Romance in the Pipes

by Peter Seibel

Awarded Honorable Mention in Wallace Non-fiction Contest, 1993 at Yale University

In 1929 trains from all up and down the eastern sea-board arrived in the city of New Haven bearing loads of musicians, organists mostly, all coming to see and hear the new pipe organ in Yale’s Woolsey Hall. A banquet was held at the Taft Hotel for 250 organ enthusiasts and a concert was given by the university organist, Professor Jepson, playing to a full house. The new organ was roundly regarded as a grand, perhaps the grandest ever, example of the Romantic school of organ design and a great triumph for the builders, the Skinner Organ Company of Dorchester, Massachusetts. The 1929 organ was actually the result of a quarter century of building and renovation, not to mention stupendous munificence on the part of the Newberry family for whom the organ was named and who gave gifts of $30,000, $25,000, and $54,000 dollars in 1901, 1915, and 1929 to pay for the organ to be built once and renovated twice.

It started in 1901, when Yale was celebrating the bicentennial of its foundation. The university had received gifts to build several new buildings including a new concert hall, Woolsey Hall, to be named for Theodore Dwight Woolsey, President of Yale from 1846 to 1871. As the plans were being drawn up for the hall Helen Handy Newberry, mother of Truman Handy Newberry, Yale Ph.B. 1885, offered to pay for a pipe organ to be built in the new hall in memory of her husband, John Stoughton Newberry. The gift was unconditional—the university could award the contract to build the organ without regard to price. In September, 1901, a month before the corner stone was laid for Woolsey hall, the Hutchings-Votey Company of Boston received the contract to build the organ. Hutchings-Votey built what turned out to be the company’s most famous organ, consisting of 4354 pipes and 76 stops. Or more precisely 4354 pipes organized into 76 stops—each pipe in an organ plays one note, and are grouped into stops. Each stop is characterized by a certain tonal quality—some sound like flutes others like strings; some stops, called mutations, play in a set harmony with other stops; others, called mixtures, play chords even when only one key is pressed. Each stop plays over the whole range of the organ—five octaves for normal stops and two and a half for pedal stops, those stops controlled by the pedal keyboard. To pull out a stop means to pull out the knob on the console which makes an electric connection that pressing a key on a manual, or keyboard, will open a valve under—and thus cause to sound—a pipe in that set. If two stops are pulled then playing a note on the manual will produce the same note from two different sounding pipes making a different sound than either of the two stops individually. For an organist choosing the right combinations of stops, known as registration, is analogous to a symphonic composer choosing the right combinations of instruments and is at least half the art of playing the organ.

But the early part of the century was a volatile time for organ design—advances in technology gave organ designers more tonal options than they had ever had previously which led to changing ideas about how an organ should sound. For example one of the basic determinants of how a stop will sound is the air pressure in the chamber under the pipes. (Organ builders refer to the air pressure as the w.ind. The wind is measured with an s-shaped tube partially filled with water. When one end of the tube is attached to the air supply the air pressure raises the water—the unit of measurement is how many inches the water is raised. Imagine clearing a snorkel by blowing into it. If someone attached a calibrated tube to the top of the snorkel, how high up into the tube you could blow the snorkel full of water would be a measure of how much air pressure you could produce. In organ parlance a 3-1/2 inch wind refers to an air supply that provides enough pressure to raise the column of water 3-1/2 inches or approximately 1/8 pounds per square inch.)

To understand why low winds would limit the range of sounds in an organ imagine a conductor selecting musicians for the woodwind section of his or her orchestra—an undernourished asthmatic might make a fine penny-whistle player but a whole section of such invalids wouldn’t be able to get a squeak out of the more difficult-to-blow instruments such as the bassoon and the bass clarinet. The situation of this conductor was essentially the one facing organ builders until the mid 19th century, except the organ builders’ was even more frustrating—they had plenty of wind power but that very wind power, if used, made it physically impossible to play the organ. Each pipe sits in a case which has pressurized air flowing through it. Under each pipe is a valve which opens to let air through into the pipe when the pipe is played. The problem is that the air pressure in the chamber presses against the valve keeping it closed. In early organs the valve was connected to the keys by a series of levers—thus the force which opened the valve was a purely mechanical translation of the force with which the organist pressed the key on the manual. Under this system, the higher the air pressure the harder the organist had to press the keys. Even at relatively low winds, three- to four-inches, the organ demanded fairly prodigious hand strength of the organist. Thus until the late 19th century organ builders were restricted to the sounds that could be produced from such penny-whistle pipes as could be played with such sickly breaths.

In the mid 1800s, however, all this changed when Charles S. Barker invented the Barker lever, a device that used the air already flowing in the organ to amplify the force of the keystroke and allowed air pressures that would have locked earlier keyboards like a solid piece of stone. Barker’s device and the improvements on it that followed allowed organ builders to experiment with sounds that could only be created with higher pressure pipes—soon a new style of organ building began to emerge known as the symphonic or Romantic. The idea of this new style was to give organs the tonal colors of various instruments of the symphony orchestra—in essence making the organ the primordial ancestor of today’s electronic synthesizers.

