Friday, June 20, 2014

Everything old is new again

If you were a pipe organ (now that Barbara Walters is retired I get to ask the silly questions*)--you would, naturally, be a very complicated instrument with a very elaborate maintenance schedule of regular tunings, occasional repairs large and small to pipes and wind-related accessories alike, and perhaps the electronic switches that sometimes accompany them. And, hopefully, all of this would proceed on schedule and with regular diligence.

But there are many times when a pipe organ suffers from years of neglect. Often there simply isn't the money. Or the public concern, which is really saying the same thing, isn't it?

In our town, the "mighty" Wurlitzer in our Virginia Theater limped along for years with the help of one dedicated individual who--they say--used rubber bands, duct tape, and whatever else he could to keep the old organ up and running. He passed away a few years ago, and as a great restoration project was under way to restore the old Vaudeville theater to a new luster (every town in America has an old abandoned theater from the 1920s, and everyone has either undertaken a restoration project or demolished their theater; otherwise it just sits there and looks forlorn and ugly.) the organ, also, got a significant overhaul from our own Buzard organ builders, headquartered in Champaign, Illinois. They did a fine job. It was great fun to play the beast before the New Year's Eve show this past year; much more enjoyable than when half of the notes didn't work! (I remember naively transposing pieces into every key I could think of and finally giving up because there were so many notes missing that it didn't matter.) Here's a page about that organ.

That organ dates from 1921 which makes it historic for America. But here's a site about a much older organ than that. It dates from 1776, and is currently being completely restored.

This is, you can imagine, a much larger project than the one we are engaged in at Faith UMC. There, we are only replacing the console and the electronic relay system. The pipes will not be touched, nor does the instrument stand in need of major repair outside of the electronic parts. It is an expensive project nonetheless, but the project at the Holy Ghost Church in Vilnius, Lithuania has been proceeding in stages for nearly a decade and at a cost of over half a million dollars. There the organ had to be rescued from a state of complete unplayability, it seems, and is receiving a complete overhaul. Funding is coming in large part from the Lithuanian government and there is also an ongoing fundraising campaign.

Why go to all that trouble and expense? Organists like to quote Mozart, who said that to his eyes and ears "the organ is the king of instruments." He didn't trouble to write anything for it, but he gave us a nicely authoritative quote. Not only is it the king, each organ is unique to the builder and usually represents the work of many months (or years). A master builder may produce an instrument revered the world over. Organists know their Shnitgers and Silbermanns and Cavaille-Colls and Flentrops and Bekeraths, their Harrison and Harrisons and their Willises and their Clicquots and Trosts and--got the point?

And their Casparinis. Mr. Casparini hasn't left behind too many surviving organs (neither did Gottfried Silbermann, which is just a darned shame because we'd get to play Bach on a "Bach instrument" more often--unfortunately Europeans also like to have things called wars every so often, which are vastly more expensive than organ restoration projects and--get this--do quite the opposite!--so there are fewer historic instruments than there might be.

In any case, you might find those pages an interesting read, unless perhaps I am simply so much of a nerd that I wax enthusiastically about things that you find a snooze. But it is worth a try. One reason people don't often rush out and donate to the arts in general, and projects like this in particular is that they have so little encounter with, and knowledge of, the subject matter. In future installments of this blog we're going to take a little tour through the history of this amazing instrument and visit the parts of it that you don't get to see on Sunday morning.

In the meanwhile, we can be glad our organ still works and is not in need of something more serious--and that, with proper maintenance and the occasional course correction--it never will be.

*You'll note, however, that I refrained from asking "what pipe organ would you be?" Due to the immense buzz that would generate it will have to wait for a future post. Meanwhile, you can be thinking about that at your leisure. Don't all want to be the grand organ at St. Sulpice, now.

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