Pastoral Music, April-May 2006
National Association of Pastoral Musicians
April-May 2006 How We’ve Done It in Camillus, New York
Building a Pipe Organ – A Different Way
By Tomasz Lewtak
If you have ever been involved in an organ building project for any church, you know all the usual steps. First there is a committee, then a series of meetings. The work of raising funds mingles with the bidding process and choosing a builder. Next you sign a contract. But this usual process was certainly not the one followed at St. Joseph’s Church of Camillus, New York, where a new pipe organ was built by the parish music director and a few volunteers. One pastor’s daring idea became the inspiration for a group of people who kept working through changes of pastors, against the odds and opposition, for a little more than four years. What they accomplished is now not only a crown jewel of the entire community and a tremendous asset for the church but most of all it is an unparalleled enhancement of our liturgies.
The history of St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus begins in 1852, when the first resident pastor came to the parish and started to care for the religious needs of local Catholics. The original church in the village was finally built in 1867, but the small congregation eventually outgrew the small space of the old church, and in 1965 construction started on the new building – the current cross-shaped church with parabolic arches rising ninety feet and dramatic windows at the end of each wing. As is often the case in situations when substantial funds are required for construction, the purchase of a new pipe organ had to wait its turn. The delay turned out to be a long one – almost forty years!
For years the rich and varied music program of St. Joseph’s Parish was supported by an electronic organ and a Kawai grand piano. During the fall of 2001, however, an opportunity arose that led to the decision to begin the construction of a new pipe organ that would fulfill the musical needs of the congregation and would aesthetically complete the sanctuary. In that year, another church in the diocese of Syracuse – St. Louis in Oswego, New York – was closed, and St. Joseph’s purchased the pipe organ from this church with the thought that it would become a jump-board for a much larger instrument at our parish.
An Old Tracker
The old organ – a tracker consisting of two manuals with twenty-one stops – was built by Casavant Freres in 1896 as their Opus 69; it was the first organ from this builder to be imported to the United States.
At the time of its acquisition by St. Joseph’s, the Casavant organ was in a state of disrepair. It was obvious right from the beginning that a true historical renovation was not feasible for two primary reasons: the cost and the size of the instrument. Even if the parish were to allocate the funds, St. Joseph’s has a cubic volume approximately four times that of St. Louis church. The volume of sound required to fill this large space could not possibly be achieved from a rather small and softly voiced instrument. With heavy hearts but no other options, our parish had the old organ from Oswego dismantled and moved to Camillus. Only the salvageable parts would be used in a new instrument, we decided. Virtually all of the old pipework was saved: 1,202 pipes were moved to Camillus, though most were in shoddy physical condition and some were badly damaged due to poor maintenance and careless handling. Many wooden pipes had visible water damage. The same was true for both manual windchests, which were also transported to St. Joseph’s. Only two of the four pedal chests were salvageable; the remaining two were damaged beyond any reasonable repair.
A New Tonal Design
Even though the old organ had to be dismantled, it became the backbone for the tonal design of the new instrument. Professor Ulrik Spang-Hanssen from the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Aarhus, Denmark, was consulted, and a plan was devised for the preservation of the original stop configuration that would be augmented with a new third keyboard that would serve as the foundation for the “big sound” needed for the larger space. Very few old ranks were shifted: What was acquired from Oswego became the second and third manuals (Positif and Recit) with some changes necessary to move the timbre out of the dark and eight-foot-heavy character. New ranks were added not just to strengthen the volume but also – and more importantly – to brighten the sound of the organo pleno in these two divisions. The addition of a new first manual (the Grand Orgue) allowed not only for keeping the stop configuration as close to the original as possible but also for opening completely new sound prospects to build on and draw from. This is now the division that is by far the strongest. It is rather basic in terms of utilized ranks, not too far from the tonal character of the old instrument, yet created with the sole purpose of giving a complete Principal chorus to the entire instrument.
Obviously the pedal section required more power. This was simply achieved by adding to the original three stops three new ranks, including a round-sounding sixteen foot reed.
A New Façade
The difficult task of designing the façade for this organ had its share of twists and turns. What was originally designed and approved by the first pastor became barely “tolerated” by his successor only to be completely rejected by the next pastor. The objectives for the organ’s design were quite simple: first, to fit the organ into the arch shape of the ceiling and, second, to show that this instrument blends the old with the new. An additional requirement came from the fact that the console was to stay on the main floor of the church, while the remainder of the organ would rest on a ten-foot-high loft. The reasoning for this arrangement came from the current liturgical documents, which dictate that music ministry is not to be separated from the congregation. In the case of a tracker organ, however, this arrangement immediately makes things more complicated simply because the linkage becomes dangerously long.
