Organists Reveal Why the "King of Instruments" is Tough to Dethrone Print E-mail

Delaware County Times
December 20, 2007

In an era where midget cell phones and hand-held computers rule, David Little reckons bigger is better. A master of the pipe organ, Little performs recitals throughout the Philadelphia region on an instrument whose massive size and amplitude conjures up images of the gates of heaven cracking wide open.

Growing up in nearby Berwyn, Little helped his father painstakingly install theatre pipe organs in restaurants and privates residences throughout Delaware County and the Philadelphia region.

In the early days of Hollywood, this unique pipe organ breathed life into silent images on the silver screen.

'The best known ones were the 'Mighty Wurlitzers' and they were all the rage during the 1920s,' Little related. 'The challenge was synchronizing sound effects to the action happening in silent pictures that featured actors such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.'

Little started taking organ lessons at age 13. His teacher was Keith Chapman, the organist for the Philadelphia John Wanamaker store's gargantuan and famous organ. Its gleaming fa'ade of 30,000 chrome and brass pipes is still considered the largest musical instrument in the world.

'I remember this huge, powerful sound,' said Little, now a resident of Feasterville. 'I was very impressed by its six keyboards and the instrument's reverberation. Once a key was struck, it took about five seconds for the notes to die out.'

Pipe organs date back 2,000 years to Greece when an inventor unveiled a machine that delivered compressed air to pan pipes. For centuries the pipe organ has accompanied the human voice in song from the amphitheaters of the Roman Empire to the cathedrals of medieval Europe.

By the 14th century, large organs were restricted mainly to churches, since other instruments had been 'profaned' by secular use. It could take up to 75 people working huge bellows to provide sufficient wind to operate a single instrument.

Mozart crowned it the 'king of musical instruments.' The modern pipe organ developed through the Renaissance into the familiar versions of today.

The towering instruments are found in churches and concert halls, custom-designed and crafted for the particular building in which it will be played.

'The placement, arrangement, and housing of the pipes all significantly affect the sound, ' said David Herman, the University of Delaware organist.

'Noise reflective surfaces such as hardwood, tile or marble floors promote better sound reflection. Walls of thick plaster, stone or smooth brick are ideal. It's sort of like the soundboard of a piano or body of guitar.'

The instruments have multiple keyboards, numerous stops (drawbars that set the timbre), bass pedals and huge arrays of pipes ranging in size from telephone poles to drinking straws (length determines pitch).

The metal pipes are made with a combination of zinc, lead, nickel and tin. Wood pipes in square and rectangular shapes are also part of the mix.

Similar to a whistle, the pipes' sounds are created by a column of of vibrating air. The wind-chest, often called the heart and lungs of the instrument, is a reservoir that distributes the air by the use of blowers, bringing the wood and metal pipes to life.

Forerunner of the synthesizer, each pipe organ has an array of stops that allows the player to make a myriad of sounds. A stop is a unique set of pipes that can be a fundamental sound we all associate with an organ, or it can be a sound that replicates a flute or string or brass instrument. The sound possibilities, within the organ itself and with other musicians, are almost endless.

'Prior to electricity, pipe organs operated by mechanical action, a system of rods or 'trackers' that directly connected the keys to the valves under the pipes,' Herman explained. 'When a key is pressed, it opens a valve under a pipe or pipes. Wind enters the pipe, causing a tone that is constant in pitch and volume until the key is released. So when you press a key you are physically connected to the pipes.'

The organ's casework blends and projects the sounds from various divisions of the organ. It also protects the pipes from the detrimental effects of dust and direct sunlight that can cause tuning problems. Most notably it becomes a work of art in itself, capable of making the organ a thing of beauty.

More than a year ago in Philadelphia, the Kimmel Center's 32-ton 6,938-pipe pipe organ made its debut. It took a crew of 25 to install the $6.4 million pipe organ. Built by Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City Iowa, the Kimmel Center organ is designed to be an instrument among instruments. Its lush sound matches that of the orchestra.

It's hard for William Gatens to remember when he wasn't interested in pipe organs. As a small child he was mesmerized by the music he heard in church. He began playing the pipe organ at age 12, when he was tall enough for his feet to reach the pedals.

'It was like I was in a large cockpit,' recalled Gatens, who lives in Chester. 'There were all sort of controls at your fingertips, especially the organs with four or five keyboards. The sounds that came out of all those pipes were just astounding.'

The pipes are very temperamental. They can be affected by temperature and dust can get in them and force them out of tune. Wind is being forced through each pipe. The idea is to maximize wind flow. If the pipes don't get wind fast enough, they gasp.

'Each pipe is its own source of sound,' explained Gatens, the organist at the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemont. 'Each one of the pipes speaks, so it's like having a chorus in front of you of people singing. An electrical organ is limited to sound that is sort of blended because there are just so many speakers the sound can come out of.'

Those silvery pipes were what inspired Little as a youngster, and four decades later he realizes how fortunate he is to be playing old classics, music for orchestras and even pop music on these grand old instruments.

Thirty years ago while living in the market town of Harleem, Netherlands, Little performed on a cathedral pipe organ that Mozart and Handel played. In the early 1800s it was considered the largest pipe organ in the world.

Last year, Little recounted his Dutch organ experiences when he presented a special slide show and his diaries at the Episcopal Christ Church in Ridley Park. The church is home to one of the county's more beautiful and elaborate church organs.

'I heard the same great sound Mozart heard when he played it as a prodigy at the age of 10,' he said. 'It was a very special thrill.'


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