THR Web Features   /   February 15, 2024

Tail Pipes and Trail Pipes

Decennial of an Annual Organ Bus Tour

Charles Cronin

( Organ pipes at the Tabernacle at Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah; Adobe Stock.)

Some years ago, researching a law review article on music copyright protection, I stumbled upon the philanthropic activities of Frederick R. Haas, an erstwhile classmate at Oberlin Conservatory. An organist, Fred allocates funds from one of his family’s charitable foundations for the restoration of historically significant pipe organs languishing in desuetude. Among the instruments rescued by these benevolences are two of the world’s largest: the Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia and the Boardwalk Hall organ in Atlantic City.

Discussing this philanthropy, Fred mentioned that over the past decade he has organized among friends annual seven-to-ten-day tours, in which participants examine and play noteworthy organs in different regions of the United States. Unlike excursions with a similarly narrow focus, such as rose gardens, typically populated by unaffiliated amateur enthusiasts, the group of men touring with Fred are old friends who are also professional organists or organ builders.

Other tour groups typically travel by bus during the day, from one location to the next, spending nights in hotels en route. The organ tour crew, however, both travel and sleep on the hired bus. Both conveyance and lodging are a tricked-out Prevost coach, aptly named, at least for these tours, after Eugène Prévost, a Canadian carpenter who built church pews and, in the 1930s, also furnished luxurious interiors of buses and motor homes.

I was tickled by the incongruous image of eight bookish men of all ages, professionally devoted to an instrument and repertoire now associated principally with religious and spiritual spheres, traversing portions of the country in a blingy vehicle typically marketed to addled pop musicians and huckstering politicians. Last April the organ crew allowed me to join them during their stop in Richmond, Virginia. Apart from satisfying my curiosity about their rolling accommodations, my brief visit recalled the distinctive attributes of organs and organists, and the poignant vulnerability to dereliction these instruments face in a world saturated with synthetically produced musical sound.

The organ tours usually launch the day after Easter Sunday. Nathan Bryson, tour stalwart and curator of the Boardwalk Hall organ, notes this schedule allows members of the touring ensemble, many of whom are employed at churches, to “slide off the bench,” after meeting the exhausting demands of Holy Week and Easter, and regenerate among kindred spirits. The 2023 route of 1500 miles, between Brattleboro, Vermont and Charleston, South Carolina, covered portions of the Boston Post Road, hence its title “Post Road; Post Horns.” While the post horn is best known as the sobriquet of Mozart’s orchestra serenade, it also occasionally appears as an organ stop. The itinerary was meticulously documented in a booklet, along with voluminous geeky information about each of the twenty or so organs to be visited.

2023 tour itinerary and syllabus

While most of the organs examined on these tours are in churches, some are housed in concert halls, private homes, and workshops of organ builders. The tour contingent, including the driver, shares a male demographic akin to that of bus-touring rock music performers.

In a winking allusion to the officious pretentions of press crews traveling with politicians, and roadies with pop stars, the organists wear waggish lanyards attesting to their “authorized” affiliation with the tour. Once, in Atlanta, they sparked a frisson among curious onlookers when, in a charade of covertness, they hustled Charlie Kegg, an organ builder from Ohio who cultivates a bodacious set of whiskers, between their bus and a restaurant. Outfitted with dark shades and a baseball cap with a lowriding bill, Kegg could be readily mistaken for Kenny Chesney or another headliner of his ilk. The bus hired for the 2023 organ tour was equipped with sophisticated lighting and sound systems in two lounges; a sleek kitchenette; ten separately enclosed bunk beds; and an exiguous toilet one might find in an airplane’s business class. Two talismans augured safe travel: not Saint Christopher medals one might anticipate surveilling the journey of a cadre of organists but, harmonizing with the bus’s carny vibe, a Miss Piggy (Muppet) doll propped up by an autographed photo of Dolly Parton – the designated “patron saint” of this year’s tour. 

(Top to Bottom, Left to Right: Chris Harrington, Sean O’Donnell, Fred Haas, Andrew McKeon, Nathan Bryson, James Jones, Clint Miller, Charlie Kegg)

Organists commonly accompany choirs and congregations but play with other instrumentalists typically less frequently even than pianists. Nevertheless, organ performances can be surprisingly collaborative. Particularly on organs lacking general pistons or sequencers, performances often involve both a principal player and an assistant standing close by, turning pages of a score and engaging stops to activate ranks of pipes, thereby allowing the player to keep his eyes, fingers, and toes on the score, key, and pedal, boards respectively.

