St. Mary Church, Urbana, had a wheezing (literally) octagenarian beast of fourteen ranks, only one of which was of four foot pitch with the balance of a variety of eight foot stops (mostly soft to softer), installed in two shuttered chambers (the openings of which were no larger than 6’ x 4’) behind a double layer of heavy grillecloth so dirt-laden that one could not see the chamber lights through it. The over-all effect was similar to placing one’s hand over one’s mouth and then whispering.
With the arrival of a new Director of Music and the hope of building a sacred music program of seriousness and quality, the need to have a basic tool of church music-making (the organ) that was beautiful and useful became apparent. The interest in keeping and using any of the pipes quickly waned when minimum costs in the range of $200,000 were bandied about – especially when considering the resulting instrument might total 20 stops. The room seats nearly 600.
Using our standard approach of designing the instrument to fit the situation (meaning both the building’s spacial/acoustical characteristics and the desired musical usage), an instrument of fifty stops was envisioned, with five divisions over three manuals and pedal, the solo division to be available on any of the three keyboards. The selection of stops and their placement within the overall scheme was determined by their usefulness within each divisional chorus as well as their flexibility overall. The total tonal effect of the instrument is based on unison pitch (or, as we like to say, natural pitch) extended both upward and downward in a way that fits the building and produces a tutti in which grandeur and majesty are of the essence.
The Chicago theologian, Martin Marty, has said that the organ must be able to “thunder judgment and whisper grace” and we agree. Careful and thoughtful design with beautifully voiced stops will trump gadgets any day and we believe that this instrument proves it. From the subtlest celestes to either of the large solo reeds, this organ is, above all else, supremely useful. One attempt on this writer’s part to select some program pieces based on what would sound best on the organ was doomed to failure for the simple reason that everything could be made to sound wonderful…..something that, in forty-seven years of playing experience, has rarely happened.
This result has been achieved, not just because the room has good acoustics, which it does. In fact, it was not realized how good the acoustics were until the organ sounded for the first time, an effect unrealized with the previous pipe organ. The organist’s comment, “It the first time I’ve ever known the organ to make the room sound good” is telling. another musician, who grew up in St. Mary’s said, “This instrument has redefined this building for me – it will never be the same.”
It must be remembered that the design which was imagined was made possible because of the quality of the basic sounds that could be assembled and the enormous flexibility with which the Walker Technical Company people are able to manipulate those sounds to make everything ‘work’ in a new setting. (Blind copying almost never works – beware the duplicity of ‘you too can have St. Paul’s, London, in your 250 seat country church’)
The organ in St. Mary Church in Urbana, Ohio can be summed up in a simple statement: “If you can find a better sound, go buy it.”
A note on the fašade: The need to replace the nearly opaque grille-cloth was apparent.
The pipes in the new fašade were the two pedal ranks of the old organ which permitted an historical continuity with the original church in which it had been installed. The use of all-wood may be unusual but it fits the building and follows our rule of design when working with extant architecture: it should look as if it has always been there.