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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: Half-length resonators and their sonic quality

December 8, 2005

Dear Michael:
I have observed many, and heard of many more, installations where the lower (16- and 32-ft) reeds of organs have been provided with half-length resonators. In my experience, this virtually kills the musical and sonic quality that such stops have traditionally provided our larger organs. The result is more noise than tone. Clearly the rationale for half-length is either space or cost, and most likely some of both. (A fairly recent conversation with Martin Ott attested to this in a particular instrument his firm had just completed.) In fact, at one point back in the 1950s, the legendary Robert Noehren seriously considered sawing off (to half length) the magnificent wooden resonators on the 32-ft bombard in Hill Auditorium when Aeolian-Skinner was rebuilding that instrument “to make room for other [presumably new] pipework.” Fortunately that recommendation didn’t fly with Mr. Harrison and his tonal designers!

I think “there oughtta be a law” against this practice. Nor do I think the oncreasingly popular ‘digital’ option for these organ sound components is much better.

Bob Bacon
Darien, Illinois

Dear Bob:
The matter of the sound of pipe organs is one of perpetual debate and discussion. Things seem to go in cycles and draw upon local/national tastes. Thus French organs are different from German organs, English differ from Spanish, and the instruments of a given period (17th century, 19th century, early 20th century versus late 20th century) are often quite dissimilar one from the next.

You seem to hold a specific preference for the sound of American-built E.M. Skinner organs from the first 40 years of the 20th century. Skinner is certainly to be counted among the most estimable organbuilders, yet it would not be fair to use his organs as the standard by which all others are judged. The best of them are truly incredible, but (despite imaginings) they are not without their limitations.

Interestingly, from what I can determine, fractional-length resonators for reed stops are, historically, the oldest and original way that reed voices were made (ranketts and regals, for instance).
When it comes to the lower 16′ and 32′ octaves, there is no clear record.

I put your query to my organbuilding friend, Charles Hendrickson (http://www.hendricksonorgan.com), who for many years wrote a column about the ins and outs of the pipe organ for THE AMERICAN ORGANIST magazine. Here are his comments (somewhat edited by me):

Dear Bob Bacon:

It is a complex and interesting subject, and I am pleased to try with a response. I am in complete agreement with you about the electronic 32′ issue. I tried it once and I have resolved to try to avoid it from now on. It is phony, and as the architect Ed Sovik once said, “The closer an imitation comes to being like the real thing, the better to keep it out of the church.” It will become harder to resist these devices, and a new Schantz in Minneapolis has 3 electronic 32s. How can a small builder like me stand up against the powerful name-brand builders?

I had not heard about Bob Noehren threatening to cut off the Hill Aud. 32′ wood. It would have been dumb, and Bob was one of my dearest friends and I owed much to him.

There are builders who do not care for heavy 32s, and it was typical of them to go to half-length resonators. This was the norm in the latter half of the 20th century. But half-length was not the entire reason for the thin sound - shallot size, wind pressure, reed thickness, etc. are far more important here. It was all part of a style of the time. Exchanging the half-length resonators for full-length would have changed the sound only partially on those boots.

But, on the other hand, if power and grandeur are wanted from a half-length 32′, they can be designed and voiced (on substantial pressure) to do just that. You have to want that full, heavy, supportive sound and know how to get it from half-length. It can work well.

Some of the big builders (Austin, et al.) found over the years that half-length 32s could be made to start faster than full-length ones. The full-length 32s sometimes required starters to get them going. Other firms were fine with the starting of full-length. For some, a well designed half-length was preferable to a full-length for the ease of voicing and regulation.

Idelogy always gets in the way of organ building (no pipes should be nicked, or all pipes should be nicked; zinc should never be used for pipes, or zinc is good for basses, etc.). The half-length versus full-length issue is still with us, and in part due to earlier ideology or personal tonal preferences. I have no argument with those who don’t like heavy bass and romantic sounds, but I have my own preferences which tend to more supportive low frequencies (but not as heavy as EM Skinner). Half-length, thin 32′s were not the only tonal inadequacy at a time of dinky scales, low pressures, unnicked pipes. It was all part of a style of the time. Imagine a big-scale high-pressure EM Skinner 32′ Bombarde under a low Pressure 1960 Schlicker. Didn’t work and didn’t fit (though it would have been kinda fun). Or imagine a Schlicker 32′ trying to be heard under a big chambered EMS.

There are modern ways to achieve excellent results from half-length 32′s, but not with the design styles (scaling, pressure, shallots) of 40 years ago. Don’t blame the resonator length.

Yes, when space, money and design style call for a full-length 32′, it is wonderful and awe inspiring. I hope that when your church with unpteen dollars for an organ project, and the height of Amiens Cathedral, wants a full length 32′ and the hundred ranks that go with it, that you will contact me. I am available, even for a robust, thundering half-length if funds and height are less.

—Charles Hendrickson

It does boil down to preferences. I doubt that any builder sets out to make an instrument the he/she considers to be ugly or unmusical. They may create instruments which others criticize (sometimes with full justification) as not ‘meeting standard’, but the tonal variety with which the tradition of pipe organ building must grapple is too broad to be able to be encompassed successfully in any single instrument, and thus satisfy simultaneously every possible taste.

Whether one prefers Skinner or Schlicker or Schnitger, Cavaillé-Coll, Clicquot or Kimball is a matter of personal choice. Preferring Daublaine over Dobson does not guarantee that one builder is superior to the other. Actually, comparing Dobson’s early work (or Fisk’s, or even Skinner’s) to the later products from those same shops would reveal some rather interesting stylistic changes occuring ‘under one roof’.

In the end, as another organbuilder said to me (exercising great patience, drawn from a long and mostly friendly relationship between us) at the conclusion of a long diatribe from me about things I didn’t like about that builder’s recent instruments: “Some people buy our instruments because the actually like the way they sound.”

jmb

 

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