Sunday, February 25, 2007

Thank God for Reuter

It is my great, and I feel undeserved, privilege every Sunday to play a beautiful, 1972 Reuter organ in a beautiful, 1948 nave-style church. I only started the job last fall, taking over from a very gifted, sweet man who was the congregation's organist for 60 years. If I live long enough, a 60-year stint at this organ would be a tremendous blessing.

I can't sing the praises of this instrument enough. When I auditioned for the position, I was captivated by the economy and simplicity of this organ, which at the same time made everything I played sound exactly the way I had imagined it.

Every pipe organ is as unique as a human fingerprint. Such organs are designed, first of all, to fit the size, shape, and building materials of the space they live in, not to mention the purchasing-power of the congregation. But there are also several different schools, or styles, of organ design, and which style or combination of styles is used will depend in part on the desires of the musician(s) overseeing the installation. And of course each builder also leaves his particular mark. The passage of time, wear and tear, revisions and repairs will also effect the distinctive sound of each organ. So each organ will have its own number and types of pipes, organized and voiced in its own way, and its voice will resonate in a unique way in the unique space it inhabits.

I love the pipe organ. A small organ with only a handful of ranks of pipes can be an exciting challenge to an organists' creativity. A big organ with "everything but the bathroom sink" can be an opportunity to run wild with an endless variety of sonorities and styles. But with this 1972 Reuter at my church, I feel that I have come across the first "just right" organ in my musical career. It isn't extravagantly huge; in fact, it only has two manuals, each with a modestly generous but well-balanced selection of stops.

Unlike the "big organ" I mentioned earlier (including some that I have played while wondering, "Do I really need all this?") it doesn't have every stop I could dream of using; like the "small organ" I mentioned earlier, it still challenges me to be creative in my stop selection. Yet I can be creative on a big, medium, or small scale; I can create as many varieties of color-combinations as I want; and as long as I remember to renew the tuner's contract, it just sounds awesome.

Here is the organ's registration, for you pipe lovers out there. Forgive me for not being more specific about "flutes" and "principals," but in my thoughts (and marginal notes) I have generally tended to think in terms of flute vs. principal, and it's convenient enough though it belies the variety of flute sounds, etc. Also note that the swell is divided into 2 boxes, each of which is controlled by its own pedal. With a clever use of swell presets, the organist can create the illusion of 3 pipe divisions with only 2 keyboards.

Pedal: 16' Violone; 16' Bourdon; 16' Rohrfl.; 8' Octave; 8' Bourdon; 8' Flute; 4' Choralbass; 4' Bourdon; 16' Posaune; 8' Trompette; 8' and 4' couplers to each manual. My memory betrays me; there may also be a 4' Pedal-to-Pedal coupler. The Violone is quite strong. The reed stops are a bit slow to speak on some notes, so I am very sparing in their use.

Swell: 8', 4', and 2' Flute; 4' Spitz-Principal; 8' Viola; 8' Viol Celeste; 2-2/3' and 1-3/5' stops; 8' Trumpet; 16' and 4' Swell-to-Swell; Tremolo. Having the trumpet in the Swell flies in the face of a lot of composers' written-out registration, but it really stands to reason in terms of balancing the loud trumpet against the heavier-sounding ranks in the Great.

Great: 8', 4', and 2' Principals; 8' and 4' Flutes; III Mixture; 8' Krumhorn; 8' and 4' Swell-to-Great and 4' Great-to-Great. There also used to be a chime stop, but I'm told that the mechanism rusted so it was disconnected.

Each keyboard has 4 available presets, and there are 4 general presets available. There is also a crescendo pedal and a full-organ button, neither of which I ever use. Sorry, I'm just not wired that way. I've never liked crescendo pedals, and my nerves can't take "full organ." I mostly use the swell pedals, and manually adding or removing stops, for expression.

My philosophy of organ presets is pretty modest, compared (I have found) to that of other organists. One Sunday, after having a week off while some big-shot guest organist came in for a special service, I tried out the presets the other guy had set up and was actually terrified by the noise that came out. If I ever play that loudly, which I doubt, it is after building up to it one or two stops at a time. I have a hard time understanding why someone would put so much on a preset.

Some of my discomfiture may have been that when I came in to practice, the air conditioning was off (weekdays during the summer, you know) so things were way out of tune that would have sounded nice on an air-cooled Sunday morning (particularly the reeds); some of it, I suspect, was that I have different ideas about acoustics and musical leadership, and in my opinion the "pull out all the stops" approach results in a thick, heavy, indistinct gloop of sound.

In my practice, General Preset 1 is for introducing hymns and accompanying low-key parts of the liturgy, such as the responses at the beginning of the service & the Kyrie. Preset 2 is for the first stanza of a hymn and most of the liturgy, Preset 3 is for a really climactic hymn stanza or parts of the liturgy (such as the Sanctus and the Te Deum), and Preset 4 is for the Postlude (I change this one every week). The swell & great presets come in handy for preludes and the voluntary, so I don't have to spend time switching stops while people are waiting. Therefore I also change them on a weekly basis. But Gen. 1-3 stay the same, and I either add to them or take away as needed. For example, in the Gloria at "That takest away the sin of the world" I take the 2' Principal off in the Great, and add it back in at "For Thou only art holy." I do something similar in the Sanctus at "Blessed is He" and in the Te Deum at "When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man."

And as hymn stanza builds upon hymn stanza, I often increase the registration by adding, for example, the cornet stops on the Swell (stanza 2), or maybe just the 4' and 2-2/3' stops at first and the 2' and 1-3/5' later; the 4' couplers to the Great one at a time, and the III Mixture, in varying order but most often starting with the 4' Swell-to-Great; other principal and flute stops not already added; and finally, just maybe, some reeds. On my lightest Preset (1) I sometimes chuck in the strings, for a really dense but shimmery sound. Gen. 2 is the only general preset on which I occasionally play on the upper manual (mainly, to give the pastor his note for a chant, or to repeat part of the closing hymn to accompany the "silent prayer"). I also have one preset (3) in which the 8' Swell to Great is not automatically selected, so in a pinch I can play a Trumpet solo without having to clear the coupler. My presets are very light and simple, so that I can quickly build a distinctive sequence of sound combinations on each one.

I'm not a perfect organist. Not nearly! Some days I'm not as accurate in my pedal playing as I would like; other days, perhaps, I find myself regretting registration choices I made ahead of time; and though I think I have grown a lot musically, and continue to grow, there is always room for me to learn my music more precisely and to play it more musically. However, having such a beautifully designed instrument to play, with which some musical instinct in me instantly connected, is tremendously exciting. At almost every service, I all but lose myself in the joy of playing it, and I often feel that I have journeyed to a musical place where I have never gone before. This isn't, in every instance, the most helpful thing for the folks in the pews who are trying to sing the hymns and concentrate on their silent prayers. So I do get mixed feedback from them. But I am nearly always delighted with the response this organ gives me, and I hope and believe that I am also responding to it, by growing as a musician each time I play it.

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