This post is in response to a request to read Paul Jacobs’s recent article in The Wall Street Journal. If you know and care about organs, you should read this by one of our greatest champions of the organ.
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In Praise of Pipes
New York needs a new pipe organ; here’s how it can get one.
By Paul Jacobs
Oct. 17, 2016 3:31 p.m.
‘The organ is in truth the grandest, the most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human genius,” declared Honoré de Balzac, the renowned 19th-century French novelist and playwright. The pipe organ is still revered by millions of music lovers all over the world; the concert halls of New York, however, have had an uneasy relationship with the instrument.
Pipe organs graced the two largest halls in the city—Carnegie and Geffen (previously Avery Fisher)—until 1966 and 1976, respectively, when they were banished during reconstruction. When asked if an organ would ever be returned to Carnegie Hall, violinist Isaac Stern, who spearheaded a campaign to save Carnegie from destruction, exclaimed, “Over my dead body.” Today, from beyond the grave, Stern’s edict remains honored. But what about Geffen Hall? Will the new architectural plans reintroduce a home for what Mozart called the King of Instruments?
Since the pipe organ was removed four decades ago, the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras have had to make do with an electronic organ. But synthesized sound emitted through loudspeakers cannot compete with the richness of tone produced by authentic organ pipes—thousands of vibrating columns of air, ranging in size from a soda straw to a telephone pole. There is simply no substitute for a genuine acoustic instrument. Would a reputable pianist prefer a digital Kurzweil keyboard to a well-regulated Steinway?
Kurt Masur, music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2002, understood this all too well. He publicly lamented the absence of a pipe organ and was adamant that a new one be built, at the time going so far as to help secure a million dollars for the cause. When one considers the price tag for Geffen Hall’s planned renovation to be in the vicinity of $500 million, the cost of a new instrument would be a drop in the bucket—probably about 1% of the total budget.
Pipe organs are the most complex of musical machines, marvels of engineering. Their visual and aural splendor inspired important composers throughout history, from Johann Sebastian Bach with his astonishing counterpoint to Olivier Messiaen with his otherworldly harmony. Many people think of the organ as a solemn, lonely instrument, and organists as primarily a support for congregational singing. The organ’s sacred setting over the past millennium should not be underestimated or diminished, and church organists continue to play an indispensable role. But the artistic possibilities for organ music have blossomed significantly beyond the sanctuary.
In the 19th century, organs emerged in secular venues, too, including theaters, civic auditoriums and concert halls. Many important composers added the organ to the texture of their great symphonic works, sometimes prominently. Now, there is a trove of orchestral repertoire calling for a concert-hall organ. Many of these works are by familiar composers, among them, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Mahler, Bartók, Janáček, Poulenc, Copland, Barber and Ives.
Increasingly, contemporary composers are experimenting with the endless possibilities of organ with orchestra, often featuring the instrument as a vehicle for bravura expression. Contemporary American composers have already produced an impressive body of works for orchestra and other ensembles with organ, including those by Christopher Rouse, Michael Daugherty, Mason Bates, Christopher Theofanidis, Samuel Adler and Wayne Oquin. Such music is unlikely to be heard outside a concert-hall setting.
By stark contrast to the scene in New York, almost every other major concert hall in the country has either restored or added a pipe organ. They have emerged in musical auditoriums from coast to coast: Severance Hall in Cleveland, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, Calif., Benaroya Hall in Seattle, the Kauffman Center in Kansas City, Mo., the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, and the Kennedy Center in Washington. I write as someone who has had the joy of making music on every one of these stunning instruments.
When a great pipe organ is experienced in a great hall, there is a “shock of recognition” unequaled by any other instrument. The organ sets the tone in a way that an ensemble of other musicians, regardless of size, cannot rival. The organ’s presence, whether purring underneath an orchestra or in robust dialogue with it, is transformative in a way that no other combination can match. Provided future programming would include opportunities for audiences to hear the organ, it would be difficult to discern a compelling artistic, practical, or financial reason against reinstalling one.
New York prides itself on providing an unparalleled cultural life to the public. Its audiences are sophisticated and discerning. They should not be deprived of what many already enjoy elsewhere in the world: a vast repository of music—both old and new—for organ and orchestra. With the renovations planned for Geffen Hall, we have a singular opportunity to fill this void.