"You have two of the finest instruments I have ever played." James David Christie, first American to win the International Organ competition "Thank you for allowing me to play here." Marie-Claire Alain

A church must have an organ. It’s an unwritten law. The instrument could be a Hammond B-3 or Casio, but a church needs an organ and organist to accompany the choir and to nurse the congregation through each hymn. My church, the First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio has two. And they aren’t Hammond B3s or Wurlitzers or any other electronic organ, but concert class pipe organs. Most churches would be proud to have one of these babies. After all, the smaller organ boasts 3,719 pipes.

One of the questions I had upon coming to the church is Why? Except for the smallest practice organs, all pipe organs are custom built, fit to the room they rest in and will serve. They are large, complex machines and expensive both to build and service. It seems counterintuitive for any church to have more than one. This essay attempts to show how fashion and economics brought two organs to First Church.

In 1931 the current church building was under construction. Designed by John Russell Pope, whose designs also include the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery of Art, it is a a gothic revival church constructed in the classic cruciform plan, with a nave 104 feet long with vaulting peaking 44 feet above the floor. Hardly the great Cathedral at Amiens, France, the church is an impressive and beautiful building nonetheless. Columbus realtor Alice Martin donated the entire $34,000 required to build the organ. The W. W. Kimball Company of Chicago was chosen to build the organ for First Church. Kimball was a major organ builder in those days, and a leading maker of theater organs. Kimball organs were superbly built, the hightest quality parts and pipework throughout. The electropneumatic control system introduced in 1918 gave Kimball organs a reputation for exceptional reliability for the time. Organs were a staple of theater and stadium music during the 20th century because pipe organs were the only instrument capable of producing enough volume to fill such large spaces. Theater organs tend to have many manuals (organspeak for keyboard), and "gimmick" stops, called traps that operate of actual percussion instruments. Pipes are often shared between manuals, which is rarely done for a church installation. Most operate at very high pressure relative to a church organ, partly because the pressure is needed for the traps. Low pressure produces better tone, with much less problems from "chuffing" sounds from certain ranks of pipes

In the late twenties Kimball made a major effort to dominate the church organ market. First Church's organ, Opus 30324, represented one of the opening salvos of that effort. Church organs are more musical, often have fewer manuals (keyboards) but more ranks and registers of pipes. The company developed a popular and distinctive 'Kimball sound' based on "clear principal choruses, fiery reeds and distinctive orchestral colors". The instrument was designed by Glenn Grabill, the church's Music Director and Kimball's R.P. Eliot, a former choirboy at the church. The harp stop includes a real harp, plucked electropheumatically, real chimes on the chimes stop. The installed the pipe room behind a screen to the west side of the church chancel, with an echo organ located on the west wall of the gallery on the opposite end of the church. The organ was quite modern with a movable console and electro-pneumatic keys and stops. First Church members at that time were justly proud of their instrument, then perhaps the finest in Columbus.

Now fast forward to the late sixties. The Kimball is now forty years old and its age has become obvious to everyone. The building had been heated originally with coal-fired boilers. Coal can be made to burn cleanly, but no one thought to install very high temp burners and scrubbers in 1931. Heating the church raised a small but real screen of coal dust into the air. Over the decades that dust had infiltrated into the windchests and the pipes, significantly degrading the sound. Though the church no longer used coal heat, the damage had been done. The only way to repair the organ was to remove and clean each and every pipe by hand. All 4,407 of them, some of which were 16 feet long and a couple feet deep. Some of the wooden pipes had dried out and split. That alone was enough to ensure that repairing the Kimball would be an enormous undertaking.

The dust was only one problem. A pipe organ gets its '"wind’' from a series of wind chests located under each register, or family of pipes. A windchest is really a box with a flexible bladder inside, which his held in place by springs, and/or weights that are used to control air pressure. The Kimball has at least seven windchests. The primary windchest is in the basement. Fed by a centrifigul compressor driven a large DC motor it takes up around 70 cubic feet. From it a six inch pipe feeds the echo organ windchests. An 18" duct feeds a manifold distributing air between the six windchests in the main chancel organ. Each has a different pressure, which is determined by the amount of weight on the box. Each windchest serves as a pressure regulator for the pipes it feeds.

