Pipe Dreams | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Pipe Dreams

The royal instrument is the most complex and powerful yet devised by the human mind

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 "Of all the world's musical instruments," author Donovan Webster reports, "few compare with pipe organs in terms of history, versatility or the unswerving fealty they inspire." Pursuing the secret of the organ's greatness, Webster visits two cathedrals, St. John the Divine in New York and St. Paul's in London, to hear their remarkable instruments. He also follows the organist of his hometown church, First Presbyterian of Charlottesville, Virginia, to Canada and the factory of Casavant Frères, Limitée, to test a new organ built for their church.

At St. John the Divine, organist Dorothy Papadakos shows Webster the "cockpit." Seated at the multitiered console, she explains the difficulties involved in playing an organ when some of the pipes are more than two football fields away in the cathedral, a building with an eight-second echo. St. Paul's music director and organist, John Scott, extols the importance of his organ's age and its relationship to the architecture of the Christopher Wren building surrounding it.

Webster's behind-the-scenes tour of Casavant Frères reveals the complex process of building an instrument that can have many thousands of pipes, multiple keyboards, intricate electronics and myriad details, all combining to make each organ unique.

Once an organ is installed in its new home, it is up to the organist to learn the instrument's character. "I remember the first time I played it here in Charlottesville," James Sivley, organist at the First Presbyterian Church, says of the new Casavant organ. "It was like driving a Lamborghini."

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