The design of St. Joseph’s church building cannot be classified as “contemporary,” but it may be described as “modern.” However, all throughout the building there are many elements of traditional architectural design: harmonious lines, time-honored proportions, and a lot of symmetry. The answer – fitting the new organ into this space and meeting all other challenges –came from my brother, architect Pawel Lewtak. He is the author of the design that became a real head-turner among parishioners and visitors alike. In his words, his worst fear was to create another organ that will be sitting “up there” with the console that is placed “down there,” and one has little to do with the other. Instead, he created a homogenous shape that ties the top with the base in a seamless manner. The tower-like structure of segments gives it slenderness and allows for traditional pipe grouping. To reflect what is inside the organ case, he kept the original façade piped in their distinctive clusters and added new groups of double-flamed copper pipes. Copper was definitely the material of choice for its perfect blend with the surrounding color scheme.
There is one special feature of this façade that separates it from all others: mirrors – forty of them! Hardly noticeable at first glance, they add light, depth, spark, and elegance. The mirrors are only four inches wide and are of various lengths. They are placed in wooden frames in the spaces between the pipe clusters. They enhance by offering a true three-dimensional effect of the design. As people walk through the church they are always viewing a distinctive picture with variegated light reflections, innumerable shadows and highlights, and an array of geometrical shapes, yet all the elements are well organized with pleasing aesthetic integrity.
Mechanics and Voicing
The key action is purely mechanical. It is referred to as a suspended action and was the only logical choice given our circumstances. Long distances between the keyboards and the windchests dictated absolute precision in the making of the tracker action. The longest linkage run is thirty-three feet, yet the action is not the least sluggish. Each division has its own floating rail allowing for climatic changes of the wood of the trackers.
All windchests are of slider and tone channel construction. Two old windchests (Positif and Recit) have been completely taken apart and restored to mint condition. New windchests are made out of select yellow pine and have single pallets in all but the lowest octaves. Pedal pipes are split diatonically and stand on either side of the case.
The stop action is state-of-the-art electronic. The system offers the full convenience of 1,280 memory levels for even the most demanding performer. There is one expression pedal for the shutters on the Recit and the Crescendo pedal. The Crescendo is fully programmable and has a digital level display from 0 through 30. A similar kind of digital level display is in place for the expression pedal of the Recit.
The organ uses a three-phase 1.5 horsepower electric blower. There are two reservoir bellows providing ample air supply to the whole instrument.
Any organ, of course, is only as good as it sounds. Therefore, even though we spared neither time nor money on mechanical details, the most important element remained the voicing. All of the old ranks received some sort of voicing revamp. They were all previously voiced down for a much smaller building; we made them more free speaking and louder. The new ranks were voiced with a little bit of “chiff,” just enough to make their speech more pronounced in the large acoustics of St. Joseph’s Church. The instrument has much to offer in terms of variety of sound colors as well as the dynamics and individual stop character.
A Big Thank You
From the organbuilder’s perspective, taking a vintage 1896 organ and bringing it up to present-day expectations and having an organ that could be used for church services as well as concert performances has been a personally demanding and fulfilling experience. In organ building, the idea is always to be creative while retaining the original elements and merging them with new technologies. It is rewarding beyond words when an artist sits down at the console, and you begin to see the smiles of pleasure. It means you have accomplished your goal of creating the finest organ from available sources.
I wish to extend my sincere thanks to all volunteers who gave their time and energy to this most worthy project. I also thank the parishioners of St. Joseph Church in Camillus for their continuing understanding, patience, and support. And – last but not least – words of gratitude should go to all three pastors who endured the years of construction, expenditures, and troubles.
Mr. Tomasz Lewtak, music director at St. Joseph’s Parish, Camillus, New York, was educated as an organist and organ builder; he holds two master’s degrees in organ performance. He apprenticed with Carsten Lund Organ Builders of Copenhagen, Denmark, and learned voicing skills by working with Mogens Pedersen, the chief voicer of Frobenius Organ Builders. He is responsible for tonal design, pipe scaling, voicing, windchests, and action design as well as all aspects of internal mechanical structure.