What makes the chest work is that flexible bladder made of leather, rubber, rubberized canvas or other flexible materials. Like all such materials they dry out and lose their flexibility with age. That leads to cracks and potentially catastrophic failures. This came to head during a wedding when one windchest blew out. A loud bang and a shower of coal dust upon the bride and groom announced the Kimball had reached crisis stage. The instrument used to wheeze when it was played.

Finally, the electro-pneumatic stop and key action, so advanced in 1931, was failing in 1971. The Kimball has 264 keys, plus pedals, 73 stops and 66 ranks of pipes. There is a small room behind the chancel that resembled an old style telephone switching room from the rotary dial era, all for pipe control. But the real heart was the pneumatics. When you pulled a stop, or combination stop, a leather bladder would inflate moving a row of contacts, really nothing more than small aluminum wires under two millimeters thick, to a set of looped wires, operating switches. That would inflate a small, square leather bag that opened an air passage permitting a larger but similar leather bag to inflate. The second bag opened the pipe so air can rush through it. These leather sacs are small, fold quickly and must be able to open and close as faster than you can snap your fingers. Pitted relays and 9,000 aging, dust-infested leather bags produced major problems.

In 1970 it simply looked as if repairing the Kimball was going to be only marginally less expensive than a brand new organ. And the fashion in organs had changed. Bach was back!

Organs are creatures of fashion, with different families of organs having notable stylistic differences, sort of like the difference between a Fender Stratocaster and a Gibson Les Paul. Players and knowledgable listeners can instantly tell the difference between the two guitars by sound alone. Both have different strengths and weaknesses, and both guitars go in and out of fashion according to what people want to play at the time. So it is with organs.

In 1931 must liturgical music focused on the English repertoire, mostly from the 19th century. A classic symphonic organ has a lush sound, warm and complex. In the 1930s E. Power Biggs returned from Germany convinced that the 'true' organ sound was the more cool, precise German sound. For many years Bigg's exceptional technique and a forceful personality made a convincing case for the German style. His chief rival, the flamboyant, caped Virgil Fox made the case for symphonic organs like Kimball. Really the difference was less about what was 'right' than what kind of music you wanted to play.

In 1970 organists like Biggs and synthesist Wendy (then Walter) Carlos had placed baroque music front and center. Johann Sebastian Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude and other composers made their living as church organists. They contributed many pieces of significant liturgical music. Fugues had gone mainstream.

Now the Kimball could do all of these things. Concert class organs can play anything. But Rennaissance music was not the organ's strong suit. The German classical repertoire favors speed and a pure, ‘cool’ tone that allows the individual notes to stand out. Such organs feature more stops at 4' and 2' (or less) rather than 8', mixture stops, and pipes pitched at harmonics. Even the metallurgy is different in the pipes. Call the Beckerath mint chocolate chip to the Kimball's butter pecan.

This touched off a battle within the church. Some wanted to fix the Kimball. Others pointed out the exceptional effort required to rebuild an organ that had fallen out of style. Certain donors preferred a new organ, and three families stepped forward with the money to buld it. Some thought the Kimball should be removed or sold (possibly for parts) to help fund the new organ. But members of the organ committee, notably Rick Sayre, stood firm. A new organ would be built. The Kimball would not be sold. It would remain in place in the hope that someday money could be found to restore it.

The search led the church to Rudolf von Beckerath of Hamburg, Germany. Born in 1907, von Beckerath had been entranced by the organs of Arp Schnitger. Bach played a Schnitger organ. In 1927 he went to France to study under Victor Gonzales, who was still making tracker organs. Schnitger made tracker organs, a type of organ where mechanical rods, known as ‘trackers’ operate the valves for each individual pipe. Tracker organs are somewhat "stiff’ to play, in that they have relatively hard key action. But they are very fast, precise and the organist can literally feel the valves opening. Beckerath founded his own company in 1949, in Hamburg. Beckerath organs enjoyed a worldwide reputation by 1970, so he was invited to Columbus to build the new organ.

