- There are 1,769 pipes in the organ chamber
- The largest pipe is 16 ft. long in speaking length (not counting the “foot”),
18 inches square, and made of maple
- The smallest pipe is a half inch long in speaking length, about 1/16 inch in diameter, and made of tin and lead
- The only materials used in the organ are wood, leather, ivory and soft metals (tin, lead, zinc)
- Modern electronic circuits have replaced some of the mechanical operations but no frequency is enhanced or created by electronic or digital simulation, excepting one temporary replacement (the Pedal Trombone) while original pipes and chest are being restored.
The Hook and Hastings Organ was installed as part of the original construction of the church in 1894. It was a tracker organ, so-called because “trackers” created a direct mechanical connection between the keys at the organist’s fingers and the pipes in the organ chests. Hook and Hastings (essentially in business 1827-1935) was one of the preeminent American organ builders of the 19th century, and St. John’s was certainly foresighted to have selected a builder of such quality and integrity.
The organ is significant also because it is one of the last manufactured, installed, and then updated by Hook and Hastings before the company went out of business after the death of the founders. The result is that we have a true gem, both historically and musically.
In 1934, in response to technological advances (specifically the development of low-voltage circuits), the Hook and Hastings company returned to St. John’s to electrify the action of the organ and make some judicious tonal alterations to the instrument (adding four stops, plus upper extensions to the Swell stops for use with superoctave couplers and to expand the formerly 58-key keyboard to a standard 61 notes).
The electrification meant that the keyboards, that had been attached directly to the front of the organ chests on the north side of the chancel (and directly facing the wall), could be moved and installed in the console in their current location on the south side of the chancel, near the Sacristy door. This position made it possible for the organist to see and conduct the choir in the choir pews, and also to hear the organ in proper balance with the singers.
Since the 1934 electrification, there has been very little done to the organ beyond routine maintenance and tuning. Eighty years more have, however, taken their toll on the mechanisms of the instrument, and we are now evaluating and restoring the operating systems. We have accomplished a number of the most critical repairs to ensure that we have the use of the instrument on Sunday mornings.
It is important to note that because of their design and construction, these mechanisms have provided a remarkable period of reliability for over three-quarters of a century. Careful repair and maintenance will yield that much time again in continued use. To date, we have repaired the valves and bellows that control the stops and pipes of the Swell and Great divisions and fixed numerous wind-leaks caused by deteriorated leather and cork gaskets.
Most of these repairs are long-term, rather than stop-gap measures, meaning that the funds spent so far are investments in the future of music at St. John’s. The console was completely rebuilt in 2008 as a new computerized relay was installed and the organ wiring was brought up to modern electrical code, a failing pedal windchest was replaced, and one of the two pipe facades was restored visually. The largest repairs remaining are the main chests of the Great and Swell, the chest of the Pedal Diapason, the repair of hundreds of pipes physically damaged over 120 years, and the complete cleaning of the instrument to enable dirt-choked pipes to speak into the church with their original clarity, volume and majesty.
Water damage also needs to be remedied: a major roof leak in the past decade caused damage to the chamber walls and to the windchest of the Pedal Trombone. Currently the Trombone awaits restoration and the musical deficit has been remedied temporarily with digitally sampled Trombone pipes from another organ…played through a computer attached to our modernized relay and sounding through speakers placed in the organ chamber.
How Does the Organ Work?
Let’s start with the simple idea that you need to get wind (from a blower) into the pipe – just like a person blowing a penny-whistle. This is accomplished by means of a wind-line (basically a pipe) that runs from the blower in the basement to a sealed, wooden chest into which the pipe (along with 757 other pipes) is stuck, up in the organ chambers on the north side of the chancel.
Now we need some system to open and close the hole at the foot of the pipe – otherwise it sounds continuously. Originally (in 1894) the system for opening these valves was direct; a stiff wire led downward from the valve directly to the back end of the key on the keyboard. When the key was depressed, the wire pulled the valve open, and air flowed into the pipe. When the key was released, a spring attached to the valve pulled it shut against the top of the wind chest, shutting off the air.
This direct system, called “tracker action,” was limiting in a number of ways. First, the keyboards had to be placed against the front of the organ, facing the wall so that the pull-down wires could make the connection. This meant the that organist had his or her back to the chancel and the choir, clearly not the best arrangement for leading the music of the liturgy.
The second difficulty with this system was that the size of the organ was limited (given the space available) by the need for the organ chests to be mounted vertically above the line of the keyboards. There were more cubic feet available in the organ chambers, there just was no way to fill that space with pipework.
The 1934 rebuild took advantage of technological advances to change from the “tracker action” to what has become known as “electro-pneumatic action.” As the name implies, both electricity and wind power are now used to open the same valve at the foot of the same pipe mounted on the same chest as before.
- A very low voltage (10 – 12 volts) signal is sent from the keyboard by wire under the chancel floor to the organ chambers, where it activates a small electromagnet.
- The electromagnet moves a small valve about 1/16 in., which allows air to vent from a pressurized chamber.
- Venting this air in turn opens a larger wind valve, which vents a secondary pressurized chamber.
- Venting of this secondary chamber causes a “pull-down pouch” to move about 1 in..
- A wire attached to the “pull-down pouch” pulls down on the valve at the foot of the pipe, and air flows into it.
Remember – there is one entire system (electromagnet, primary valve, secondary valve and pull-down pouch) for each note on two keyboards and pedalboard; a total of 163. We should also note that the wind supply for the valves is independent of the wind supply that makes the pipes speak.
What is incredible about this seemingly Rube Goldberg affair is that it works, and that it works almost instantaneously. It also works more reliably than most of the mechanical creations with which we have surrounded ourselves over the last half century!
The final piece of the puzzle is how we select specific groups of pipes called ranks to create and blend different tone colors.
Our Hook and Hastings uses slider and note-channel windchests. This means that when a key is depressed at the console, the valve on the windchest opens beneath all the pipes tuned to that note, whether or not they are meant to sound. The pipes that speak are selected by thin boards, ten or more feet in length, placed laterally beneath each different rank of pipes.
Drilled into the board (or slider) are holes that line up exactly with the bottom of the pipes mounted above. When the organist selects a given rank of pipes, the slider (by means of an electro-pneumatic system identical to the one described for the key action) moves lengthwise about 1 in., aligning the holes with the pipes above. When the organist turns off that rank of pipes, the slider moves back so that the holes no longer allow air up into the pipes.
(Photos by Ruth Meteer)