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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Let me be my own judge – thoughts on 20th century organ building…”

February 26, 2013

Dear Michael,

I've read several articles online about organs from the first part of the 20th century. The authors stated that these instruments sounded muddy, and unclear. Are there any recordings of such instruments, and do any of them still exist in their tonally unaltered state. I'd like to hear one, so I can judge for myself.

Best Regards,

Wally Verluis

Dear Wally,

This is an area where much has been written, some of which makes sense and much does not. Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing through the 1930s, pipe organ designs emphasized 'unison tone' and down-played (or eliminated) higher-pitched stops, particularly mixtures. Given that many American churches (in particular) had moved away from being 'lofty, reverberant and cold' spaces and adopted what can only be called a 'living-room' aesthetic (carpeted floors, pew cushions), the environment in which the organ sounded had changed…and the tone-color of instruments changed to meet this new situation.

I had believed the 'muddy and unclear' business until I heard an instrument with a very rich, full-bodied, unison-centered tonal quality…in which every inner voice of complex counterpoint was totally clear. This intrigued me, because I had also heard numerous very bright and mixture-rich 'neo Baroque' organs on which the inner counterpoint was, in fact, quite garbled.

You can listen to the 100-year old Kotzschmar organ in Portland, Maine…or the 1932-1935 Aeolian-Skinner organ at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota (program Part 2)…comparing these with traditional Baroque-period organs such as in the Netherlands…

They are very different, yes, but all are very musical.




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