Beckerath arrived and began measuring and testing the church. If all organs are custom, it is because the building that holds an organ helps determine the tone. It would not be too strong to say that the building housing an organ is part of that organ. After a few days, von Beckerath booked a flight back to Germany. He told the church leadership he would not begin an organ until they did something about the church acoustics.

The church acoustics too were a property of fashion. In 1931 the ideal was to make rooms sound as ‘dead’ as possible. By 1971 the goal was a bit of echo, a nice time delay. The entire ceiling of the church had been covered with an inch of cork in order to absorb sound. Scaffolds were set up to remove the old layers of cork. At the end, the church was tested and found to have a nice 2.5 second delay. Beckerath was called back to Columbus. He took his measurements, smiled and said, “Now I will build you an organ!”

The organ he built was unique in Ohio, and made an immediate statement for the Church's music program. It is widely regarded as one of the finest creations of one of the world's finest organbuilders. For the past thirty years the von Beckerath has been the organ at First Church, and has been played by many of the world's finest organists. The Kimball was still playable in 1971, and the gifts of a member named Jean MacNevin kept it going until the problems finally overwhelmed the old organ. She died in 1999, and her estate left enough money for a complete restoration of her beloved organ. That restoration was completed in September 2004. Every pipe has been cleaned, repaired and revoiced. The motor rewound. Windchests rebuilt. The old style "Frankenstein" relays were replaced with modern digital controls. Thousands of leather sacs were replaced. One cat5e cable replaced the huge wire bundle that had operated the instrument before. The Kimball is renewed. In fact, it sounds better than ever thanks to the late Rudolf von Beckerath. The acoustic changes he demanded before building his organ help the Kimball to sing as well. With new video circuitry, the Kimball and the Beckerath can be played together in concert. A new work by Gene Hancock has been commissioned specially for both organs. Noted organists from around the world regularly call First Church and ask to play a concert.

8,126 pipes shall sing!

Gallery Organ, Rudolf von Beckerath Co. Hamburg, Germany 3 manuals 73 ranks 47 stops 3,719 pipes mechanical (tracker) action, electric stop action

Great; 56 notes

  1. 16 Quintadena
  2. 16 Principal
  3. 8 Speiflote
  4. 4 Octave
  5. 4 Hohlflote
  6. 2 2/3 Nasat
  7. 2 Octave
  8. 1 3/5 Terz
  9. VI Mixture
  10. III Cymbal
  11. 8 Trumpet
  12. 8 Spanish Trumpet
  13. 4 Spanish Trumpet

Swell 56 notes

  1. 16 Bordun
  2. 8 Rohrflote
  3. 8 Gemshorn
  4. 8 Celeste
  5. 4 Viola
  6. 4 Flute Octavinate
  7. 2 Flachflote
  8. III Cornet
  9. V Mixture
  10. 16 Dulcian
  11. 8 Oboe
  12. 4 Musette Tremolo

Positiv 56 notes

  1. 8 Gedackt
  2. 8 Quintadena
  3. 4 Principal
  4. 4 Rohrflote
  5. 2 Octave
  6. 1 1/3 Quinte
  7. 1 Sifflote
  8. II Sesquialtera
  9. IV-VI Scharf
  10. 8 Cromorne Tremolo

Pedal 32 notes

  1. 16 Principal
  2. 16 Subbass
  3. 10 2/3 Quint
  4. 8 Octave
  5. 8 Rohrgedackt
  6. 4 Octave
  7. 2 Nachthorn
  8. III Basszink
  9. VI Mixture
  10. 16 Posaune
  11. 8 Trumpet
  12. 4 Trumpet G/P, S/P
  • Martin-MacNevin Memorial Organ, Church Chancel
  • W.W. Kimball Co. Chicago, Illinois
  • 4 manuals 66 ranks 73 stops 4,407 pipes
  • Electropneumatic key and stop action
  • Great 61 notes

