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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Pipes Prevail”

September 11, 2012

Dear Michael,

The Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport suffered a disasterous fire ten months ago, destroying its pipe organ and damaging the 1830 colonial style sanctuary. Plans are underway for reconstruction, but some of the members seem to favor replacing the old organ with an elecronic instrument, an apalling idea in my opinion. Could you direct us to a useful authority to support our campaign to return a new pipe organ to this historic structure? Many thanks; we enjoy Pipe Dreams immensely!

Andrew H. Neilly, Jr.

Dear Andrew,


What was the previous instrument…built by whom, how old?

An electronic instrument is a substitute, like plastic or fabric flowers. Though from 10 feet away they may look the part (and in the ears of many, an electronic organ may sound the part, impressively so), it is not the real thing.

The Associated Pipe Organ Builders of American can provide you with plenty of ammunition. Check the various options in the border-index at the top of theii page.

Unfortunately, the use of 'the real thing' in churches is only a tradition…commencing perhaps in the 12th or 13th century. There's nothing about the inherent nature of the organ that makes it a 'sacred' instrument, and indeed next week's PIPEDREAMS broadcast (with Cameron Carpenter at Royal Albert Hall, #1238) will prove that point vividly…it is simply a musical instrument, a tool for a performer.

But if your congregation has been nurtured by its previous pipe organ and still worships in a style for which organ music is an important ingredient, then it would seem logical to maintain that tradition.

It does appear that your music director/organist is taking interested people on a comparative 'tour' in coming weeks to explore the sounds of electronic and pipe instruments. The results from (or reactions to) that will be directly related to the instruments chosen for comparison. A decent electronic installation can sometime sound better than a poor pipe organ, but there is no alternative, in my mind (or ear) to the sound of an authentic pipe organ.

Just as 'the church' really is the people, church music is that which brings the congregation together in prayer and praise. This can be done with no instruments whatsoever, with a piano, a string ensemble, brasses, a solo flute, an electronic keyboard, or a pipe organ. A pipe organ makes a sound unlike any other instrument, one which in history has been (because of its complexity and grandeur) related to a voice from heaven. The imagination is a wonderful thing. :-)

Good luck in your proceeds.




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