Vital Organ

Vital Organ

Like the subject of this 2018 story, keep breathing, New Haven.

Picture a penny whistle, the size of a drinking straw and made out of tin. Blow on it and you’ll get a bright, high pitch. Now imagine a wooden whistle 33 feet tall.

Tiny and towering and everything in between: Those are the sizes of the pipes in the grand Newberry Memorial Organ in Yale’s Woolsey Hall. The elegant gilded pipes that many concertgoers have seen—and heard—ranging above the hall’s impressive stage are only a few of the 12,641 pipes in the organ. Others reside in nooks and crannies spanning the hall from stage to ceiling, balcony to balcony and backstage to basement, where two ancient motors take turns generating enough air to blow wind through the whistles.

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On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Yale University organist and organ professor Thomas Murray treated visitors to an impromptu performance of a selection from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite as well as lines from Schumann and Bach. His playing of the organ was a full-body experience. Located at the foot of the stage, the console has four overlapping keyboards—Murray sometimes bridged two with a single hand—and a series of foot pedals.

The keyboards are flanked by panels of white knobs, or “stops,” which determine the timbre of a given note. While Murray didn’t “pull out all the stops,” he did treat guests to an example of the dynamic range of the historic organ, from the faintest note, like a distant cry, to a stentorian phrase that set the stage lights humming. Many of the organ’s stops are designed to simulate the sounds of an orchestra: trumpet, French horn, cello, viola, oboe, flute and so on. This is one of the features that makes it such a valued artifact, “an organ representative of its time,” as Murray puts it.

Originally built in 1903 in memory of John Stoughton Newberry, the father of Yale alumnus Truman Handy Newberry, Woolsey’s organ got a major mechanical upgrade and was “almost doubled in size” in 1915, according to a brochure. The organ’s next rebuild and enlargement came in 1928 under the supervision of the Skinner Organ Company of Boston. That version survives intact today in part because, by the time it was “out of style,” the university couldn’t afford to upgrade it, associate curator of organs Joseph Dzeda says. “Changes in fashion have worn out more organs than playing ever will,” Murray adds; out of four similar organs Skinner built around that time, only Yale’s survives.

Revealing what’s literally behind the organ’s awesome sound, associate curator of organs Nicholas Thompson-Allen took us up into the space behind the visible pipes. Thompson-Allen knows this instrument well; his father, Aubrey Thompson-Allen, became Yale’s curator of organs—tuning, maintaining and restoring them—in 1952.

Behind the stage’s showy array of pipes, a network of ducts meandered overhead. It was as if we’d stepped into a Victorian factory, where bellows huffed and levers clacked. The palpable vibrations of rumbling bass notes gave the organ a distinctly mechanical sound, one that’s never heard from the auditorium. Box-shaped and built of Oregon straight grain pine instead of the tin-lead alloy reserved for their smaller brethren, the largest pipes stretch to the ceiling high above. One unsuspecting tour member standing in front of the mouth of a giant pipe had her hair blown up by a booming note. Among the backstage moving parts are leather regulators, which expand and contract to control the amount of air that reaches the pipes.

But where was the air coming from? For the answer, Dzeda took us to the opposite end of the building and into the basement, where an industrial cage houses two 1915-vintage direct current motors with 20 horsepower each. Only one motor runs at a time, but the roar was so great that conversation had to wait. Also in the basement is a room housing a series of organ pipes known as the “echo organ,” some of which are currently under restoration. Another basement room serves as a small workshop, which, like a century-old time capsule, is full of fading photographs, sturdy original shelves and indispensable tools. Yet another room holds what Dzeda delightedly referred to as “something unique in the world”: a 1928-era computer made of wooden traces and brass switches, an “electropneumatic memory” for the organ’s pistons which is still in operation but is now boosted with digital memory.

Countless concertgoers have heard the result, gazing up at the ornately painted and gold-leafed arches of Woolsey’s ceiling as they listen. But few likely realized they were sitting in a breathing building, equipped with a whirring motor heart and a circulatory system of air singing through a phalanx of pipes, 115 years old and going strong.

Newberry Memorial Organ
Woolsey Hall – 500 College St, New Haven (map)…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims with the exception of image 10, a drawing by Kurt E. Bocco provided courtesy of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Image 2 features Thomas Murray; image 6 features Joseph Dzeda; and image 8 features Nicholas Thompson-Allen. This lightly updated story was originally published on January 18, 2018.

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