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The Pipe Organ: Its History and an Overview of Examples Around the World

(Released December 2011)

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  by Sandie Schwenker  


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Pipe Organs in the Americas


Latin America

Organ culture developed in several different directions in South America, more in some regions than others. Following the Spanish Roman Catholic Church music tradition, the organ, no matter its quality or size, almost always played a secondary role as accompaniment, rather than being an instrument for solo organ interpretations in or outside the liturgy. The organs originally were imported from Europe, mostly from the "motherlands" Spain and Portugal. In time, organ builders came to the new world and trained native artisans, and many organs came to be built in South America. The organ in the church of Santo Antonio–Tiradentes in Minas Gerais, Brazil was bought in 1786 in the city of Porto, Portugal under the reign of D. Maria I and sent to Brazil in the year 1788. The instrument presents a single manual with four octaves (without pedalboard) and fifteen divided stops: seven for the left side and eight for the right side of the keyboard. The case was designed by Salvador de Oliveira and carved by Antonio Rodrigues Penteado and Antonio da Costa Santeiro. The organ in the Church of Nossa Senhora da Candelaria in Itu, Brazil was ordered on 27 December 1882 by João Tibyriçá Piratininga at the Maison Cavaillé-Coll in Paris. It was inaugurated on Sunday 22 April 1883. The organ at Iglesia de los Padres Franceses in Valparaiso, Chile, inaugurated on March20,1872, is the biggest instrument Aristide Cavaillé-Coll sent to Chile.

North America
organ at Boston Music Hall
A photo of the Boston Music Hall Walcker organ in the 12 December 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly

In some parts of the United States, pipe organs have been around for centuries. Despite a residential population that exhibited instability, especially with the fluctuations of congressional membership and the small number of federal employees in administrative functions of the new government, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of organbuilders sought to serve the evolving tri-city market of Georgetown, MD, Alexandria, VA, and Washington, DC. Both Georgetown and Alexandria were port cities, and the Potomac River was navigable up to Georgetown by ocean-going ships. Washington became the seat of government in 1800 and grew as it became more established (Friesen 14). The first organ installed in a Washington church was at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church. It was a second-hand purchase in 1810 from the Episcopal church in Dumfries, VA. The 1810 organ was replaced by an organ built by Henry Erben of New York City in 1856. St. John’s Episcopal Church, located across Lafayette Square from the White House, was the second church in Washington, DC to have an organ. During the period of 1820-1822, the church was renovated; after the renovation was complete, an organ was installed in a recess behind the pulpit. A new instrument was purchased in 1839 when a west-end gallery was built and, in 1859, the 1839 organ was replaced. The 1865 organ was finally replaced in 1893 by a two-manual, 25-stop instrument built by J. G. & C. S. Odell of New York City, as Opus 311. During a period from about 1796 to the 1830s, museums began acquiring organs as part of their collections. The organs were played regularly to add to visitors’ enjoyment. The museum organs included “finger” organs and barrel organs. Boston, Massachusetts’ greatest organ is the E. F. Walcker & Co. organ purchased for the Boston Music Hall. The organ’s case was designed by Boston architect Hammatt Billings and was to be constructed by Gustav and Christian Herter. The organ was finally ready for shipment in 1862 and was shipped in December, arriving in Boston in March 1863. While the Walcker organ received huge amounts of press when it was new, its press-worthiness was overshadowed by the events of the Civil War.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1866, a Johann Heinrich Koehnken pipe organ was dedicated at the Plum Street Temple. The organ was used regularly and was properly maintained, and in 1906 and 1907, repairs were made. By 1969, the rather worn-out organ was in need of renovation. In 1994, a proposal was made for an estimated $155,000 as a first step toward a complete restoration of the organ. The Plum Street Temple organ is considered the most important mid-19th-century Cincinnati organ.

An organ that arrived in Texas in the 1850s with a Lutheran pastor from Switzerland may be the oldest extant pipe organ to have served the early German pioneers of Texas (the “Raisin” organ). The organ had served the Trinity Lutheran Church of Victoria from the 1850s until 1884, when it was put in storage in a stone way-station near Raisin. It was a gift from the Pilgermission zur St. Chrischona, Switzerland. Mud daubers, rats, and mice ate away at the organ for nearly 75 years before it was rescued by Rubin Frels, who found it at the top of the stairs of what had been a stagecoach inn in the town of Raisin, near Victoria, Texas. The organ was restored and now is on display at the Mesquite Arts Center in a suburb of Dallas, Texas (Ferré 30). In Galveston, Texas, Bishop Jean Marie Odin had an organ built for his cathedral in 1848. Beginning about 1845, the greatest contributors to musical development in Texas were the Germans.

