-builders are confronted with.

disney_model_03Since most of us have been trained as organ-builders and not as designers or architects, this creates a problem in the profession, but one with a relatively simple solution. Why not use the professionals who do indeed have the required knowledge about architecture and style as well as the skills needed to carry out good design? The organ-builder can supply the architect or designer with the parameters he has to consider. We have been doing this for several years now and are very pleased with the results of this co-operation. Of course, organs do not have to look like the Walt Disney Concert Organ designed by Frank O. Gehry in order to be labeled contemporary. There are unlimited possibilities for designs and detail. Although we are a relatively young company, we do have a few interesting examples of contemporary organ design to show. You are welcome to look at our web-site. ( )

We are also attempting to spark interest in sculpture- like organs for public buildings or other large spaces. Such instruments could be used as decorative eye-catchers, but still serve the more conventional function of an organ – mainly to make music. Many people do not realize that an organ does not only play Bach or accompany weddings, funerals and the like, but can also be used for jazz or other forms of more contemporary music.

Pipe-organs are usually associated with church by the majority of people, but there is a welcome trend these days to put organs into new concert halls and conservatories. I just wish they would be more visually spectacular. But I think there is hope that in the future more interesting looking and beautifully sounding organs will be built !

picture of the Disney Hall organ taken from Glatter-Götz website. Organ design by Frank O. Gehry.

© 2000 Caspar von Glatter-Götz

Organbuilding in the Middle Rhine Tradition

The full essay with links to historic organs restored by Oberlinger can be seen here.

The Usual Narrow Focus of the History of German Organbuilding

When international organ experts discuss the German tradition of organbuilding, significantly not more than two outstanding names of historic organbuilders, each one of them symbolizing a well-known historic organ style are mentioned: Arp Schnitger, representing the Baroque organ of Northern Germany, and Gottfried Silbermann, the principal builder in the Thuringian-Saxonian organ style, who is also connected closely with the famous name of Johann Sebastian Bach.

This somewhat narrow focus to the rich and sophisticated history of German organbuilding, neglecting the different styles of other regions, is based on the early “Orgelbewegung” in the 1920’s.

The Discovery of the Middle Rhine Organbuilding Tradition

The scientific and musical interest in other German organ styles came into being at least one generation later. The historic organ style to be introduced here, the “Middle Rhine Tradition”, was first discovered by Franz Boesken, who began his research for his monumental Middle Rhine Organ Survey in the late 1940’s. The result of his laudable life’s work, interrupted by his early and sudden death in 1978, is remarkable:

  • A monograph about the organbuilders Stumm, the most important historic workshop of our region, that existed for 6 generations.

  • Three volumes of his Middle Rhine Organ Survey with more than 2500 pages (the third one published posthumously). The fourth volume, containing more than 1000 pages, will be published in 2000 or 2001, more than two decades after his death.

  • A couple of essays about several organs and organbuilders, and about the foreign influences to the Middle Rhine Organbuilding.

Surely, the most important contribution by Franz Boesken was founding a basis for further research on the organbuilding history of the Middle Rhine in the following decades. In the 1990’s, three doctoral theses about three historic organbuilding workshops of the Middle Rhine were published:

  • “Die Orgelbauwerkstatt Schöler in Bad Ems” by Jürgen Rodeland, Musikverlag Emil Katzbichler, Munich/Salzburg 1991.

  • “Die Orgelbauwerkstatt Dreymann in Mainz” by Achim Seip, Orgelbau-Fachverlag Rensch, Lauffen a. N. 1993.

  • “Die Orgelbauerfamilien Engers und Schlaad in Walslaubersheim bei Bingen” by Manfred Wittelsberger, Musikverlag Emil Katzbichler, Munich/Salzburg 1994.

These three monographs complement one another to a cross-section through the Middle Rhine organbuilding tradition of two and a half centuries: from the founding of the Schöler workshop in 1748 (closed in the third generation in 1837), to the change of style in the 19th century (Dreymann, two generations working 1821-1862), to one of the longest surviving traditional manufacturers in the late 19th century (Engers and Schlaad, working 1810-1892, building mechanical slider chests until 1892).

The complete articulation of the Middle Rhine tradition has not been finished, and will never be finished. However, our actual knowledge at the beginning of the third millennium enables us to confirm that the tradition of organbuilding in the Middle Rhine is no less interesting than the traditions that gained scientific and musical interest previously in the 1920’s.

middle_rhine_mapGeographical Definition

Before discussing the style features of Middle Rhine organbuilding, it is useful to define this area more precisely. The special meaning of “Middle Rhine”, i. e. the river valley between Bingen and Koblenz, containing some well-known tourist sites of interest like the famous Loreley Rock, would be too narrow as far as organbuilding is concerned. The Middle Rhine in this narrow sense is marked in red in the map at right. Franz Boesken had in mind a larger area that formed more or less a cultural unity in the recent centuries. This area, indicated roughly in the ellipse, is almost identical with the actual State of Rheinland-Pfalz, except its southern region, enlarged by the southern and western regions of the State of Hessen. The middle part of the Rhine river, including the navigable parts of its tributaries (Moselle, Lahn, and Main, the latter only till Frankfurt/Offenbach/Hanau) has been the infrastructural lifeline of our area.

The Most Important Historic Organbuilders of the Middle Rhine

The red circle in the map shows the location of Oberlinger Bros. Organ Building Company, that has been operating in Windesheim since 1860.(…more about the history of our firm).

The green circles indicate the locations of the most important organ building workshops of the region, all of them historic, and no longer in production:

  • Johann Wilhelm Schöler, Christian Ernst Schöler and Philipp Gottlieb Heil in Bad Ems, in the east of Koblenz (1748-1837).
  • Johann Conrad Bürgy and his sons in Bad Homburg vor der Höhe, in the north of Frankfurt (founded in 1764), split up in the 19th century to several successors in different cities, among them Carl Landolt in Alzey.
  • Two dynasties of organbuilders in Trier (near the border to Luxembourg, city name not indicated in the map): Jean Nollet (early 18th century), his son Romanus Benedikt Nollet, and Wilhelm Breidenfeld and his sons in the 19th century.
  • The large dynasty of Stumm in the village of Rhaunen-Sulzbach (in the eastern area of the red circle), working in 6 generations from ca. 1714/21 till ca. 1896.
  • Engers and Schlaad in Waldlaubersheim (1 mile north of Windesheim), working 1810-1892.
  • Many dynasties in Mainz, the capital city of Rheinland-Pfalz: Heinrich Traxdorf in the 1440’s, the Geissel family in the 17th century, Johann Jakob Dahm (naturalization in Mainz in 1698), Johann Anton Ignaz Will (since 1708), since 1727 Johannes Kohlhaas (father and son with the same name), also in the 18th century Johann Onimus and his nephew Joseph Anton Onimus, succeeded by the organbuilders Flügel, Franz Ripple, and in 1821 Bernhard Dreymann and his son Hermann, succeeded by Finkenauer & Embach until the late 1860’s.
  • Many dynasties in Frankfurt: Brother Leonhardus Merz (second half of 15th century), the Graurock family in the late 16th and early 17th century, Johann Christian Köhler (naturalization in Frankfurt in 1753), after his early death in 1761 his fellow Johann Georg Linck until 1762, from 1762 on Köhler’s stepson Philipp Ernst Weegmann, and later, the latter’s son Johann Benedikt Weegmann.
  • Johann Georg Geib, until 1790 in Saarbrücken in the very south of our region, and since 1790 in Frankenthal (between Mainz and Mannheim).

Cultural Character

The mind-set of the people living in the Middle Rhine area has been influenced by several typical features of the region.

