by Nancy Duffy, photography by Phil Grout
Hanover is alive with the sound of organ music.
From St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church on Charles Street to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Basilica Drive to St. Matthew Lutheran Church on West Chestnut, powerful and prayerful music can be heard on instruments more than a century old.
While an organ is built and manufactured, it is also put together with various pipes from various places. For example, St. Mark’s organ has a clarabella flute from the Skinner Mansion in Massachusetts, as well as an Erzähler Celeste from Mr. Ball of the ubiquitous jar empire.
Mike Noble, lead organ historian of St. Mark’s, said even organ prodigy Felix Hell of Germany contributed to the sound.
“We needed a two-foot pipe,” Noble said, “and Felix’s organ in Germany was getting rid of a two-foot pipe, so we got it.”
But one set of pipes is of particular importance to Noble. He presses a few keys and there is an alarum of trumpets.
“That’s the Noble trumpet – named after me,” he says smiling. “I bought it.”
While each organ varies in size, the number of pipes and the churches that house them, all three organs produce majestic and soul-satisfying sounds by devoted musicians.
Noble is one of those musicians.
BEHIND THE MUSIC
Noble walks through the doors of St. Mark’s with palpable electricity. Dressed in a bluish-reddish plaid shirt, this unofficial organ historian is ready to talk about the instrument that has been a part of his life since he was 8 years old.
He pulls up a picture of his 400 count – and growing – CD collection of organ music on his Smartphone, which takes just a minute. “I hate technology,” he laments. “I’m still working with Windows 95.” He begins to name a few of the titles and a few favorites. “I’m just your Renaissance man, what can I say?”
He settles into the light-blue, winged back chair, crosses his legs, opens the pages of a well-worn book and begins to read a quote from French novelist Honore de Balzac. “The organ is in truth the grandest, the most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human genius.”
He pauses and continues, “It is a whole orchestra in itself.” His voice fades as he gets lost in the description of what draws him to the organ.
“That’s the deal,” he says definitively, snapping the book shut.
TIME AND PLACE
Noble was just a young boy when St. Mark’s was built on the site that is now the Royal Farms on Carlisle Street and he participated in the children’s choir every Friday after school. One day, he heard longtime Hanover piano teacher Doris Baker play the organ. “It was a Toccata, ‘Sweet Gothique’ which is four movements, and the last movement is a toccata,” he said. “Her hands and feet were flying.” Noble was hooked.
With the decision to build a new church on South Charles came the decision to either purchase a new organ or restore the old organ.
“Some things never change,” Noble said. “Thank God we were broke and rebuilt.”
The organ was removed from the old church building in 1958 and taken for restoration to J.P. Mollier & Co. in Hagerstown, Maryland. Over the next several months it was transformed into a concert piece under the tonal direction of famous organist Dr. Virgil Fox, who Noble met in the ‘30s and thought “Well, there is God.”
On Christmas Eve that year the restored organ was played for the first time.
“Everyone has a reason for coming to church – 60 percent is to hear that organ,” Noble said.
A dedicatory recital was given by Felix Hell in 1959, and it was standing room only. Noble could not even get into the knave of the church, so he had to stand in the narthex to hear the music.
“Organ recitals can be deadly,” Noble admits, “but Felix was the twist for this recital.”
HEARING IS BELIEVING
The climb to the choir loft is a windy one. Once at the top, the enclosed pipes tower like Redwoods over the pews and the organ console. Noble makes his way to the bench, and with a splay of fingers pushes down on various keys, producing a sound that is Gothic and soul-shaking and awesome.
“Feel the rumble?” he shouts over his shoulder, smiling. The floorboards vibrate like a speeding freight train while mammoth yet intentionally placed pipes produce a surround sound as if one is standing in the middle of the falling Walls of Jericho.
The authenticity of sound and historical accuracy is paramount to this instrument. Dr. Christine Cates, interim organist at St. Mark’s and professor of organ music at York College, concurs.
“I never feel as though I have to accommodate,” she said. “Something written in the 1700s can be played to those same specifications today.”
Producing sound not only involves hands but feet. “Your foot is supposed to slide heel to toe [on the pedal],” Cates said.
Organ shoes provide that ability. With a sleek contour and thin leather heel, the organist is able to choose the correct pedal and, therefore, produce the right sound.
Never are the shoes to be worn on the street because dirt can scuff the pedal board, which obstructs the needed easy movement.
“I can always tell if someone is a true player,” Cates said, “if they have shoes.”
Jodi Richter, organist at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart has well-traveled shoes. When her choir traveled to Europe in 2012, Richter played in St. Peter’s Basilica, San Marco in Venice and St. Francis of Assisi.
“But this,” she says of her parish organ, “is home.”
Because of the excellent acoustics in the church, the much smaller Hook & Hastings organ with its painted exposed pipes is able to produce equally majestic sounds with “fewer pulls than other organs.”
Inspired by her mother, Richter transitioned from the piano to the organ when, she said, “she was able to reach the pedals” and has played at her home parish for approximately 40 years.
The church celebrated the organ’s 115th anniversary with a concert in June.
St. Matthew Lutheran Church is gearing up for an anniversary of its own. In October 2016 the church will celebrate the five-year restoration of its Austin organ – the tenth largest pipe organ in the world, with more than 14,300 pipes – with a dedicatory recital by Richard Elliott, principal organist at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Scott Fredericks, music director and longtime organist at the church, said organ music stirs people. He can feel the change in the room when the first hymn is sung together.
“I don’t think we truly listen to the beauty of the musical phrase,” he said. “There can be a simple Maya Angelou poem in a piece of music if you listen for it.”
Before the end of the tour at St. Mark’s, Noble opens the doors to the space that houses the thousands of pipes, crouching, stretching and straining his neck to point out the exact pipe for a specific sound.
He returns to the organ console and puts it on autopilot, allowing it to play prerecorded material.
“You have to hear this,” he says, “but not from up here.”
He walks down from the choir loft to the front of the church. He leans on the back of a pew, feet up on the seat and waits.
And the carefully selected first movement of Frenchman Louis Vierne, the one-time organist at Notre Dame in Paris, begins to fill the church.
The filtered light through the stained glass window is a contrast to the heavy, medieval swells, spins and turns of the organ music.
“Now you wouldn’t have this in church,” he said, “but we have a concert piece. I wanted a concert piece.”