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Historic Organ Ends Year of Silence


emptyorgan003bbblOn Palm Sunday (March 20th) at 3:30, the “soul of an organ,” in the words of Arthur Sullivan, will once again “enter into ours.”

For 35 years, this writer has kept faith with a promise he made to the organ builder Charles Fisk to take care of a historic organ. The time of repairs with paperclips and bubble gum has finally passed. To mark the yearlong restoration of its historic Woodberry and Harris organ, the first in 123 years of supporting worship [see Boston Globe article here], St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena Parish has arranged to showcase the instrument in an unusual concert / meditation in its striking and inspiring sanctuary.

“A concert of music that at once evokes and soothes the collective human sorrow over death resonates with anyone,” conductor Amelia Leclair tells us, “This incredibly moving, universal repertoire has spoken for so long to so many. Each piece has become a standard bearer for the expression, and perhaps expiation, of grief: Purcell weeps, Parry screams with both anguish at his condition and joy at his salvation, Vaughn Williams solaces everyone with his statement of an enduring grand tradition (there will always be an England…), and Mendelssohn, because of his assuring style, comforts and assuages our anxiety. The Crown Imperial March gives an extroverted shout for joy that may hark back to the Palm Sunday story of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.”

With such a large list of performers, including two choruses, percussion, grand restored organ and brass, we will make a joyful noise! It will be fun, and I hope meaningful to those who hear it. Music heals, and I suspect this program may very well heal a few anguished souls, as well as lift up the rest.

A large and exciting contingent consisting of the Denovo Brass Quartet, distinguished organists Rosalind Mohnsen, Tom Sheehan, and Peter Sykes; beloved baritone Robert Honeysucker; Aristedes Rivas, cello; Daniel Sauceda, timpani; Timur Rubensteyn, glockenspiel, snare and cymbal; Cappella Clausura Chorus, Amelia LeClair director; and the Charlestown Community Chorus, Daniel Sauceda, director, offer the following:

Church and instrument perfectly integrated (F. Lee Eiseman photo)

Purcell: Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary

Purcell: Dido’s Lament

Bach: I Call to Thee Lord Jesus Christ

Anon: Were You There?

Morris: A Sower Came from Ancient Hills

Mendelssohn: Arias and Choruses from Elijah

Franck: Prière op. 20 (from Six Pièces)

Vaughan Williams: Old 100th Psalm Tune

Parry: I Was Glad

Walton: Crown Imperial

According to organ historian Barbara Owen, the instrument is perhaps the Archdiocese’s most significant large and unaltered 19th century organ. It’s placement in a soaring and largely unaltered Patrick C. Keely building, which is also acoustically ideal make it eminently suited for not only liturgical purposes and the accompaniment of voices, but also for secular organ recitals. Organ Historical Society’s Dana Robinson, has written, “Where this organ defined its own stylistic confidence was in its boldness and priorities. The stoplist concentrates upon louder, not softer voices, showing unusual completeness in the Great and Swell. Telling chorus work, sharp-pitched mixtures and fiery reeds are capped by an outstanding Pedal Trombone, and the blaze of full organ recalls certain Continental-leaning English organs of the 1880s.” In this regard, it is also not unlike many costly new organs being built today, and thus its historicity may be said to be matched by its 21st century musical relevance.

The Woodberry and Harris organ has been in place since St. Mary’s consecration, in 1892. The firm’s opus 100 has 3 manuals, 37 stops and 41 ranks (2562 pipes). The pipework ranges from tiny tin pipes half the size of a pencil to 18-foot-long wooden giants 12×18 inches in section. Originally, the wind was supplied by a bellows (still existent) driven by a piston actuated by municipal water pressure from a 4-inch water main. It was one of the most advanced musical machines of its day. In order not to obscure the stained glass window at the back of the church, the organ was divided into two sections. Furthermore, the console was detached from the instrument and reversed so that it could face front. All this would have become much easier 20 years later with the advent of electric key actions, but in 1892, such an arrangement required an extremely complex arrangement of wooden connectors called trackers, to transfer the movements of the keys to the valves under the pipes. Because of its size and complexity, the Woodberry also required a mechanical helper called a Barker machine, which in essence amplified the motions of the organist. That all of this machinery still worked for 122 years after its construction without a major overhaul is a tribute to its builder.

Having survived unaltered for so long, the organ has weathered many changes in philosophy of design which for many years changed almost as often as the length of hemlines. Many fine instruments were discarded due to such changes in fashion. But because St. Mary’s was blessed with an organ that continued to work so well for so long, and because no one urged its replacement to satisfy tastes, the church is left with a remarkable survival—an instrument that is tonally quite surprisingly in accord with current practices, and one that is at the same time perhaps the most significantly unaltered historical instrument in the Boston Archdiocese. The congregation of St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena is very much aware of its treasure and, after much study and discernment, has supported a major restoration of the organ’s action and winding by the Andover Organ Company to ensure that the Woodberry continues to impress and stir for another 100 years. On Palm Sunday afternoon, the “soul of the organ,” in the words of Arthur Sullivan, will once again “enter into ours.”

Since the congregation’s grand organ went silent shortly after fulfilling a major, stirring role in a special concert/meditation last Palm Sunday, Woodberry and Harris Opus 100 has been turned inside out for its first renovation since having been inaugurated in 1892. The tale of the renovation must be told in mere words until the organ can speak for itself again.

Last May saw Andover Organ Company remove most of the wind vessels and actuating mechanisms to its workshop in Lawrence, where the ministrations of a dozen or so skilled craftsmen rejuvenated many thousands of parts. It’s all too easy to sound offhand about this, so let’s get into some specifics.