The Rhine river, a strong traffic lifeline, has given them the opportunity to contact their neighbours easily, and to be influenced by them, for hundreds of years. As far as organbuilding is concerned, the style has developed continuously by the integration of foreign characteristics. Many organ builders travelled along the Rhine river into the region, and enriched it with ideas they had learned in their home countries. In the 15th and 16th century, the main organbuilding influence came from the Netherlands. Later, from the 17th until the 19th century, the region received important influences from France and Alsace, from Switzerland, and from Westfalia. Needless to say, Middle Rhine organbuilders influenced their neighbours, too.

The largest cities along the Rhine river and its tributaries have an extremely rich history. Founded by the Romans two millennia ago, they became centers of cultural life in the following centuries, documented for example by the large cathedrals. The most important cities to be mentioned here are:

  • On the Rhine river, from the north to the south: Cologne, Mainz, Worms and Speyer (not indicated on the map, both between Mainz and Mannheim), and Strasbourg.

  • On the western border of the area: Trier on the Moselle river (indicated as a green circle near the border to Luxembourg).

All of these cities have been flowering centers of culture, arts and handcraft, and most of them were resident to dynasties of organbuilders.

Last, but not least, the region is characterized by its fertility, especially for vineyards. Some important German wine regions, each of them with their own, sophisticated character, are located here: The “Rheingau” (on the north bank of the short horizontal part of the Rhine between Wiesbaden and Ruedesheim), “Rheinhessen” (in the southwest of Mainz), “Moselle”, and “Nahe”.

The triangle of the river lifeline, the history, and the fertility of nature, determines the character of the people living in the Middle Rhine area: They are open-minded for cultural influences, they are proud of their rich history, and they enjoy their life.

Features of the Middle Rhine Organbuilding Style

It is not possible in this brief introduction to show the wide, sophisticated variety of the Middle Rhine organbuilding tradition in detail.

The typical features of Middle Rhine organs are these:

Site of the divisions and the playing console: From the second half of the 18th century on, almost all Middle Rhine organs have lateral playing consoles, and their facades are part of the balustrade of the gallery. This kind of organ installation provides many advantages: Best acoustical conditions for the direct, and unreflected development of the organ sound; best visibility of the organ, causing a nice harmony of the church and organ architecture, simple mechanical action, and good visual contact of the organist to the altar area.

In most Middle Rhine organs, the pedal division is located behind the organ case. It has few pipe ranks, all of them made from wood, and giving a fundamental sound basis. The manual divisions are located in the visible organ case. Their windchests can be installed in a vertical sequence (usually the Great in top, and the Positive under the Great), or in an horizontal one, but never behind each other.

Location in the church room: This depends on the confession. In historic Catholic churches, the organ is always installed in the rear (west) gallery. In some Evangelical churches, the organ is located in the direct view of the church visitors, and is part of the architectural unity “altar-pulpit-organ”, representing the theological terms “sacrament-word-praise”.

Casework and ornaments: Of course, the casework design changed in the 19th century, and became supraregional in these times. Therefore, a typical Middle Rhine organ architecture can only be described for the 18th century. All Baroque and Rococo organbuilders in the Middle Rhine area used a kind of modular system for the architectural design of their organ cases. The basic elements of this system are few forms or pipe fields and pipe towers: Round towers (in our area always based on a semicircle), pinted towers (triangle basis), segmented towers (rarely, and only in the early 18th century), flat towers, and – very typical – flat fields and towers in harp shape. All these elements can be combined with each other in very different orders and sizes. This gives the Middle Rhine organ cases a great variety, that differs from the more standardized architecture of other regions, for example Northern Germany. Also, the modular system enabled most of the organbuilders in the Middle Rhine region to elaborate a well distinguished personal style.

The ornaments were usually carved from lime wood. Our typical ornaments are pipe shades, and large wings (in German: “Ohren” = ears) on both sides of the facade. As distinct from many Baroque organ cases in Southern Germany (Bavaria) and Austria, the ornaments never overgrow the architectural “modular system” structure. In this point of view, the Middle Rhine style stays between the standardized, “Evangelical” style of Northern Germany and the overflowing, “Catholic” one of the Bavarian-Austrian region.

Some Middle Rhine organ cases built until the 1760’s have large carved statues, for example King David playing his harp. In the following decades, smaller figurines were carved, and even later, these disappeared as well.

The front pipes are usually made from 78 % tin, with decorative raised lips, and are neither gilded or painted.

Technical system: Usually, the Middle Rhine organ builders of the 18th and 19th century worked very traditionally in the technical point of view, building mechanical slider chests until the very end of the 19th century (for instance Johannes Schlaad, who never built cone chests). However, they didn’t totally reject new inventions. Some examples:

  • In 1870, the young 6th generation of the Stumm family built their first cone chest, while their father made a business trip, and afterwards, all Stumm organs were built with mechanical cone chests.
  • Bernhard Dreymann built only one cone chest (Pedal division in Gau-Algesheim, 1853). However, he sometimes built an innovative slider chest construction: The “durchschobene Lade”, a common windchest for two divisions with an alternating sequence of the ranks of both divisions.
  • Johannes Schlaad received a patent for his invention “Windlade für Orgelwerke mit einer Klaviatur”, a windchest for organs with one manual, enabling the organist to switch quickly from a loud registration to a soft one, and the other way round.
  • The second generation of Breidenfeld invented a mechanical registercancel chest with vertical balanced lever pallets, a strange curiosity.

Specifications and typical stops: The specifications of Middle Rhine organs built in the 18th, and early 19th century have some common features, even in the smallest organs.

  • The principal chorus of the Great division is always complete: In small specifications 4′ + 3′ + 2′ + Mixture, in larger ones + 8′, in largest ones + 16′. Many principal choruses also contain the Third (1 3/5′). The Quint 1 1/3′ in Positive divisions repeats on 3rd c to 3′.
  • The flute chorus contains at least a Stopped Diapason 8′ (called “Gedackt”, or “Bourdon”, or “Copula”, or “Rohrflöte”, etc.) and a Flute 4′. A very typical Middle Rhine stop is the “Flaut travers 8′ Treble”, built in sophisticated varieties by different organbuilders. For example: pear tree wood, not overblowing (Stumm family), or tin, different pipe body forms, semicircular upper lip, overblowing and/or sharp (beating stop, Schöler family).
  • The reed stops are usually Trompete 8′ (evtl. + Vox humana 8′) in the Great, Krummhorn and/or Vox humana 8′ in the Positive, and Posaune 16′ with full-length wooden resonators in the Pedal. A typical Middle Rhine reed stop that only can be found here is Vox angelica 2′ Bass (in the first two octaves of the Great manual). Almost all manual reeds are divided between 2nd b and 3rd c, even in organs with more than one manual division. The reeds are strongly influenced from France.
  • Most typical stops are the strings that only might be lacking in the smallest organs. Viola da gamba 8′ with very narrow pipe scales, and without any voicing submission by pipe ears, starting to sound very slowly, and imitating the scraping of the bow; Salicional 8′, 4′, and 2’/4′ (that means: first c – second b 2′, and from 3rd c on 4′). Also stops like Gemshorn 8′ and 4′, and Quintade 8′ are very common in the Middle Rhine. Their function is somewhat between the string chorus and the flute chorus.

Large Great divisions can contain a Cornett with 5 ranks, built additionally to the single Terz (Third) 1 3/5′.

The main function of the Pedal division is the very fundamental bass. Therefore, small Pedal stops (2′ and smaller) and Pedal Mixtures are rare, and appear only in the largest organs.


This brief history cannot be more than an introduction. If you have been interested in the matter: Don’t hesitate to travel to the Middle Rhine – listen, play, feel, and experience first-hand!