Like pianos and many other instruments, organs are commonly identified by their builder’s name, location, or owner. Like the “Davidov Strad,” built by Antonio Stradivari and once owned by Russian cellist Karl Davidov (and now by Yo-Yo Ma), the “Riverside Aeolian-Skinner” was built by Aeolian-Skinner Organ Builders for its owner, Riverside Church in New York.

Musicians are usually at least somewhat knowledgeable about the building and provenance of their instruments. String players particularly are deeply attached to their Stradivarii and Guarneris, and the luthiers who invigilate over them. Organists, however, to a greater degree than other musicians, thoroughly understand the anatomies of their instruments, and maintain closer rapports with those who build and maintain them.

As a pianist, I have at least a basic understanding of my instrument’s components and their functions. For over a century, pianos have been mass produced, and their design and construction have long been uniform. Therefore, I will never know the names of the technicians who built and voiced the hammers, cut and drilled the pin block, regulated the keys, built the new pedal lyre, and re-lacquered the case of my piano when it was rebuilt some years ago. The work was done at a factory in Flushing, New York, by unidentified carpenters and finishers who, most likely, do not play the piano or any other instrument.

Construction and maintenance of organs involves arduous manual labor akin to that of piano builders. But unlike pianos, organs are built for specific locations. Accordingly, each has a sui generis design and set of specifications—a phenomenon sparking playful one-upmanship among their proprietors. I recall University of California—Berkeley professor Hal Varian’s quip about librarians’ machismo, given their preoccupation with size, i.e., of their collections relative to those of others. Organists can be similarly engrossed with the size and specifications of their instruments. Lovingly documented and published, this information also reveals that organs are far more compartmentalized and mutable than other instruments.

Musicians periodically adjust or refurbish their instruments, revarnishing violins, replacing cork in oboes and clarinets, or re-felting the action of a piano. These efforts, however, are undertaken not to enhance or enlarge the instruments, but simply to restore them to their original condition. Organs, too, require relentless surveillance to maintain their condition when built but, unlike other instruments, over time they often morph and expand beyond, or even contract from, their initial configurations.

For instance, the published specifications for Groton School’s relatively modestly proportioned chapel organ (visited on the Post-Horn tour) sedulously chart its gradual accretions over the past eighty-eight years. As originally built for the Episcopal prep school in 1935, it had eighty-six ranks (ranges of pipes producing different timbres, like “flute” or “cello”); in 2023 it has ninety-four. Organs in more monumental venues, such as Riverside Church in New York and First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, have experienced more impressive maturations, doubling or even tripling in size over the decades, and today housing over 11,000 and 18,000 pipes respectively. In fact, the instruments in both churches comprise several organs that “speak” separately, or in combination with others, as determined by the player presiding over a gigantic console that allows one to play them simultaneously. This is also true of the colossal Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia after decades of additions by different builders. 

Since the turn of the twentieth century, electricity has powered the blowers and complex mechanical connections necessary for the creation of such Brobdingnagian instruments. Electricity also powers mechanisms which, activated by a performer, sound actual percussion instruments like bass drums and xylophones tucked away in the recesses of the pipe chambers, far from the console.  With over 10,000 pipes, the Aeolian organ at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania is reputedly the largest residence organ, built for the garden’s founder Pierre du Pont. From its console one can play many percussion instruments including sleighbells and castanets and, most extravagantly, a concert grand piano, housed in one of the pipe chambers. An electric-powered pneumatic mechanism depresses the piano keys corresponding to those being played on the organ manual.

The development of these “orchestral” organs coincided with that of motion pictures. During the silent movie era in the early decades of the twentieth century, viewers did not, of course, watch movies in silence. The projected images were typically accompanied by music and other sounds they evoked such as train whistles, car horns, and thunder. Organists performed these “soundtracks” during the screening of the film on instruments capable of sounding both music and dramatic sonic effects.

The simultaneous technological developments of organs and motion pictures occasioned a particularly happy symbiosis because organists, like jazz musicians, and to a greater extent than most classical musicians today, have always been adept improvisors. Classically trained church organists are expected to be capable of segueing seamlessly between the key, meter, and tempo of one work to those of another; noodling at the keyboard during periods of reflection or meditation; and raising by a step the key of, or improvising with a more piquant harmonization, the final verse of a hymn. Cinema organists were similarly nimble in coordinating the music and sounds they performed with the moving images on the screen.

