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403 South Jefferson Ave.
Saginaw, MI 48607



Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Organ Tour – Installment No. 2

The first installment of the tour explained how First Congregational Church’s present sanctuary instrument has evolved and grown larger since its birth in the late 1920s as a three-manual, thirty-six rank pipe organ that spoke warmly into the sanctuary at mostly 6 and 7 ½ inches of wind pressure.

Some successful elements have remained unchanged from the initial Ernest M. Skinner Company design.  Consider for example the instrument’s location: all but four ranks – or, said another way, “rows” or pipes of a similar tonal quality and manner of construction (usually) – are located behind the front, center grillwork.  The sound’s egress is not hampered by the screen.

The antiphonal horizontal trumpet, built by Casavant Frères Ltée, was installed by John Shawhan in that late 1960s.  Three additional ranks of pipes were added by Wheeler following the fire – the rationale for these final pipe additions is uncertain.  Wind supply for these ranks is sadly leeched from the trumpet’s supply.

The original Skinner patented “whiffle-tree” swell engine (1913) is still in use and mechanically reliable.  Coupled with the thick shutters of the two enclosed divisions, portions of the instrument have a great deal of dynamic-expressive flexibility.

On the other hand, Orgelbewegung additions of the 1960s were conceived in no way to offer expressive flexibility, but [rather] to offer brightness, “transparent” sonorities, and supposed historically-informed tonal options.  A new low-pressure unenclosed great division replaced the eight ranks of Skinner pipes and chests that once formed the instrument’s (gt.) backbone.  Another similar unenclosed division, which speaks at 2 ¼ inches of wind pressure, was added at the same time.

Brittle bone (or tone) disease has in a way impacted an organ that once spoke with pronounced warmth, richness, mellowness, and fullness of tone.  Does this organ suffer from a kind of multiple personality disorder?  Was this simply a result of academic fads? 

Better yet, can anything be done now to encourage the tonal unity of an instrument that is used daily?

In coming weeks, expect to learn about the deterioration of the 1970s console and the uniqueness of Skinner reeds. 

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