John H. NisbetU.S.A. representative
of Oberlinger Bros. Organ Building Company
Jürgen Rodeland, Director of the Restoration Departmentin Oberlinger Bros. Organ Building Company

© 2000 John H. Nisbet and Dr. Jürgen Rodeland

A Modest Proposal – Beyond Statistical Insignificance

michael_baroneI’ll apologize upfront. This is a blatant non-commercial commercial…for me, for my program (Pipedreams), for my medium (public radio). Or is it more than that? Might you be involved in this picture, too? Let’s give it a look.

Much has been made of the minimal impact which organists and organ music have in today’s cultural scene. We organ lovers wail within our collegial fold, deplore the inequities of life, and then go back to working on the left-hand part of a new hymn harmonization for Sunday. Oddly, the situation does not correct itself.

Despite those many, many ranks of sonorous pipes upon which we play, we are a largely silent minority. An insignificant minority was how one audience analyst, working the already marginalized field of Public Radio, put it not long ago. People who enjoy organ music, though we like to imagine ourselves more numerous than the unemployed and more audible than the combined arsenals of the Wanamaker Store, Crystal Cathedral, West Point Chapel and Meyerson Symphony Center combined, in truth are not nearly as large or as noticeable a group as we might imagine.

And while it’s true that millions of people each week are exposed to organs and organ music, mostly in church settings, those same millions have not been seen regularly flocking to organ concerts and recitals. While we are fascinated by repertoire that extends from Buxheim to Bolcom, enraptured by Bach and Beauvarlet-Charpentier, Mendelssohn and Messiaen, not to mention the artistry of the Wright ‘Brothers’ (George and Searle), the general populace remains blissfully uninvolved in this tradition which our little group finds so rewarding.

Yes, little group, because we…members of the American Guild of Organists…are only a small number, not many more than 20,000 members of this proud, century-old assembly. Why are we so few? Partly because we (the AGO) are viewed, even by other colleague organists, as a class apart, an exclusive sub-set within an already miniscule sub-set. Partly, too, because as organists we tend toward specialization and polarization, fixating on a few small aspects of what is most certainly a very broad-reaching topic. Yes, the differences between Titelouze and Titcomb are important; they are wonderful. But are they mutually exclusive? To the general public it’s all just organ music. Our internecine squabbling succeeds only in blurring our public image (such as it may be).

The organ…such a convenient, simple term, and such a double-edged blade. How marvelous that we can cross-reference copulas and crash-cymbals all under one easy heading. Unfortunately, with similar ease, anyone discomfited by any marginal aspect of this broad topic can, with one flip of a subconscious switch, get “turned off” to organ music, or at best, become very confused.

Page through a concise history of the organ and you discover that, in each era and in every country, what constitutes “organ” and “organ music” resists an easy uniformity. Through personal experience, you’re well aware of the energy with which Belligerent Bachophiles eschew Fractious Franckists, Wild Wurlitzerites rebuff Supercilious Schnitgerians. Old music versus new, counterpoint versus color, mechanical versus electric, pipes versus electronic…are we organists a “family” (if such a diverse collective exhibits any relational energy) only insofar as the instrument we love is named organ? And, if so, even if our family suffers from multiple-personality-disorder…in spades…what’s wrong with our beginning to think of all of it as worthy of our enthusiasm?

Might not this become an advantage? What other instrument can embrace simultaneously two famous composers for the Phantom of the Opera theme (Bach and Webber)? This covers a lot of ground, but how much of it is common?

What do we do to reinforce a public awareness of the pipe organ? Not a lot, it seems. We lock the console and keep untrained curiosity-seekers at bay. We’d never spend the time to invite school music classes (or even Sunday School classes) in for an introductory demonstration. Then, when we schedule a recital, we’re late with our press releases, we don’t establish relationships with local newspaper arts editors or writers, we don’t coordinate our activities with other presenters (to avoid unnecessary simultaneities). Is it a wonder than our audiences are small?

Are we too proud to publicize? Much as we may wish it were otherwise, publicity and advertising are part of the energy of modern life. In ways more numerous and subtle than we might prefer, product marketing and attitude adjustments have impact on the way we view ourselves and the world in which we live and work. The Coca-Cola Company (which I pick at random from a huge list of potential exemplars), purveyors of a product known around the world, does not sit on its laurels, history, or traditions. Despite the fact that virtually every man, woman and child on this planet knows what Coca-Cola is, the Company spends billions of dollars annually reminding us of its product’s primacy in slaking our thirst and improving our life. Billion$ of dollar$ to refre$h our memorie$ about $omething we already know.

I know. The pipe organ community does not have billions of dollars to spend on publicity. But the pipe organ does have a few media ambassadors working on its behalf…The Joy of Music, with Diane Bish (television) and PIPEDREAMS (radio). Though some additional, locally-produced organ programs exist, these two mentioned are the only ones of which I am aware in national distribution. They are a precious pair, (since the broadcast industry’s attitude concerning organ music is one of disdain and loathing, only some of which is justified), but these programs do exist, they do reach out to audiences and have potential for being seen and heard by many more…if….

Our challenges may be distilled into two points:

  1. Connect with audiences who WANT to listen but don’t know the programs are there (or who cannot hear the programs because of non-carriage)
  2. Use audience/market information to mold a broadcast-industry-positive profile of the organ-music listener

An action plan is essential, and must begin immediately. Even with the best efforts, it will take nearly a year of involvement before any change will register. But don’t hold back just because the payoff isn’t instantaneous.

First, let’s energize the core…and that means you! More than 20,000 individuals are members of 352 local chapters of the American Guild of Organists, with representation in most of the major and minor cities of the nation. Though we are not the most manageable lot, as A.G.O. members we do offer a potential mechanism for efficient and economical outreach. (The 6000 members of the American Theatre Organ Society offer expanded potential, but perhaps that’s another story).

For the sake of this discussion, we will grant that all 20,000 A.G.O. members are church organists, and that as such each plays, on average, to “communities” (parishes, congregations) of 500 souls each week. Obviously, some play for huge congregations numbering in the thousands, others play for a hearty handful, but I think this nationwide ‘500-per-organist’ average is realistic.

Now, what IF we A.G.O. members were to involve ourselves in a bit of consistent self-promotion? How about putting the following regularly recurring listing (or something similar) into our church bulletins and/or church newsletters (perhaps alternating from one to the other each month, or more often….), or at the bottom of every organ recital program presented or sponsored by a guild member:

“If you’ve enjoyed the organ music today, you might also enjoy listening to PIPEDREAMS, a weekly 90-minute broadcast which features a broad cross-section of repertoire for the King of Instruments. Tune to WCLV-95.5FM Sundays beginning at 10PM. For more information, call 216-464-0900.”

[This, in fairness, could be expanded to mention other church-music-related media programming which might be available to your area, i.e. With Heart and Voice and even The Joy of Music on television, though for this article I’m focusing only on radio’s potential, perhaps shortsightedly…but that’s where I work.]

Think of the consequences of such a promotion, which happens at little or no cost. If done even only once, it reaches 10,000,000 (that’s ten million!) people…a significant number insofar as it represents more than half the total cume audience for all Public Radio listening. And, with recurrent placement, even if this outreach actually mobilized only a tenth of that number (not impossible, insofar as this constituency already is potentially organ-friendly, as compared with the general community at large), what a boost that might be…for organists, organ awareness and, not incidentally, for the local broadcaster (who, at least in Public Radio, is in pretty much the same predicament organists are…urgently in need of a mobilized constituency).

This, of course, presupposes that our Guild Chapters are regularly promoting these broadcasts to their individual members through monthly chapter newsletters. Unfortunately, the reality is otherwise. Even in communities where an A.G.O. chapter has donated hundreds (or thousands) of dollars from the chapter treasury to “underwrite” the broadcast of PIPEDREAMS on a local station, that same chapter may give absolutely no mention of PIPEDREAMS broadcast information in its monthly member mailings, presuming that everyone knows about it. Presumptions can be erroneous, even fatal.