To begin with, the organ is without doubt the most mechanically complex instrument of its size in America. And because it was in unaltered state, much respect had to be given to retaining all of the essential qualities that allowed it to play for 125 years. Much of the challenge to the installer and later to the restorers came from the demands of the architect. The instrument must be powerful enough to fill the large space but it also must not obscure the splendid Mayer of Munich rear stained glass window. Thus its division into two location necessitated many convolutions in the wooden trackers that connect the organists’ feet and fingers to the pipes.

Imagine trying to shake hands with someone around the corner and 20 feet away, and then try to imagine that you had 183 fingers. This instrument has 16 sets of 61 connective trackers, each of a different length and each with a detailed hand-made termination. Between each of the 16 sets are interposed levers that change the direction of the pull. Dismantling all of this complexity and putting in back together in good adjustment alone take up many weeks. Andover Organ Company came up with some machinery to assist in some of the repetitive operations, but there were still nearly 2000 operations to be considered on the trackers alone.

Mayer of Munich glass exalts between Woodberry and Harris pipes (F. Lee Eiseman photo)

The levers, couplers and action squares which moderate and direct the action were all well-worn and required new felt bushings and brass pins. While each operation sounds simple, repeating it thousands of times demands infinite patience as well as skill.

One very rare feature of this instrument was its Barker machine, a patented pneumatic amplifier consisting of 61 valves and 61 collapsing leathered bellows. No one had seen this machine’s like, and much thought and study were required just to dismantle it. By the time it was restored and re-assembled, Andover had become the world’s leading restorer of such devices.

Two gigantic wooden bellows, taking up much of the floor space of the instrument, demanded months to re-leather. This slow and painstaking work required application of many strips of leather and perfect timing with melted animal glue. (Don’t ask what animal). Fay Morlock had to contort in many impossible positions to make this happen. Now that these storehouses of wind are once again sound, the interior of the organ no longer sounds like a tornado.

There are so many other accomplishments: new (antique sourced) ivory on many of the keys, smoothing and repairing 10,000 moving parts, cleaning two sets of reed stops, restoring the tuning caps of two sets of flue pipes, refinishing the console, new work-lighting, revised walkways, silencing the blower room and the removal of hundreds of pounds of dirt.

On Palm Sunday, the Woodberry will once again be moved to speak for itself.

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11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Lee, the article is absolutely superb. Well placed pictures and references the detail, and entire spirit of the piece. So very well done! Jim

    Comment by Jim Ronan — March 17, 2016 at 12:38 pm

  2. Congratulations on the realization of a truly remarkable dream! May this instrument inspire not only a musical rebirth but a new found cultural awareness for the community which it so aptly graces. Bravo to all involved!

    Comment by Peter Krasinski — March 17, 2016 at 10:29 pm

  3. Congratulations on shepherding this wonderful project to completion, Lee. I look forward to hearing the organ soon.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — March 19, 2016 at 1:21 pm

  4. I want to amplify on what Peter said. There are many historical instruments in the Archdiocese, where the church leadership, mostly the pastor, places very low priority on organ restoration. I know of many cases where such things as repaving the parking lot have been given priority. I think Fr Ronan needs to be congratulated on understanding what his stewardship responsibilities really are. I am certain he has many other projects which need funding. Bravo.

    (Speaking as an occasional interim organist there several years ago. I just hope I get a chance to try the refurbished instrument some day).

    Comment by Jim Swist — March 20, 2016 at 1:08 pm

  5. BRAVO, Lee! This is one of the most beautiful crown crown jewels of Boston and I was so pleased to read this excellent article about St. Mary’s, Charlestown. It is certainly one of a very few examples of Charles Barker’s assist machines in all of North America. I know you have worked tirelessly on this projects for over 30 years – thank you for bringing it back to life!

    Comment by James David Christie — March 21, 2016 at 8:18 am

  6. Thank you for this wondrous opportunity to hear the organ. The Bach piece revealed how attractive the colors can be while the Walton displayed the organ’s brilliance and power. I look forward to hearing more from the instrument in the future.

    Comment by David Patterson — March 21, 2016 at 9:04 am

  7. Lee,

    Thank you for this article and to you and Amelia LeClair for the opportunity to be a part of it! The organ is extraordinarily impressive and I look forward to hearing more from Charlestown in the future!

    Best wishes and congratulations again,

    Eric Christopher Perry
    Tenor, Cappella Clausura

    Comment by Eric Christopher Perry — March 21, 2016 at 12:38 pm

  8. It was a super day for a lovely instrument (and its partners in crime).

    Congratulations to Lee, especially, for helping make this all happen!

    Comment by Camilli — March 21, 2016 at 5:11 pm

  9. I hope to see and play this incredible instrument. I grew up playing a smaller, delightful tracker in upstate New York. Patrick Keely was the great grandfather of Teresa Roberts of Cortland, New York…..

    Comment by J.R. Daniels — March 23, 2016 at 12:37 pm

  10. Well done, Lee! Your part in this restoration project was enormous. You are an indispensable presence in the Boston classical music scene–as heir to John Sullivan Dwight, for your musical acumen, for your herculean editorial labors–and above all, as a generous friend to the larger community. I am honored to know you.

    Comment by Wes Mott — March 24, 2016 at 5:01 pm

  11. Wes-

    I feel humbled by your very kind words. And readers, I did not write them.


    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 24, 2016 at 5:16 pm

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