Because of these changes, by 1915 the Newberry, which used hardly any air pressures greater than the ones used in Bach’s time, was considered old-fashioned if not obsolete. So Professor Jepson, the Yale University organist, went to the Newberry family and asked if they would like to pay to have their organ updated. They agreed, and again encouraged the university to select the best design without regard to price. This time the J.W. Steer & Son Organ Company of Springfield Massachusetts won the contract and built one of the most well crafted organs in the country despite running the project at a loss because of rising war-time prices. They added nearly three thousand new pipes in forty-four new stops, but the biggest change was increasing the wind of the organ to the ten to twenty-five inch range.

But things had still not settled in the organ world, and only thirteen years later the organ which had been state of the art when it was renovated in 1915 was again obsolete. So, again, Professor Jepson approached the Newberry’s with the idea of paying to have the organ rebuilt, and again they said, please do and spare no cost. This time the contract was awarded to the Skinner Organ Company of Dorchester, Massachusetts who set about to bring the organ into line with the latest tonal ideas—that is ideas about what an organ ought to sound like. To this end the Skinner Company modified fourteen of the original 1902 stops, two of the 1915 stops, and added forty-six new stops to bring the organ to its present 12,592 pipes. The resulting organ was a beautiful example of the new style of organ building—as the organists’ monthly, Diapason, put it at the time: “Here, unquestionably, is an organ that can stand the test of concerted work with a great symphony orchestra—that can fight the orchestra on its own grounds, asking no quarter, no handicap, no favors.”

To control the now gargantuan organ Skinner had to provide a new console. Centered directly in front of the stage the console looks like a large roll-top desk of dark oak. But when the top is rolled back, suddenly it looks more like an airplane cockpit or perhaps a telephone switchboard. In the middle are four manuals, or keyboards, each five octaves long. Below is a large pedal keyboard, two and a half octaves long, as well as five expression pedals. Flanking the manuals, where the pigeon holes would be on a real roll-top but angled out slightly are two banks of white knobs, the stops. They are labeled with names such as First Diapason, 32′ Violone, and 8′ Flute. There are 166 knobs, one for each stop, and they are divided into eight divisions—Great, Choir, Swell, Orchestral, Solo, String, Pedal, and Echo—each of which is normally controlled by one of the four manuals. But above the manuals is a set of thirty-two couplers which couple different divisions on one manual. For example, the Swell-to-Great will cause whatever stops are pulled in the Swell division to play along with whatever stops are pulled in the Great division when the middle manual (normally the Great manual) is played. By combining different stops within one division and by combining divisions the organist has a huge pallet of colors on which to draw. To aid the organists in switching from one set of sounds to another there are ninety-three pistons which can be set to any arrangement of stops pulled and couplers selected. For example, suppose the organist selects several stops in the Great division. Then he can set one of the twelve pistons assigned to the Great division so that when he presses it those stops will be automatically pulled. There are from five to twelve pistons for each of the divisions as well as four for the couplers, and five general pistons which can set any or all of the divisions as well as the couplers. (When one of the general pistons is pressed the 166 knobs and 32 switches suddenly rearrange themselves with a loud “kachunk.”) The expression pedals raise and lower the volume of the Swell, Choir, Solo, and Orchestral divisions by opening and shutting three-inch thick wooden venetian blinds in front of the pipes of these divisions. Finally there is a crescendo pedal which turns on the pulled stops from softest to loudest, and two foot switches Sforzando One and Sforzando Two—basically loud and louder.

The range of sounds at the organist’s disposal and the control over them that the Newberry console gives him is quite amazing. Yet without a concert hall full of tin, lead, and wood pipes the organist might as well be playing a harpsichord. The pipes, which are what make the Newberry the Newberry, are all contained “upstairs”—actually behind the stage and up several sets of ladders. (Except the pipes of the “echo” division which are in the basement in the back of the hall—the brute force method of creating an echo.) One of the crucial features of the space containing the organ is how shallow it is—only about ten or twenty feet from the organ pipes that the audience can see behind the stage to the back wall of the building. Organ pipes that are stacked in deep rows tend to block each others sound, giving the organ a weaker sound. The pipes of the Newberry are spread out through a very wide, high, and shallow space. The organ pipes are arranged in four layers connected by ladders and ends up at just about the highest point in Woolsey Hall on a foot-and-a-half wide plank with only organ pipes and a long way down on either side. The inside of the organ is like the inside of a factory, filled with strange looking pipes and apparatus. But inside the organ one can see the myriad physical differences that give the different pipes their distinctive sounds.

The first important factor is material—pipes are made either of wood, mostly pine; or metal, usually tin or lead or some alloy of the two. The largest pipes are made of perfectly seasoned, 100% knot-free wood that “was probably standing when Columbus discovered America,” according to Yale University Organ Curator Joe Dzeda. The largest pipe, the 32′ Violone, is about the size of a phone booth except it’s thirty-two feet tall, and weighs about a ton. The note it produces, a 16 cycle-per-second C, is barely audible as a low rumbling and rattles the light fixtures in the hall. (In organ pipes the numbers such as 32′, 16′, and 8′ refer to the length of the pipe of lowest note of the stop. Halving the length of a pipe raises the pitch an octave—thus each note in a 16′ stop sounds an octave higher than the corresponding note in a 32′ stop.) By contrast the smallest pipe is a metal tube about a half inch long.

