Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Most Historic Organ

I thank Alan Creek for sending me these pictures of the historic pipe organ at St. Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) in St. Louis, almost in the same neighborhood as the church I attend. Besides these pictures he sent me many additional snaps of the innards of the organ, but I post these for the enjoyment of those more generally interested in the pipe organ.
First, here's a nice view of the pipes and of the space they fill with sound. Judging by the decorations (as well as an exterior shot of the church which showed snow on the roof), I gather these pictures were taken around Christmastime. It looks like an instrument that could create an impressive volume of brilliant, festive holiday music.

Second, here's a close-up of the console, with emphasis on the pedals. Note that the pedal board is flat, and that the pedals are all lined up parallel to each other. This reflects the historic pedal design favored in may parts of Europe to this day. American organs of the last few decades have spoiled organists (like me) with easier-to-reach pedal keys splayed out in a radiating, concave pattern, like the ribs of a folding fan that curves upward at both ends. The splayed configuration makes it easier to reach notes with your heels, so that you don't have to twist your ankle so much when reaching heel-to-toe across intervals of a third or fourth; the concave shape brings notes at the upper and lower end of the keyboard closer, so that you do not have to stretch your legs so far. Playing a straight pedal-board like this will really put hair on a guy's chest. But, it may also help performers develop a more historically authentic approach to works by Bach and other composers who played their own works on instruments like this.

Above the pedal-board are four additional pedals. The three on the left are simple on-off switches for couplers, which combine the stops for more than one keyboard onto a single keyboard. I am guessing that these couplers, from left to right, are "Great to Pedal," "Swell to Pedal," and "Swell to Great," where "Great" means the lower keyboard (controlling the pipes exposed on top of the organ) and "Swell" means the upper keyboard (controlling pipes enclosed inside a wooden chest). The larger, fancy "volume-pedal" looking thing to the right of these three is the Swell pedal, which opens and closes the jalousie doors on the swell chest, allowing the performer to raise or lower the loudness of at least part of the instrument. This may seem like a Rube Goldberg machine to you, but organs have been around a lot longer than electronics. This is simply the only way to adjust the volume on pipes, which in themselves are an "all or nothing, on or off" kind of instrument.

Here are the stops for Great and the Pedal. One pulls a piston out to bring a stop into action, and pushes it back in to shut it off. Bottom row first, L to R: "Bellows Signal" activates a signal (bell?) to alert the dude cranking the bellows that the organist needs more wind. It's interesting to see this on an organ in these days of electric air pumps! Next is the Bass Flute 8 ft., a pedal stop that plays a note at the actual pitch of the corresponding note in the score. Then there's the Bourdon 16 ft., which sounds an octave lower. On the middle row of pistons you have four 8 ft. stops on the Great (lower manual keyboard). The most important one is on the right: Open Diapason, a.k.a. the Principal -- the type of pipe with the most quintessentially "organy" sound, frequently used as the foundation of a strong, solid-sounding registration. To the left, apparently a more recent addition, is a trumpet stop, whose flaring pipes create a brilliant, brassy sound. Then there's the Gamba, a pipe whose tapering shape gives it a mellow, breathy sound that organists strangely associate with strings; and finally the Melodia, which I take to be a flute stop, lighter than the Diapason but clearer than the Gamba. Above these, from right to left, are: Octave 4 ft., a sound similar to the Diapason but one octave higher (adding strength and brightness to a tone-color combination); Flute d'Amore 4 ft., a flute sound at the same higher octave, probably contrasting gently with the Melodia but less forceful than the Octave; Super Octave 2 ft., another diapason two octaves above the written note and thus making the total combination even brighter; and the Mixture 3 rks., which is to say 3 ranks of pipes tuned to such intervals as a 4th or a 3rd above the 4-ft. pitch level, and sounding all together to create a buzzy mixture of tone colors, shrill and out of tune by themselves, but in combination with 8' and 4' stops gilding the total sound with a shimmer of brilliance.

The "Swell" stops are situated on the other side of the console, controlling the pipes in the swell box. The bottom row duplicates the coupler kick-switches above the pedal board, in a form that the performer may feel more confident using, provided he can spare a hand. The middle row, from left to right, starts with another 8 ft. Diapason, this one "stopped" as opposed to the "open" Diapason on the Great. This is to say, each pipe (probably made of wood put together in a boxy shape) has a plug stuck in the top end, forcing the wind through a narrower opening and creating a more flute-like sound. The Oboe Gamba 8 ft., like the trumpet, is a "reed" type of pipe, relying not just on air blowing across a slit in the pipe but on a little metal tongue inside the pipe to create the essential vibration that determines its vaguely oboe-like sound, best used for delicate solos. The Salicional is a stringy type of flute, and the Geigen Principal is a sort of cross between a string stop and a diapason, possibly with a hornlike tone color. On the top row of stops, from right to left, you have: the Tremolo, which puts a little shake in all the notes; the Flute Harmonique 4 ft., a type of flute pipe that is built to 8 ft. dimensions and then "overblown" so that it sounds an octave higher; the 4 ft. Violino, obviously a string stop sounding an octave higher than the written pitch; and the 2 fl. Flautino, a sharp flute sound two octaves up.

This would be an interesting instrument to play. I may prove to be wrong, but the feeling I get from looking at the design of this historic instrument is that it is inspired by the British school of organ building, so that its stops will tend to pile up in rich, dignified, solid masses of not very brilliant sound, with a slight tendency to blur independent lines together. In accompanying services on this organ, I predict that I would probably overuse the trumpet as an expedient for making the melody line "pop out" against the background, and the pedal couplers would be in nearly constant use. Pieces giving the pedal part a distinctive solo line against two contrasting lines of accompaniment in the manuals would be difficult to pull off. But for light, intimate pieces at a softer dynamic level, there would be a world of contrast and variety to play with. Now I look forward to test-driving this organ to see how far off my predictions are, and how quickly my ankles and knees can adapt to the straight pedalboard!

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