    1. 16 Double Open Diapason
    2. 8 First Open Diapason
    3. 8 Second Open Diapson
    4. 8 Third Open Diapason
    5. 8 Hohlflote
    6. 8 Gemshorn
    7. 4 Octave
    8. 4 Harmonic Flute
    9. 2 2/3 Twelfth
    10. 2 Fifteenth Cello
    11. IV Mixture
    12. 16 Contra Tromba
    13. 8 Trumpet
    14. 4 Tromba Clarion
    15. Chimes
    16. Harp

    Swell 61 notes

    1. 16 Bourdon
    2. 8 Open Diapason
    3. 8 Clarabella
    4. 8 Gedeckt
    5. 8 Spitz Flute
    6. 8 Spitz Flute Celeste
    7. 8 Viola
    8. 8 Salcional
    9. 8 Voix Celeste
    10. 4 Octave Giegen
    11. 4 Flauto Traverso
    12. 2 Flautina
    13. V Mixture
    14. III Cornet Dolce
    15. 16 Double Trumpet
    16. 8 Cornopean
    17. 8 Oboe
    18. 8 Vox Humana
    19. 4 Clarion
    20. Harp

    Choir 61 notes

    1. 16 Contra Viola
    2. 8 Einglish Diapason
    3. 8 Melodia
    4. 8 Dulciana
    5. 8 Undara Maris
    6. 4 Flute d’Amour
    7. 2 2/3 Nasard
    8. 2 Piccolo
    9. 8 Clarinet
    10. 8 Orchestal Oboe
    11. Harp
    12. Celesta

    Solo 61 notes

    1. 8 Melophone
    2. 8 Violonocello
    3. 8 Cello Celeste
    4. 4 Orchestral Flute
    5. 8 Tuba
    6. 8 French Horn
    7. 8 English Horn
    8. Chimes

    Echo 61 notes

    1. 8 Cort de Nuit
    2. 8 Viola Aetheria
    3. 8 Quintadena
    4. 8 Vox Angelica
    5. 8 Vox Humana
    6. 16 Pedal Bourdon

    Pedal 32 notes

    1. 32 Contra Bourdon
    2. 16 First Open Diapason
    3. 16 Second Open Diapason
    4. 16 Violone
    5. 16 Bourdon
    6. 16 Lieblich Gedeckt
    7. 16 Contra Viola
    8. 10 2/3 Quint
    9. 8 Octave
    10. 8 Cello
    11. 8 Major Flute
    12. 8 Stillgedeckte
    13. 4 Flute
    14. 16 Trombone
    15. 16 Contra Tromba
    16. 8 Trumpet
    17. 8 Tromba
    18. 4 Clarion
    19. Chimes

    Hear both organs! https://id312.securedata.net/ravencd.com/merchantmanager/product_info.php?products_id=111&mmsid=192c8ed3d41e87b2a82b293d23976e89

    For more information see:

    The Church; http://www.first-church.org The organs: http://www.first-church.org/organs.htm The First Church Concert series; http://first-church.org/Concerts1.htm For good picture of the Beckerath: http://www.beckerath.com/en/background/columbus1.htm On Beckerath organs in general; http://www.beckerath.com/index.html On English organs: http://www.c-parr.freeserve.co.uk/hcp/organs.htm On Pipe organs in general http://www.orgel.com http://nersp.nerdc.ufl.edu/~bodinew/ http://www.organstops.org http://rjweisen.50megs.com/fluepipe1_001.htm http://www.albany.edupiporg-l/pipemet.html http://www.churchorgansystems.com/edpgs/organcenter.html http://www.reuter822.com/smith.html

    Thanks to the Peebles-Herzog company for taking the time to show me something of organ mechanics and demonstrating how the old electropneumatics work. http://www.peeblesherzog.com a click on 'services offered can lead you to a good look at the Kimball, including inside the pipe chamber

    Update On January 21, 2007 the church dedicated a third pipe organ, a eight-rank Reuter for the Gladden Chapel on the church's west side. The small instrument is well suited for the chapel, and has been restored by our former Minister of Music Timothy Edward Smith, who spent some years as an organ builder.

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