Most musicians own one or more instruments on which they alone practice and perform. Even pianists, harpists, and percussionists typically practice on their own instruments although, with rare exceptions given the difficulty of transporting these bulky and temperamental objects, they perform on instruments owned by institutions. Organists may own electronic keyboards that produce synthesized sound but rarely own instruments remotely resembling those on which they practice and perform in churches, concert halls, cinemas, etc. Only these buildings are spacious enough to accommodate their bulky proportions, as well as the enormous volume of sound they produce to be audible in cavernous venues. Unsurprisingly, the rare privately owned organs are found in the capacious houses of their affluent proprietors.

The organ is the only instrument, save the carillon, not entirely visible to players or listeners. Most of the thousands of pipes of medium-sized to large organs, not to mention their motors and other machinery, are housed behind façades of attractive pipes arranged in harmonious configurations. In some organs these façade pipes cannot “speak”; they are merely decorative, concealing the less visually appealing sprawling network of pipes, electrically-powered blowers, wind chests, and ductwork behind them. In some cases, the pipe chambers are completely obscured behind metal grilles or fabric screens, perhaps making hearing the instrument for the first time more unexpected and pleasurable.

Naturally, these façades provoke curiosity about what they conceal. Organists, like car enthusiasts who might anticipate what is under the hood by visually examining a dashboard’s various gauges and dials, can discern the size and potential of an instrument by perusing the array of stops, keyboards, couplers, and pedals housed in the console, from which the player controls the pipes and any percussion instruments housed behind the façade. Perhaps not surprisingly, several of the touring organists and builders are car and/or train buffs.

Like dashboards that entice one to look under the hood, consoles induce organists to go behind façades on spelunking-like expeditions known as “organ crawls,” to explore an instrument’s innards. Unlike pub crawls in which increasingly inebriated roisterers traipse, more-or-less upright, from bar to bar, organ crawls take place in one location, and among necessarily sober participants who crouch and slither to obtain close views of the otherwise invisible cores of these instruments.   

The dozens of ranks of pipes, some pipes nearly three stories tall, and elaborate machinery producing and controlling the compressed air by which they speak, are arranged in a labyrinth unique to each organ. To navigate the multi-level scaffolding of these musical fun houses—most often to tune and maintain the pipes and machinery—one climbs and descends jerry-built steps and ladders, traverses perilously narrow wood bridges, and shimmies through passages built for sylphs. A stumble would likely damage nearby frangible pipework, the realization of which titillates apprehension of potential physical misadventure.

Even clear-headed organists are prone to mishap within these ticklish chambers. Emergency rooms have been unanticipated additional stops on several of the bus tours, once precipitated by a head wound from a collision with an obscured steel beam, another when a host at a church suffered a punctured lung after toppling from a ladder in a pipe chamber. The most recent medical exigency involved extracting an improvised earplug -- standard safety gear for anyone close to pipes that might unexpectedly speak at deafness-threatening volume – embedded in an organist’s ear canal.

The group, with hosts, mid-crawl on an earlier tour.

The Catholic cathedral we visited in Richmond last April appeared vibrant and well-funded, but the three Protestant churches in the center of the city, and the organs they house, had a genteel but forlorn appearance of a bygone, once-prosperous era, consonant with that of this former capital city of the Confederacy. The vitality of these impressive urban churches and the health of their instruments appear to have been gradually sapped by dwindling congregations and attenuated financial resources.

While there are still many impressive and superbly maintained organs throughout the world, from the handful we visited in Richmond I inferred that there is likely a far greater number of fine organs in decline, with some likely eventually to be discarded given the cost of their maintenance and restoration. Ever-present in the minds of this crew is a realization of the tapering significance of traditional religious services. Like birders seeking sightings of vanishing species, the touring organists are aware of the potential threat of gradual extinction of their instrument, and the vulnerability of extant organs. I suspect a shared perception of this liability supports their loyal esprit de corps in confronting a waxing philistine perception of pipe organs as white elephants.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, while I ruminated in the Richmond station waiting for a train to Washington, the most prominent and touching recollection in the wake of my visit was of the tacit affection shared among the tour participants, exceeding mere affinity typically found among members of a group with a common vocation. The organists and builders savored exploring instruments previously unknown to them, while talking shop among a small fraternity with a shared recherché expertise. But perhaps less palpably valuable, but ultimately more significant, was the tour’s reinforcement of comradery among this group of performers and builders of these magnificent and idiosyncratic instruments, now at least to some extent marginalized by an increasingly secular society.