We’ve got to get up and out there, folks. Remember the billions that commercial enterprises spend to reinforce their messages? We don’t have the billions (well, maybe we do…any closet philanthropists out there, waiting to fund a National Media Initiative for Increased Organ Awareness?), but we do have ourselves and some accessible and cost-efficient means of communicating with each other and with our communities of influence. All it takes is a bit of resolve, consistency, and follow-through.

Additionally, there is potential for interaction between station membership/ development folk and local A.G.O. members…to generate both individual membership support and (in the case of the larger chapters) perhaps also station underwriting monies (at least to cover out-of-pocket expenses to the station). A.G.O. chapter newsletters should also promote awareness of local Public Radio stations and, in particular, prep people for upcoming station fund drives. Hit the core audience, folks. Get them involved.

And also from the A.G.O. Chapter end, we should encouraged station management to foster and maintain these relationships, which can only help the overall Public Radio cause.

Yes, this is a challenging environment, for church music, for organ music, for Public Radio. But there are real opportunities here. It’s up to us to use them. You are only powerless if you refuse to use the powers in your possession. Don’t expect someone else to do it. Good luck!

© Michael Barone

Vox Humana – Vox Populi: the Town Hall organ in Christchurch, NZ

20010402setchell_pic6vistaHear the Organ! Excerpt of Albert Renaud Toccata in D Minor, played by Martin Setchell

When Christchurch opened its new Town Hall complex in 1972, it was the only city of the four main New Zealand centres (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin) to boast a modern 2500 seater concert hall. But the downside of this achievement was the absence of a pipe organ, plans for which were axed when building costs escalated beyond budget. For a quarter of a century the city had no civic organ. But in 1997, after a sustained fund raising campaign, not without its own setbacks and disappointments, the hall was eventually ‘completed’ by the installation of a fine pipe organ by Rieger Orgelbau of Austria.

20010402setchell_pic5riegerorganOver the last four years since its installation, the sustained, successful profile of the organ here has become something of phenomenon both locally, nationally and increasingly internationally. People often ask me to explain why and how this has happened. The honest truth is I’m not sure, but I guess it reflects a whole number of factors, not least civic pride (the people virtually gave the city its organ) and feast succeeding famine. But four years is too long a time to write off as a mere honeymoon period! (A preview of the first year can be read at

When I was appointed curator one of the tasks in my job specification was to ‘actively promote the organ’. I found the fact that I was starting from scratch was both a positive and a negative; there was no tradition set in place, no established practice to graft on to, but on the other hand there was a clean sheet with which to start. So we had the element of surprise and innovation. I was conscious from the start that after the surge of interest which surrounds every new organ and its inaugural activities, there’s only one way its popularity can go, and that’s downwards, unless you constantly keep its profile high. I don’t have any panacea answers, but I do know that hard, sustained work is essential.

Phantom Dinner

As curator you represent the human face of the instrument, and you can either be the path or the barrier to the instrument and its success. Let’s face it, organists have sometimes been their own worst enemies in keeping consoles locked, not always being welcoming or hospitable, and somehow encapsulating the mystery and inaccessibility of the King of Instruments with a kind of misplaced ‘royal reserve’. I decided I’d consciously go as far as possible the other way. I can get as frustrated as the next organist when a party of tourists wander in and start talking just as you are desperately rehearsing with inadequate time for tomorrow’s concert, but I decided to use every such interruption as a marketing opportunity, take the chance to welcome the visitors, play them a special little piece, tell them about the organ and the concert. I’ve answered countless enquires about the organ by letter and phone call in a personable and friendly way however awkward the timing. I’ve tried to accommodate every request to speak to groups, have groups visit the organ at close quarters, show visitors both organist and non-organists the instrument and so on. In my experience the personal touch has really worked. I guess if people like me, by a process of transference there’s a good chance they’ll fall for the organ also.

Setchell as Bach

This extends to the presentation of my solo concerts in which I always speak to the audience, taking them with me to the console. Not that I dislike programme notes, but I’m conscious that for most of the time the audience is going to have nothing more than my back to look at. That’s certainly an improvement on the invisibility of the organ loft, but still low in the communication stakes. So I talk to the audience to pull back the communication balance a little, as well as to break down the impersonality of a recital, and any mystique about the repertoire. Humour is undoubtedly one of my chief weapons. Without cheapening the whole show, I think a little bit of laughing at yourself, the quirks of composer’s lives or the instrument’s complexities and potential for disaster can help a lot. When I play, the audience is taken close by cameras (one for the hands, one for the feet) which project the image onto large screens mounted either side of the case. This helps remove the distance factor. There is still something of the circus act in an organ performer, and people are as fascinated by physical machinations, whether it’s of a skilled organist, sportsman or airline pilot in action. They feel they are getting in on the act, being taken behind the scenes as it were.

Of course the whole question of repertoire is a key factor. We have to face the fact that with the exception of Bach and possibly Franck, Mendelssohn and Messiaen, organ composers are not familiar to the general Classical listening public. That doesn’t mean to say that all their music is unpalatable to an audience, just that marketing based on the composer’s name and maybe the piece’s title doesn’t always work. As someone remarked recently ‘On the one hand we complain that people aren’t interested in organ anymore, and on the other we don’t seem to want to play the pieces they love’. I believe you have to constantly find touchstones, points of reference which will identify with the listening experience of the majority. Obviously we have to ‘borrow’ repertoire from other media and provided it’s suitable, not be ashamed of using transcriptions. Bach certainly wasn’t, and look at the audiences Lemare, Best and co pulled in. Establishing ‘extra-musical’ connections is always useful. My latest CD “Bonbons for organ” features a group of programmatic pieces entitled ‘Creatures Great and Small’ and finishes with Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’. People may not recognise by title Gounod’s ‘Funeral march of a Marionette’ but they all know Alfred Hitchcock’s TV theme. Once your audience learns to trust you not to bore, patronise or overface them, you can gradually start raising the levels and introducing them more and more to traditional organ fare.

Organ Poster

Essential to this public profile was of course a purpose designed website, and I was fortunate that my wife Jenny is not only an organist herself, but a website designer. The organ website, began life with the organ, initially as part of a school’s webpage supported by the local daily newspaper. Daily photos of the process of installation were put up with videos, sound files and short, basic explanations of what was happening. Thousands of people followed the “birthing” process from Iceland to Tasmania, South Africa to Toronto. At the opening concerts, video clips of the action were included, especially those taken during the schools concerts attended by 4500 children over two days. Today the site exists as a storehouse of historical photos of the building, information about events involving the organ in any way, crossword competitions, jigsaw puzzles of organs, news, selling the two CDs made on the instrument, organ posters , a guestbook, organ links, organists’ association news, links to New Zealand sites for tourists, and soon, even a page selling t-shirts of the organ.

“Bach’s Back” die-cut program

Inventive marketing whenever there is a chance is hard slog, but it’s worth it. At the release concert for “Bonbons for Organ” we bought 10kg of bonbon sweets and offered them to the startled but delighted audience; before major events we print envelopes at home with dates and basic info in colour on the front; selling tickets as “three for the price of two” encourages people to bring a friend; spreading advertising throughout the media, not just newspapers. Anything that helps people remember, and lifts their association of the organ out of the commonplace, helps fix it in their mind. Even concert programs and notes can stand out in this way, like this for the Bach’s Back concert, which was die-cut into Bach’s profile enclosing the whimsical pair on the cover!