In the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area, Christopher Witt, Gustavus Hesselius, and his brother Andreas Hesselius had associations with early pipe organs. Gustavus Hesselius developed a relationship with John Clemm, who arrived in Philadelphia from Germany in 1733 and who installed an organ in the Moravian church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1746. Clemm is considered the first proven organbuilder to construct an organ in the colonies that became the United States. The circa 1738 instrument that Clemm built for Gloria Dei in Wicaco may have been the first locally-built (Philadelphia area) organ.

In Saratoga Springs, New York, Skidmore College, founded by Lucy Skidmore Scribner in 1911 as the Industrial School of the Arts for women, has had two organs. The first, built by William W. Laws, was installed in College Hall in September 1928. The four-manual organ, which was heard first at the opening convocation of the school year on September 28, had 42 sets of pipes and a “beautiful set of chimes.” The organ contained several unusual stops, two of which, the clarinet and nazard, were especially imported from France. The other pipe organ, constructed by Professor Saxton of the Skidmore music faculty, was installed in Filene Music Hall on the new uptown campus. This 1967 organ is a three-manual instrument with 23 ranks of pipes, combining Baroque and Romantic styles. The Saxon organ remained on the campus for 24 years, until the summer of 1981. Other historical organs in the Saratoga area include: (1) a two-manual organ built by Emmons Howard for the Masonic Hall in the early 1900s; and (2) a circa-1837 organ built by Thomas Appleton that was purchased by Mr. Carter of Saratoga for the Temple Grove Seminary for young ladies, which he founded in 1855. After the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, new organs largely disappeared from Saratoga’s musical landscape (Pinel 180).

The first pipe organ to be housed in the Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, was built by organbuilder Thomas Prentice Sanborn: a two-manual, mechanical-action organ. The organ was hand-pumped until city water pressure allowed a water motor to be installed in 1903 (“Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church 124).

Throughout the years, the pipe organ has entertained audiences and accompanied religious ceremonies around the world. The organ’s design, which has evolved through the centuries, enables it to produce sounds that cannot be achieved with any other instrument. Each organ’s case design, which ranges from extremely ornate to very modern, reflects its provenance. Despite its size and complexity, the pipe organ can be found in both large and small spaces. Its beauty is realized not only in its sound but in its construction. Pipe organ builders have been, and continue to be, true craftsmen of truly beautiful instruments.

© 2011, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

  1. Aguilar, Louis. “Theater Seeks New Venue for Mighty Pipe Organ.” Detroit The Detroit News, 27 Dec. 2009. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

  2. Dean, Edward. “Cathedral Organs of England—VI: The Organs of Southwark Cathedral.” The Organ 90.357 (2011): 14-20. Print.

  3. Disley, Alastair. “The Organs of Stockholm: Part 1 – Gamla Stan and Kungsholmen.” The Organ 84.331 (2005): 28-32. Print.

  4. Ferré, Susan. “Raising the Raisin Organ.” The Tracker 50.2 (2006): 30-36. Print.

  5. Friesen, Michael D. “Early Organs and Organbuilders in Washington and Vicinity.” Organ Atlas (2011): 14-26, 28-31. Print.

  6. Grenzing, Gerhard. “The Iberian Organ.” Organists’ Review 95.3.375 (2009): 13-19, 21. Print.

  7. Henry, Jim. “Brief History of the Organ: From Hydraulis to Miditzer.” Miditzer, 2009. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

  8. Huth, Timothy. “University of Michigan Historic Tour LVI: Spain (Catalonia) and France, July 7-22.” The Diapason 101.2.1203 (2010): 20-22. Print.

  9. “The Klapmeyer-Organ (1730), Altenbruch Germany.” mypipeorganhobby., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

  10. “Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church.” Organ Atlas (2007): 124-126. Print.

  11. “Organs – Some Technical Explanations.” The Organ Site, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

  12. Pinel, Stephen L. “Pipe Organs of Saratoga Springs: An Historical Survey.” Organ Atlas (2006): 154-182. Print.

  13. Power, John. “Pipe Organs in and around Glasgow.” The Organ 78.307 (1999): 23-24. Print.

  14. Rogers, Curtis. “Oxbridge Organs—II.” The Organ 90.357 (2011): 30-39. Print.