The next most fundamental feature of any pipe is the scale, or the ratio of diameter of the pipe to its length. The basic vanilla organ pipes are in the diapason stops—simply pipes of metal with a notch—the mouth—cut in them like a recorder and of a moderate scale. The pipes of the flute stops have a relatively larger diameter than the diapasons, which results in a smoother, darker tone, while the pipes of the string stops have a smaller diameter compared to a diapason of the same length, resulting in a harmonically richer, more violin-like tone. Reed stops, instead of a simple notch have a metal reed covering the mouth of the pipe that vibrates like a clarinet or saxophone reed, giving yet another sound, often quite like an actual orchestral reed or brass instrument. It is the reed stops especially that require bigger winds and that give the symphonic organ many of its most authentic orchestral sounds—the clarinet stop in the Newberry sounds particularly true to the original instrument. To further complicate things the tone of all these pipes can be subtly changed by such factors as where the mouth of the pipe is cut, how big it is, whether the top of the pipe is open or closed, and whether any holes are bored in the length of the pipe. For example, a speciality of the Skinner company is the triangle flute, a stop made of triangular, wooden pipes. Because the pipes have only three sides, the mouths which cover most of one side are a greater percentage of the circumference of each pipe, which has some subtle effect on the sound.

In addition to all these variations on single tones there are other stops called mutations that play in a fixed harmony with other stops, such as an octave or a fifth above, and mixtures—single stops where each note sounds several pipes to play a chord. (Most mixtures are known simply by a number but one which plays a type of chord common in jazz has been dubbed the Count Basie mixture.) Finally there are auxiliary stops such as the tremolo stop, which shakes the wind going into any of the stops; the celeste stops, which are identical to one of the other stops but very slightly out of tune which creates a “beat” in the tone; and the percussion stops which connect the keyboards to a set of hammered bells instead of blown pipes. And there is even a stop—“a filthy swindle,” according to Dzeda—which plays a fifth above the lowest notes causing an illusion of a note an octave lower than the lower note.

Finally, all the pipes except the very largest can also be tuned in some manner—some have flaps of metal that partially cover the top-end of the pipe which can be bent, changing slightly the pitch of the pipe, others have sliding covers which effectively change the length of the pipe, and others are tuned with tools that either flare out or narrow slightly the top of the pipes. Dzeda and his partner have to tune the organ before each major concert which works out to about six to eight times a year. Luckily they only have to tune about twenty percent of the pipes because most of the pipes are fairly stable. But that is still over 2,500 pipes they have to tune—more than eleven times the number of strings in a grand piano. They have a set order in which they tune the stops so one person sits at the console and plays a pipe that needs to be tuned. The person inside—wearing shooting headphones so as not to be deafened—knows the approximate area the pipe will be in and when he finds the exact pipe he puts his hand over the end of it which causes the note to go flat. When the tuner at the console hears this he plays another pipe at the same note which is already in tune and the tuner inside adjusts the pipe until the notes match, all the while being careful not to handle the pipes because his body heat would heat the air inside the pipe which would change the tuning for up to fifteen minutes. By this method Dzeda and his partner can tune seven to eight pipes per minute and thereby finish the whole job in five to six hours.

But that is today, when the Newberry is the baby of the organ department. Back in 1929 however, even as the Taft banquet hall was being swept up and trains were bearing organ enthusiasts back home away from New Haven, there was already a countermovement arising among younger American organists away from symphonic organs such as the Newberry and back to the neoclassical, low-pressure style organs of Bach’s time. Some organists and builders even advocated a return to the early mechanical keyboard mechanisms, so as to more authentically play the many great organ works of Bach. By the 40s this movement was in full force and it lasted until the mid 70s According to Yale University organist, Thomas Murray, the movement was a “backlash against the Romantic organ when people thought the organ should be an organ.” Murray sums up the feeling towards Romantic organs in the words of the organ builder who came to Yale in 1952 to build the organ in Battell chapel—a proper neoclassical organ. When offered a tour through the Newberry Organ the builder refused, remarking, “I think the best thing to do to an organ like that would be to drive a truck through it.” However the Newberry survived the period without having anything so drastic done to it while during the same period all the other great Skinner organs were destroyed: according to Murray, the Skinner organs at the University of Chicago and Princeton were “very badly butchered” in attempts to “baroqueify” them and the Harvard Skinner was simply discarded—dismantled and sold to a church in California after passing through several owners’ hands without even being reassembled. The Newberry was saved by a set of fortuitous circumstances including a budget crisis at Yale, the retirement of Professor Jepson and his replacement by a man less interested in keeping the Newberry on the cutting edge, and finally the existence in Battell of a new, fashionable, neoclassical organ. Now, however, the tides of organ fashion have washed back in and it is the Battell organ which is unloved and dusty while the Newberry, according to Murray, draws organ students from all over the country to the Yale Music School for a chance to spend two years “with one of the great Romantic organs of the world.”