Children at the organ
Schools in the Auditorium
Winning Entry

I regard the schools concerts I’ve given as perhaps the most important investment in audience potential growth. Of course there was a certain amount of ‘mass hysteria’, the usual sort of thing when 2500 kids get an hour out of school, but the organ experience at a tender age could be the essential seed planting for the future. I got a well-known kids TV presenter to help me. He was hidden in the case (with ear-muffs) before the kids were admitted, and only appeared from inside the case after the end of the Widor Toccata. The kids loved it. They had the chance to sing to the big theme of the Saint-Saens symphony and clap to the Radetzky march. They learnt a bit about how the instrument works and how it is played, and I got a young organist of their own age to play a piece with me. The daily newspaper ran a colouring-in competition for very young children and also ran a picture of the winner with her prize (one of my organ CDs). Now these concerts are part of local schools’ calendars – but don’t appear to have lost their appeal.

I’ve had to be prepared to be a bit of an actor as well as a player. Last year on the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, I presented ‘Bach’s Back’ – see . This was a show (sponsored by a prominent firm of undertakers!) in which Bach (alias me) was re-incarnated for the day in full 18th century costume, and appeared out of the mists of time. Sure it took a producer, some lighting effects, some dry ice, and some script writing, but it put the organ and its best music right up there in the commercial world. The lunchtime performance was tailored for kids, and the evening a full length concert.

I’ve had to be proactive in creating organ opportunities, by suggesting the organ in ensemble with choirs, brass bands, singers, orchestras, and as a surprise element in conferences and other ceremonies. Some of the more zany have involved me playing for silent movies, and appearing as the phantom of the Opera organist! The most gratifying experience is when people come to my dressing room afterwards and tell me they came because they love choirs, or orchestras, or brass or whatever else is performing, but actually fell in love with the organ, and ask when the next organ concert is. That’s conversion!

The best back-handed compliment I’ve received was from an American lady who breezed up after a concert and said ‘I wanted you to know I used to like organ music just about as much as root canal surgery, but not any more!’ If we can provide more people with that kind of change of heart, the organ in the 21st century will still be the King. If we can’t, we risk it becoming the Dinosaur.

– Martin Setchell

The Pipe Organ at Katsbaan Reformed Church

For information on the Katsbaan pipe organ, believed to be the oldest extant three-manual organ in America, contact Janice M. Trevail
Visit the website:

Church History: 

The Katsbaan Reformed Church is located about 3 1/2 miles north of Saugerties on the Old King’s Highway. The congregation was established in 1710 with the arrival of the Palatine immigrants to West Camp. Visible from all parts of the surrounding Catskill countryside, the old stone Church “de steene kerk op de Kats Baan” was built in 1732 – the year George Washington was born. It is a Church built literally “upon a rock.” The land on which it stands was leased in perpetuity on March 1, 1731 by the trustees of the Kingston Commons at an annual rental of three peppercorns per annum if demanded.

The first records of the Church begin November 30, 1730, in the handwriting of Reverend George Wilhelmus Mancius. The Church was incorporated on March 28, 1796 when its title became “The Minister, Elders, and Deacons of the Reformed Protestant Church of Kaatsbaan in the town of Kingston, Ulster County.” The Church at Katsbaan was the place of worship between Kingston and Katskill (Leeds). It remained unchanged until 1816, with few minor improvements. In 1816 the walls were raised and galleries built in the east, west, and north side. The pulpit was placed in the north, doors inserted in the south wall, and a steeple erected in which a bell was hung. In 1867 it was rebuilt with its wall extending seventeen feet to the south. Thus the building remains as it is today. The initials of some of the builders may be seen in the north wall. The lines of the 1732 Church and old entrance may also be seen in the north wall. On July 1, 1892 it was re-incorporated as the Reformed Church of Katsbaan.

As of the year 2002, the Katsbaan Reformed Church has been supplied by twenty-one ministers. During the Revolutionary War the ministers and Church members were very active in the cause for freedom. Reverend Henry Ostrander preached from 1812-1862 (50 years) and Reverend Arad Joy Sebring preached from 1885-1916 (31 years). Church services have been held continuously by ordained ministers or supply ministers since 1732.


Pipe Organ Information: (provided by Dana Hull and John Ogasapian)

It is believed that the Katsbaan Pipe Organ was originally built in New York City c. 1820. In the 1850’s this organ was dismantled and installed in the Saugerties Reformed Church, where it was used until 1892. It was then given to the Katsbaan Reformed Church. Amazingly, throughout this instrument’s mobile history, it remains largely intact with its original workings.

Nothing substantive is known of the history of this instrument before its arrival in Saugerties. According to tradition it came from either an Episcopal or Reformed Church in New York City. However, its few stops, small pipe scales and compact size on one hand, and its fine woods and workmanship on the other, suggest the strong possibility that it was originally intended for a prosperous residence. Although it shows traits similar to an English organ, the heavy use of walnut in the instrument indicates that it was made in America, and structural facets in the swellbox and pipes suggest a date well before 1820. Without a doubt, it is the oldest extant three-manual organ in America.

The pipes, visible in the gothic case are actually wooden dummies. In fact, the two side flats themselves are additions from the 1860’s. The actual organ case, made of superb oiled walnut, and gracefully curved back at each side, is hidden behind them. Only the center pipes are real. The pedal appears originally to have had no stops of its own; however, two sets of pipes were added in the 1860’s, and their stop action is in the outer case flats. The kick-board is of rosewood, as are the keyslips and keychecks.

The compass of the keyboards on the Katsbaan organ are from a low G to a high f, with no low G# (standard practice in a G compass organ). The pedalboard compass is from low G (includes the G#) to a C.

The stoplist is as follows:
Great: Open Diapason, Stopped Diapason, Principal, Fifteenth, Sesquialtera, Copula (which is a coupler)
Choir: Dulciana, Principal, Flute, Copula (couplers)
Swell: Open Diapason, Cornet, Trumpet
Pedal: Bourdon, Open Diapason. These two stops were apparently added later. The original pedal was probably pull-downs (coupled). However, the pedal board now having a G# makes me wonder if the present pedalboard replaced an earlier on without a G#. Otherwise, the G# would have nothing to “pull down”.

The following memo was sent to the Katsbaan church by Nelson G. Burhans in March, 1973:

Information relative to the organ in the Katsbaan Reformed Church

“This is a three manual Erben organ built around 1830. We think it was first used at Trinity Church, New York, or Marble Collegiate Church and moved here about 1860, installed in the Saugerties, NY Reformed Church. When the Saugerties Reformed Church bought their new Frank Roosevelt organ about 1895, the Erben was moved to the Katsbaan Reformed Church. Robert Rowland of Ossining, NY rebuilt it there with no structural changes in 1925, though there had been some changes before his time. There were two cases, one inside the other. If you remove the case work on the three sides, it reveals another of different architectural design. The original has speaking display pipes and the added case has dummies. This is the most outstanding of all I know.”

This above is a basic quote with some added clarification words of a letter from Bob Rowland to the editor of The Tracker, a magazine for and about organ and organist.

The Katsbaan Reformed Church has a very small congregation, but we are strong in faith and spirit. A complete and faithful restoration is the single goal of our Pipe Organ Restoration Committee, and we are searching every possible avenue in order to achieve this goal. In 2010 our church will celebrate its 300th anniversary, and nothing would please us more than to have our beautiful instrument restored to it’s original glory in time for this momentous celebration.

The restoration of the Katsbaan pipe organ will be a once-in-a-lifetime event of significance to organ players, organ repairers, and especially organ restorers. Your prayers would be most welcome, and if you would be kind enough to spread the word about this project we would be truly grateful. If you are aware of any foundations who might be willing to help fund our project, please let us know.

