Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Organ Tour – Installment No. 1
The pipe organ is played throughout the week at First Congregational Church. Its sounds are heard leading hymns, playing in recital, accompanying guest choirs, and inspiring music lovers in Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay Region.
Even Virgil Fox performed on Saginaw’s mighty organ in the 1960s.
Members of the congregation and guests often ask questions about FCC’s sanctuary organ. From where does the sound come? How big or small are the pipes? How many pipes are in the organ?
The organ – containing almost four thousand pipes – is located in the large chamber behind the choir and in the real gallery, where four ranks of pipes are situated on a chest beneath the east window. The sound travels optimally down the central axis of the nave.
Some of the organ’s metal pipes are smaller than a child’s little finger. Others are made of wood and look like giant crates flipped on end. The organ’s largest pipes are greater in height than a regulation basketball hoop.
At times questions can be more difficult to answer. “Why does the organ need to be maintained? It sounds so beautiful on Sunday morning.” Does an organ need a singular tonal goal? What is so unique about a Skinner organ? How much will an organ project cost?
These are the twenty dollar – or, rather, the hundred thousand dollar plus – questions.
Some people know that FCC’s present sanctuary instrument began its life as a modest three-manual organ built by the Ernest M. Skinner Company of Boston in the late 1920s. Over the years – in keeping with the Orgelbewegung fad – it was determined to enlarge Op. 751. John F. Shawhan oversaw this task in the 1960s, and installed nearly thirty additional ranks of pipes built by Casavant Frères Ltée (Op. 2809). Following the tragic fire of the 1970s, a new console was built, pipes were cleaned, and three flue ranks were added in the rear loft. Local builder Scott Wheeler completed this maintenance. Other than MIDI additions and minor console repair, a steady diet of “routine” maintenance has been the organ’s norm since the late 80s.
Now, decades later, staff and guest organists face the challenge of an unreliable instrument pieced together over many decades: it is their task to cope with a combination action that does not operate consistently; it is their task to cope with a number of stops that do not work full-compass due to problems with wiring, magnets, or chests; it is their task to try to make music in a situation when music takes back burner to malfunction.
The purpose of this online tour series is to allow Friends of Music to become acquainted with the pipe organ at First Congregational Church, to show off elements of superb craftsmanship and organ building, to point out areas where maintenance is needed, and to encourage support of the project. Posing and answering questions along the way is necessary!
Might this organ once again speak with a beauty similar to what Ernest Skinner envisaged in the 1920s? Might this organ return to its former cultural, liturgical, and educational role in Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay Region?