Olsen: In praise of pipe organs
W. Scott Olsen reflects on some of the pipe organs around town at a time when we're not hearing them anymore.
FARGO — There are a hundred ways a town can be silent during a pandemic.
No sounds of children in school. No sounds of laughter from a restaurant. No soundtracks from movies. On Sundays, no sounds of hymns being sung. And no sounds of the peculiar, wonderful pipe organs supporting those voices.
No one knows when some human first blew across the opening of a hollow tube to make a note, but we do know a Greek engineer named Ctesibius of Alexandria invented a wind to pipe instrument in the third century B.C. Organ music has been essential ever since.
They are impressive instruments, as individual as human breath. In many cases, they are built into the structure that holds them. The whole building makes the sound. You can feel the cells in your heart resonate with the music.
On a clear Saturday morning, I sit with Bill Tweten in an empty Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo. Light from the stained-glass windows warms the room.
Bill came to organ playing young.
“When I was about 10,” he says, “I attended a church in Hillsboro that had a little pipe organ. All the pipes were in front and I was mesmerized by the sound of it. I thought someday I would love to play something like that. Sure enough, when I was 12 I started playing for my little country church. Highland Lutheran in Cummings, N.D.”
An organ keyboard is called a manual, derived from the Latin “manus” or “hand.” The Sipe organ at Gethsemane, built by Robert Sipe in 2000, has three manuals: the Swell, the Great and the Choir. There are 46 stops.
“It has some wonderful soft stops,” he says. “As well as some wonderful reeds.”
“Soft stop?” I ask.
“The celeste on the strings,” he says, “and the celeste on the flutes give it a warm and quiet atmosphere that’s wonderful for prelude and Communion time. There’s a fair amount of fiery reeds too, which I love. There’s an English horn cremona. There’s an oboe. A trumpet. And wonderful pedal reeds. And then we have these trumpets that are transverse.”
He points to the trumpets, which point out into the congregation space.
“They have quite a sound! You can use them to enhance the singing by following the melody with those trumpets on a really loud last stanza.”
“Acoustically,” I ask, “is this a good room?”
“Yes,” he says. “You can hear the reverb. It’s great that the choir sits around the organ. We almost always use the organ. That’s unusual. A lot of churches use a piano. But we use the organ to support singing because it’s a wind instrument. There something beautiful about the feel of enhancing singing.”
We talk about the way organ music can fill space, the walls and floor and ceiling all shaping the sound, the way organ music can shake your bones.
“It’s a very powerful instrument,” Tweten says. “You can part hair with this one.”
There is an organ in the balcony of the Centrum at Concordia College. It’s not very big. The keyboard faces a corner so it’s nearly impossible to see who is playing.
Dillon Swanson, the chapel organist and a student at Concordia, has been playing organ since he was 8 years old. He started piano lessons several years earlier and played a piano solo in church one day. The organist came up to him afterwards and said “you have keyboard skills and you love church music. Have you ever thought about the organ?”
“I told him yes,” Swanson says, “but only old people do that. But I gave it a shot. Took lessons after services.”
The organ at Concordia is a tracker organ, the keys directly connected to the pipework. There’s nothing electric between keyboard and pipe. Because it’s completely mechanical, the keyboard action changes as stops are pulled. Each key could have seven trackers pulled. The keys get heavier as more air goes through.
“I pull out a stop. I press a key. There is a mechanical action underneath the pipe that opens it up and allows the sound to go through,” Swanson says. “It allows the organist to have complete control. It makes the organist incredibly honest.”
“Honest?” I ask. The room is empty. The students are learning online.
“If you make a mistake, you will hear it on this instrument,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, though,” he continues. “This instrument can pull off any baroque music that’s written for one manual. Bach. Buxtehude. Anything.”
Swanson also plays for Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead. A short while after the visit to Concordia, he meets me at the church door and by coincidence, another friend is there as well. When I tell her we’re talking about the organ, she nearly gasps.
“Oh, that postlude a few weeks ago!” she says. “He got a standing ovation.”
“This is a Holtkamp organ, like Concordia,” he says. “But it’s much larger. This one has more than 45 ranks. The stops are electro-pneumatic. The connect from key to pipe is by electric wires. Originally it was just the two sections of pipes up by the window. But in the '80s, they added the third manual and these pipes behind the organist. It’s like three separate organs.”
I ask about the all-brown, all-wood keys. It’s a signature of the Holtkamp organs, he tells me. But then he adds, “One thing about the keys being all wood is that there are grooves in the keys, from the years of Ruth Berge and Peter Nygard. To know the names associated with those years of playing makes it very special.”
“The purpose of this organ is hymn leading. And Trinity has this tradition of hymn festivals. This instrument plays that stuff well.”
“Of the all the churches and all the rooms you’ve played in,” I ask, “acoustically, which one is the best?”
He looks out over the empty nave.
“This one,” he says. “It’s like playing in a cathedral. You play the last chord and it just goes on. It’s amazing.”
Perhaps the best-known organ in town isn’t in a church. It rises from the pit in the currently darkened Fargo Theatre.
Ryan Hardy plays the “Mighty” Wurlitzer organ.
“A theater organ is different from a church organ,” he tells me. “It is used to accompany silent movies and be an entertainment organ. Church organs are for liturgical and sacred music.”
“This organ has been here since the theater opened in 1926,” he says. “The original organ had two keyboard and seven sets of pipes. That console is up in the mezzanine now. The restorations began in the 1970s. The console we have currently, built by Lance Johnson, was patterned after the one in Radio City Music Hall. Now the organ controls 32 sets of pipes. Each set of pipes has about 61 notes. So at a minimum that’s about 1900 different sounds. Plus a whole percussion section, too. There are about 290 different stop tabs on the console.”
The pipes are behind the neon fountains on either side of the stage.
“The biggest challenge is that there’s no music written for the theater organ. There’s stuff written for classical organ. Bach. Mendelssohn. But for the theater organ, there’s nothing written down. So when we arrange, it’s all artist by artist. As an organ player, you are the conductor and the arranger.”
Because of the coronavirus, Hardy recently postponed a concert of movie music. This organ, I tell him, from an audience member’s perspective, is fun. It’s loud and full. I’ve been in the audience there, surrounded by people laughing with joy.
“It’s a beast,” he says.