If you would like to make a donation to the Pipe Organ Restoration Fund, checks can be made payable to the Katsbaan Reformed Church and mailed to:
Katsbaan Organ Restoration Committee
c/o Janice M. Trevail
1866 High Falls Road
Catskill, NY 12414

The German Romantic Organ in Rousse, Bulgaria – a Call for Help

The historic Voit organ
One does not usually hear the name of this beautiful Balkan country together with the name of the king of instruments. It will perhaps come as a surprise to some to learn that Bulgaria has not only organs and organists, but also many people who write music for organ. Bulgaria’s official religion is Orthodox Christianity, and for five centuries, until the 19th century, it was a province of the Ottoman Empire. These factors tend to have perhaps had a negative effect on the development of an organ culture. However, in the late 19th century, there was a project to build an organ in one of the Catholic churches in the city of Rousse, a small town on the river Danube, in North Bulgaria. After completing the church in 1892, three different firms submitted their projects for a new organ: E. F. Walcker – for a two-manual/pedal organ with 12 stops, Gebr. Rieger, who suggested a one-manual/pedal, and H. Voit (Karlsruhe) who proposed a two-manual/pedal organ with 13 stops. The last offer was accepted. The organ was completed in 1907 and installed one year later in 1908. The dedication recital was played by the Bucharest organist Emanuel Pol, who played works by Matioli, Guilmant, Bordese and Dubois, as well as many of his own compositions. Currently, this organ is the only pipe organ in a church in the entire state of Bulgaria; it is the only historical German Romantic organ in existence there.

Disposition of the organ in the Church St. Paul on the Cross:
I. Manual

Bordun 16′
Prinzipal 8′
Viola di Gamba 8′
Flauta Amabile 8′
Oktave 4′
Cornett 3 fach II.
Manual Geigenprinzipal 8′
Salicional 8′
Vox coelestis 8′
Lieblich Gedackt 8′
Rohrflote 4′

Subbass 16′
Zartbass 16′
Couplers II/I, I/Pedal, II/Pedal,
Sub II/I, Super I One (Tutti)
piston hand stops on/off,
walze (rollschweller)
Manual II enclosed.

Sadly, this wonderful historical instrument is today in very poor condition and has been rendered unplayable due to neglect. The firm that built it is no longer in existence. There is an ongoing fundraising campaign for the organ’s restoration and maintenance. There are also plans for establishing concert series’ programs and recordings on this beautiful instrument. For those interested in aiding in this historic restoration, please contact one of the following locations:

For donations:

Austrian Bank Account

Salzburg account number: 05401256445
Bank: Salzburger Sparkasse
Bank code: 20404

on the bank order please write: Spende Restaurierung Russe

Bulgarian Bank Account:

Central Cooperative Bank Rousse
Account Number: 5000699812
Bank code: 79077934

on the bank order please write: Nicopol Catholic Eparchy

or for more information contact:

Mr. Sabin Levi
1625 Ellis Drive #100
Lawrence KS 66044

phone/fax: 785 812 3323

For more information on organs and organists in Bulgaria:
Organs in Bulgaria

The Organ in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto

Built in 1906, the Breckels and Mathews pipe organ in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto, conjures up images from the past and its sound delights the ear and thrills the soul. The instrument has been under the hands of many fine musicians, but, of course, the one name most frequently connected with it is the legendary Dr. Healey Willan. It was that legend that first drew me to the church on Manning Avenue, and as with so many others, the attraction of the church itself, the organ and the music they provide caught my imagination and attention from the moment of that first visit and the interest continues to this day. A combination of the building, the organ builder and the musicians make this the inspiring and impressive instrument that it is.It is impossible to separate this organ from Healey Willan, his music, his style and his musicianship. Thus this essay about the instrument begins with the man who brought it fame. Dr. Willan came to St. Mary Magdalene’s in 1921 from the position of organist and choir master at St. Paul’s Church, Bloor Street, where he presided over what many consider to be Casavant’s masterpiece, Opus 550, 1914 which at the time had four manuals and 106 stops. It has since been renovated and enlarged. Maestro Willan, after a seven year stint at the magnificent, rather evangelical St. Paul’s, served as Organist and Precentor* at St. Mary Magdalene’s from 1921 until a few weeks before his death in 1968. The organ now at his disposal was very different as we will see, from the magnificent Casavant where he had begun his Canadian church career. StMaryToronto
Courtesy Mystery Worshipper
Courtesy Church of St. Mary Magdalene
The fame of St. Mary Magdalene’s and its music spread far and wide, and it became a place of musical pilgrimage for visitors from around the world. It was very common to have tourists from the major hotels telephone the parish office, asking for service times, and almost invariably adding to the request, ‘Will Dr. Willan be there?’ On at least one occasion the Rector, somewhat annoyed at the priorities of the caller, answered with, “Yes, Dr. Willan will be here. And Jesus will be here too!”I first heard the organ and met Dr. Willan while a teen-age organ student and schoolboy. There is nothing like the brashness of youth. A friend from the same independent school who was also studying the organ, and I decided we should make the pilgrimage and hear the Great Man and his choir. Considering the fame of its precentor, our first surprise was the rather small building, rather plain in exterior design. We had expected something more grand. On entering, our impression changed. There was an atmosphere of loftiness and space, far beyond the dimensions of the place. The architect had done wonders. There was plenty of reflective surface on walls, ceiling and floor. Although the accoutrements of Anglo-Catholicism were very much in evidence, there was no sense of clutter, and the nave was attractively austere. Both my friend, Bob Evans, and I were fascinated by the echo when a busy acolyte set a candle holder down none too gently at the altar. That boded well for the organ, and that proved to be correct. The organ was located, as it is today, on the north side of the chancel with generous openings into the chancel itself and also into the Lady Chapel and north aisle, thus sounding clearly into the nave. Someone had done something right. The architect had made provision for the instrument to be contained within the church, and not in some add-on chamber where its voice could be lost.Bob and I expected to be entertained with a brilliant organ voluntary by Dr. Willan as the congregation assembled, but it was not to be. The organ remained silent until at the sound of a bell, the clergy entered the sanctuary. The celebrant began by singing the invitation to a procession. By great good fortune we had chosen the greatest of Festivals for our visit. The ritual began:

“The Lord be with you…”
“And with thy spirit…”
“Let us go forth in peace…”
“In the name of the Lord, Amen…”

The voices echoed after each line, and after that ‘Great Amen’ the organ came to life. I’ll never forget the thrill of a single pedal note, the bottom D as I recall, with a snarl of reeds and the supporting body of the flues. It set the heart beating and the adrenalin flowing. There was no further introduction, and choirs and congregation rose and sang, ‘Hail , Thee Festival Day’ to the tune which might be considered Willan’s signature composition. The choir and clergy with crucifer, torchbearers and censor, gorgeous banners on high began their solemn procession around the church. The organ can only be described as magnificent, the registrations dramatic and there was no way anyone present could avoid an eagerness to sing. We were being led by a master. Between stanzas of the hymn, which were taken surprisingly slowly to our thinking, yet effectively, Dr. Willan improvised with the skill and artistry for which he was noted. Reeds and diapasons dominated the ensemble, complementing each other, echoing, contrasting, uniting. Bob and I were in awe.

The service progressed, and I’ll not bore the reader by attempting to describe it all. There were times when the choirs sang a capella, and others when the organ joined in. At quiet moments there were delightfully smooth and blending strings in evidence, at the other moments the pure tone of the flutes dominated. Occasionally the voice of the Tuba rang forth. The music was all that we had imagined and more. The organ, most impressive.

It was not the kind of instrument that would have appealed to E. Power Biggs or other proponents of North German instruments. This was the time when it was considered correct to revere the organs of the Baroque, and especially those of the time and homeland of J. S. Bach. This instrument was not like that at all. It still isn’t. Now it is fully back in fashion. What I am attempting to describe is an organ built in the English tradition, familiar at the beginning of the twentieth century and before. I think Father Henry Willis would have approved, but would have included at least a Great mixture as he built it. That omission has been since looked after in a recent rebuild. A fairly assertive twelfth and fifteenth seemed to cap the Great chorus quite well.

