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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

The Organ at Saint Norbert’s Abbey

by Paul Emmons, Music Librarian at West Chester University, West Chester, PA.

January 22, 2001 - from show document #0104

My piano teacher at age eleven in Appleton, about 20 miles from DePere, gave me a copy of the program, an elegant, tall blue folder with a fuzzy-edged, silk-screened cover, after attending Andre Marchal’s dedicated recital in 1959/60. It included the stop list (total number of pipes: 2390). So my appetite was whetted, and I was eager for opportunities to hear it in the future. Fortunately there would be several over the next few years.

Fernando Germani was the first I heard there. I remember the first views of the building from afar, impressive in its isolation on spacious grounds just beyond the small city of DePere, as Dad turned our car off the highway onto a long, winding drive seemingly designed especially so that no one would reach the abbey without time to savor the building’s majesty during the approach. It is a cruciform, basilican structure of polished ivory limestone, with none of the originality or daring of, say, Marcel Breuer at Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minn. Its lines are thoroughly straightforward, no-nonsense, and spare without making a show of either austerity or modernity. Yet it can be breathtaking in its sheer size and integrity, on quite another scale from most churches in the region. On entering, I was struck by what a small fraction of the floor area is occupied by the pews, even though they would seat several hundred. I’d never seen a church that was large for some other reason than to crowd in as many people as possible. A huge free-standing altar is in the center, and behind it the stalls of individual seats for all the monks in collegiate style. The organ console is among these on the right, nearly invisible from the nave, and the pipes were concealed behind a grill at the east end stretching to the ceiling above the Abbot’s throne, echoing a great floor-to-ceiling stained glass window at the west end.

Every organ recital was introduced by an exhilarating peal of the six bells in the slender, lofty tower adjacent to the southwest. The bells are Belgian, as are the straight yokes on which they are hung (which allow them to swing rapidly, I understand) and the motorized ringing mechanism. When anything went out of order, they would need to fly someone in from Europe to make repairs, but I doubt that very many who have heard them could call this a waste of trouble and money. First high E would sound, then over perhaps the next thirty seconds, one by one the larger bells would be summoned into the chorus: D, C, A, G, and low E, building to a minute of such glorious clamor that the whole abbey seemed to vibrate in sympathy. Then they were successively retired in the same order. Although they were controlled by just six simple switches, one per bell, the result was always magically subtle, because one could never detect exactly when the smaller bells dropped out of the ensemble. There was just a gradual diminuendo and attenuation of the texture– one became aware that the highest notes weren’t there anymore, then the deeper bells, until the tenor was left tolling alone and more and more seldom. Ten or fifteen seconds might pass between its final few strokes. The recitalist must wait and let silence reign, lest his first phrases be interrupted by one more outburst from this bell. Meanwhile the anticipatory hush of the audience became palpable, and the first sounds from the organ would be all the more dramatic. This peal was like a shower of blessings on the event from heaven, after which nothing could go wrong. It sure beats someone ambling up to a lectern and booming “good evening!” through loudspeakers.

I’m afraid I do not remember what Germani played, although I probably still have the program filed away. Other famous and less-famous recitalists followed over the next few years. E. Power Biggs played, in the early 1960s, repertoire from his current recordings: Daquin, Soler, and “Festival of French” from S. George’s, ending with what seemed to me a blindingly intense rendition of Alain’s Litanies. Word had not yet filtered down from Vatican II that applause in church had become O.K., but as Biggs was making his long walk from the console to a receiving line in the lobby, everyone stood up in silent honor. A few years later we heard Marie-Claire Alain, who played the same piece before concluding with an improvisation. As she left the organ, passing through a side chapel, suddenly she turned away and unexpectedly fell to the floor. Before one could gasp in horror, she had risen, turned around again, and continued on her way. It was, of course, a graceful but deep genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament reserved, something that every good Catholic would do instinctively; but one not yet quite versed in these ways was struck by how this great artist, at a moment when she fully deserved to bask in the homage of a crowd, unfailingly remembered this gesture of homage to God even outside the liturgy.

My own teachers, Daniel P. Smith and LaVahn Maesch, played recitals there, as did University of Wisconsin’s Professor John Wright Harvey and student Victor Hill. (Hill played Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor and all of Messiaen’s L’Ascension. One of the good fathers, noticing a single youngster in the audience, escorted me up to their own seating very near the console, affording a splendid view. I could even feel Mr. Hill, a perfectionist, occasionally seething with discontent at some flaw in his playing probably too small for anyone else to notice.)

Eventually I enjoyed playing two recitals there myself, the latter in 1970 when I brought my choristers from All Saints, Appleton to sing the hymns and chants on which Widor’s Symphonie Gothique and the various other pieces were based. The Norbertines were wonderful hosts, giving us, although we were relative nobodies, the full treatment: dinner with them in the refectory, a tour of the sprawling plant, holy water passed from hand to hand just before we processed into the nave as the bells pealed, and enough publicity to fill it. I’d hoped that the experience of singing there would have a galvanizing effect on the boys, and it did: their work improved distinctly thereafter. Before we departed, they presented me a copy of their own plainsong tome, the Graduale Praemonstratense, with a bookmark, of course, at the most explicit of its many distinctions: the Christmas sequence hymn Laetabundus, which the Council of Trent had allowed their order alone to continue using because its author was a Norbertine. This was, and is, a bittersweet gift because they had recently stopped using this book. By this time, the Sunday mass broadcast on their radio station, WBAY, featured guitars as often as the organ. Maybe things are slowly being set to rights. See the discussion at:
document www.norbertines.org/norbs/pages/agard.htm, which includes a small illustration of the console against the west end. This page:
document www.norbertines.org/norbs/pages/menu.htm includes an interior view from the west end eastward.

The organ is an early Phelps Casavant, with a fuller and more mellow sound than he would ultimately design. The wonderful acoustics (four or five seconds of reverberation) save it. Unfortunately, despite the size of the building, the organ was not well provided for by the architect, speaking from chambers below a dropped roof line that extend to either side of the grille. In fact, it is sadly buried. For the most part, both choir and swell boxes, including the choir Trompette Harmonique which should have been a rather commanding presence, spoke into the great, from which point the sound had to turn 90 degrees to get out. Furthermore, the grille cloth was thicker than it should have been. Hence there were many elegant and exquisite sounds, but the tutti was rather thin and reticent above booming 16′ pedal tone. The grille was replaced (in the 1970s, I think) with thinner material, but I doubt that much can be done about the general layout short of mounting pipes on an exposed chest. Nevertheless, Saint Norbert’s Abbey has clearly been a Mecca for organ lovers in central Wisconsin to cherish thankfully.