The final hymn was ‘The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done,’ sung, of course to ‘Victory.’ Again the organ pealed and Healey Willan displayed his genius, sending thrills up our spines with his mastery. The Mass ended, we were treated to a gloriously festal improvisation based on three of the hymn tunes that had been used. When it ended, Bob and I with our fascination for the organ, reverence for the organist and the audacity of teenagers, climbed the stairs to the gallery and approached the console, where the venerable musician, well into his seventies, was still seated.

We had been expecting to find a magnificent four manual Casavant at least, that being the ultimate to us in those days, maybe even a Willis! What we found was a rather down at heel three manual console with glass doors instead of the expected rolltop. The draw knobs were in double rows after the English fashion and they and the keys looked very well worn. The name plate said, ‘Breckels and Mathews, Toronto, 1906.’ We had never heard of that before, but in time learned that Breckels and Mathews (and later Mathews) had been builders of quality instruments, at least for sound, but had gone out of business during the Great Depression.

Dr. Willan, dressed in grey flannels and a sports jacket with leather elbows over which was an organist’s surplice, but no cassock, smiled at us, and said, “Hello, boys. I’m Healey Willan.” We introduced ourselves as budding organists and students of a school that was familiar to him. Of course we made it clear that his fame had brought us here and we were honoured to meet him. “So, you came to hear the organ, and expected a four manual Casavant, correct?” Open mouthed we agreed that to be true. “Well, how did the Old Girl sound?” We were enthusiastic about the sound of the organ and the man who played it.

Dr. Willan spent nearly an hour with us, telling us about the Church and the organ, with some information about how the console had been moved to the gallery in 1931 by the Morel organ company, that an English Tuba, (we had been impressed by that sound,) playable at 16, 8 and 4 foot pitches had been added at the time. Then Franklin Legge had extended the Choir flute so it could be played at 8 and 4 foot pitches, making what he described a silvery sound.

All in all our impression was of a magnificent English-style, romantic organ. Of course the building’s incredibly fine resonance contributed much to the effect.

Healey Willan passed away in 1968, after serving St. Mary Magdalene’s for 48 years, with only one leave during that time. He was followed by Dr. Giles Bryant. We set about a project in memory of the Master, the rebuilding and enlarging of the Breckels and Mathews, now known as the Healey Willan Memorial Organ. Much of the work was done under the direction of an organ builder, but by parish volunteers. At first David Legge, son of Franklin Legge, mentioned earlier was in charge, but in time it was taken over by Alan Jackson, whose firm, Alan T. Jackson represents Casavant in the Toronto area. Mr. Jackson completed the work, although the number of volunteers dwindled to almost none.

The original Breckels and Mathews instrument had pneumatic action, and in 1931 L. E. Morel converted it to electro-pneumatic. At the same time the choir moved to a gallery choir loft, and the console was able to go with them.

Bob and I were given opportunities to play the organ later, Dr. Willan being amazingly friendly, inviting us back to visit a number of times. One thing that struck me was that there seemed to be no delay in the sound of the organ at the east end of the building reaching the console in the west gallery. One of the two instruments I was playing at the time was the 3-manual Casavant at St. Clement’s, North Toronto. That organ had the Great, Swell and Pedal divisions in the Chancel, while the Choir, for space reasons, had been installed in the west gallery, the console was in the Chancel. The time lag from the gallery division was frightful, and it was impossible to play with all three manuals coupled. St. Mary Magdalene’s situation was amazing by comparison. Again the superb acoustic design of the church made the difference.

During the rebuild and enlarging, the Breckels and Mathews ventil chests, which were difficult to repair, were replaced with modern pitman ones by Casavant, making the organ more reliable and easier to service. There were also some tonal changes and re-voicing, carried out by Alan Jackson. In its current state the Healey Willan Memorial Organ has three manuals and 51 speaking stops, having grown substantially from the 29-rank Breckels and Mathews of 1906. The original console is still in use, but the combination action is now electronic. While the old glass-doored console is still in use, some of the mechanism provided by Breckels and Mathews and L.E. Morel has become unreliable, and a major rebuild or overhaul appears to be needed.

Almost the entire instrument as it was known to Dr. Willan remains in use. A Doppel Flute on the Great has been removed and the 16′ Tuba pipes have been replaced by a revoiced Trombone by S.E. Warren, from the organ at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Toronto. Several reeds have been revoiced.**

Summing up the tonal effect of the organ in St. Mary Magdalene’s, it is an outstanding example of a church organ, especially suited to the English Catholic traditions. Its purpose, first and foremost, has always been to accompany the choirs, inspire the congregation in their singing, and generally to enhance the liturgy. The instrument achieves that purpose. As a concert or recital organ, it does have its limitations, but can certainly give a good account for itself with a skilled musician at the console, and to this writer’s ear, is at its best with English and French music. The English ‘tuba tunes’ are most effective when heard here, and it obviously does not require an organ by Aristide Cavaille-Coll to perform the works of Vierne, Franck or Alain with telling effect.

Organ builders involved from the beginning until the present have been: Breckels and Mathews, original builders, responsible for the basic concept, L.E. Morel, Franklin Legge, David Legge (briefly) and Alan T. Jackson, with his firm and Casavant Freres Limitee, whom Mr. Jackson represents. Alan Jackson took over from David Legge, and was responsible for the rebuilding and enlarging of the Healey Willan Memorial Organ, from 1971 until its completion in 1980. Dr. Giles Bryant deserves full credit for initiating the project.

The church has been most fortunate in its musicians. Since the time of Maestro Willan, the organ has been played and the choirs directed by Giles Bryant, Robert Hunter-Bell and currently Willis Noble.

Specifications of the Re-built Organ

Stops marked * contain new pipes

Great: Double Open Diapason 16, I Open Diapason 8. II Open Diapason 8, *Stopped Diapason 8, Gamba 8, Octave 4, *Wald Flute 4, Twelfth 2 2/3, Fifteenth 2, *Mixture IV, *Cornet (mid. C) V 8, *Trumpet 8, *Clarion 4. Great Super

Swell: Lieblich Bourdon 16, Stopped Diapason 8, Salicional 8, Viola da Gamba 8, Vox Angelica TC 8, Principal 4, Suabe Flute 4, Nazard 2 2/3, Flageolet 2, Tierce 1 3/5, *Sharp Mixture IV 1, *Bassoon 16, Trumpet 8, Oboe 8, Shawn 4. Tremulant. Choir Sub, Choir Super

Choir: (Enclosed) Gedackt 8, Dulciana 8, Unda Maris TC 8, Chimney Flute 4, *Spire Principal 2, *Larigot 1 1/3, *Cymbel III ½, Cremona 8, Tuba 8. Tremulant. Choir Sub, Choir Super.

Pedal: Sub Bourdon (wired) 32, Open Metal (Gt.) 16, Open Wood 16, Subbass 16, Lieblich Bourdon (Sw.) 16, Octave 8, Flute 8, Super Octave 4, Recorder 4, *Mixture IV 2 2/3, Ophelceide 16, Bassoon (Sw.) 16, Trumpet (Gt.) 8, Clarion (Gt.) 4

Couplers on Tilting Tablets above Swell: Great, Swell and Choir to Pedal, 16 and 8. Swell and Choir to Great, 16, 8 and 4. Swell to Choir: 16, 8 and 4.

Adjustable combination pistons: 6 thumb pistons to each division. 10 General pistons, Thumb and Toe. General Cancel and Adjuster. Great and Pedal combinations coupled.

Reversible Pistons: Great to Pedal: thumb and toe. Swell and Choir to Great – thumb. Swell and Choir to Pedal, thumb. Swell to Choir, thumb. Full Organ, toe.

© Ross Trant
Wellington, Ontario, Canada
April, 2004

* Precentor – a choirmaster, often a cleric and in a cathedral, who has been given absolute authority over the music sung and played in the cathedral or church to which he is appointed.

** For this and other technical information, I am indebted to a recent book, ‘Organs of Toronto’ by Alan T. Jackson and James Bailey, published by the Toronto Centre of the Royal Canadian College of Organists.(Highly recommended.) For all else and opinions, personal experience, my aging memory, and conversations with many others familiar with the instrument. For inspiration, the life and creativity of Healey Willan.

Further Links
The Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Healey Willan, Peerless Ecclesiastical Composer 

A Short Overview of César Franck’s Twelve Pieces for Organ

When I was 15 I attended an organ concert, in which the last piece in the program was by a composer preciously unknown to me. That piece, simply called Chorale in E major (performed by the Swiss organist Karen de Pastel) left me breathless. The composer’s name was – César Franck. It is a little hard for me to explain how much was I changed after this experience. Did I actually become a musician since? What is significant – I became wildly interested in his music. I started reading everything I could find about him and I found out that his concert organ music has a very wide recognition, both among performers and listeners alike. But I also found out that his concert organ music, which is so popular nowadays, consists only of twelve pieces! They represent all characteristic features of Franck’s organ-writing style, and they have an emphasized concert character, unlike the pieces from his cycle L’Organiste, which are clearly intended for church use.

In this article I present the reader with short information on each one of the Twelve Pieces.

A little biographical data: César-Auguste-Guillaume-Hubert Franck was born on December 10, 1922, in Liege, a little Belgian town. After moving to Paris with all his family, and after an unsuccessful attempt to make a child prodigy career, young César was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied organ with the renown organ teacher Benoist, and composition with Anton Reicha. He studied at the Conservatoire for five years, until his father prematurely withdrew him from school, in order to attempt to resume his touring concert artist career. It was an unsuccessful attempt; Franck fell seriously ill. He returned to Paris, married (in 1848) and started working as a music teacher and organist. In 1851 he was named organist of the church of Saint Jean-Saint Francois, and in 1858 at the church of Saint Clotilde. He was also appointed organ professor at the Paris conservatory in 1872, though he used this position to teach composition as well.

Franck composed around one hundred pieces for organ, but most of them are merely a page or two in length, and intended for liturgical use; they can be played as prelude, offertory, or postlude. Many of them are meant for either organ or harmonium, and most of them are lacking a pedal part, those features making them very different from his twelve masterworks for organ. The latter extended pieces are organized in three cycles:
1. The Six Pièces of 1959-62 (Fantasie in C major; Grande Pièce Symphonique; Prélude, Fugue et Variation; Pastoral; Prière; Final).
2. The Trois Pièces of 1878 (Fantasie in A, Cantabile, Pièce Heroique).
3. The Trois Chorales of 1890.

The Fantasie in C, is one of the best known pieces of the twelve. This work, although sounding little too scholarly to some, has an unconventional form, improvisation-like, organizing the musical material in three main sections. There is nothing too peculiar in its harmony, and according to Michael Murray “only with time and repeated hearings, do the work’s sublime counterpoints, and serenity of spirit they embody, become clear.

The Grand Pièce Symphonique, a frequently performed work of very large proportions, is often compared to Franck’s Symphonie in D Minor. D’Indy believes that its main theme “prepares” the main theme of the Symphonie in D Minor (which is yet to come, in 1888). Many composers after Franck were influenced by this “vast monument of song;” they modeled their own organ symphonic works on it – Widor, Vierne, Guilmant…

The Prélude, Fugue et Variation, is an example of a piece with a very special form. The Prélude and its Variation surround the Fugue – its theme has no common elements with the theme of the Prelude. One might think there has been a somewhat mystical catharsis, in the Fugue, which has made possible the Prélude to “become” its Variation. The lovely opening theme is often compared to a shepherd piping his horn. This piece leaves an overall impression of a strict, controlled means of form-making, together with intense expression (“This is almost Bach.” – Tournemire).

In the Pastorale, a work with a similarly strict form, are displayed some of the beautiful colors of the Saint Clotilde organ. Franck loved the reeds, especially the Trompete 8′ (on the Recit), and he used it in no fewer than five of the twelve pieces. The charming middle section, in its Scherzo character, represents a technical challenge, both to the organ and the organist.

The Prière has often been described as an exposition of a spiritual struggle. This profound and complex piece is built on two themes, which undergo much development. Davies points out this piece’s improvisatory elements, as well as the clear demonstration of Franck’s famous enharmonic modulations. It was performed only once by its author (at the Trocadero organ inauguration concert at 1878). Marcel Dupré considered this piece to be the most profound of all twelve.

Also performed at the Trocadero organ inauguration was the last piece of the cycle, Final. Built in a form of a sonata-allegro this piece has a triumphant and unrestrained character. Particularly noteworthy are its pedal solos, which reappear in a number of places throughout the piece. According to D’Indy, the opening theme is having the cheerful, fanfare-like characteristics that one can find in the fourth movement of a Beethovenian symphony.

The second cycle, Trois Pièces (1878), comes eighteen years after the first. In it, there are much more symphonic approach to the entire character of the pieces, thus bringing great influence from Franck’s symphonic oeuvre to his keyboard one.

The first piece of the cycle, Fantasie in A, has often been compared to a written-out majestic improvisation. It was actually written second, after the Cantabile. This piece has clear moods, where the themes are not developed much, which some music researchers consider to be a drawback. It is possible to say that this piece is the least performed nowadays of the twelve.

In the Cantabile, we hear the solo Trompete in almost every voice – in the soprano, tenor, bass, sounding in a wonderful canon at the third part of the piece. Tournemire call is “the soul’s unsatisfied desire”. This much praised work, although small, is one of the most performed ones. It is built on a strict ternary scheme.

The last piece, Pièce Heroique, displays even more the symphonic trends in Franck’s organ and keyboard music. Built as a rhapsody on two themes, this work is probably the best-known of all the twelve pieces.

Franck’s Trois Chorales of 1890 are his final works. Again they come a long period after the second cycle (twelve years!) They represent the summit of Franck’s creative genius at the organ, and they are very popular today. The master could write down their registration, but he could not ever actually hear them, except at the piano home. All three are written in a typical Franckian “fantasy” form, much discussed by later analysts.

According to Franck himself, the main theme of the first Choral, in E major, “creates itself ” as the form progresses”. The “choral theme” is followed by three variations, separated by short sections with contrasting musical material, and after a lengthy development come to a final statement of the main theme.

The second Choral, in B minor, displays a mournful theme in the bass, which undergoes a number of variations. In the short closing section that follows, according to Davies, we hear a statement from another Franck’s work. This closing section is being later repeated as the closing section of the entire piece (“overflowing paraphrase of divine love).” Before reaching the divine love though, we have to go through a lot of tribulations. Indeed, aren’t these pieces showing us the fights and tribulations in Franck’s life?

The third Choral in A minor, according to Tournemire “the simplest of the three,” is also the one who gives one of the brightest of impressions. The opening toccata-like section, which includes the choral theme, goes to the dominant, and from there we are taken by the extreme beauty of the “seraphic” theme of the middle part. A development follows, one which principally resembles the development in the first and second Chorals. And again, like in the first and the second, the main “choral” theme is stated triumphantly at the end.

This scarce information about Franck’s music couldn’t possibly provide the reader with more than a hint about their beauty or importance. Citing Tournemire’s words, these works were written by a real “angelic musician”…

© 2005 by Sabin Levi, DMA, FAGO