THUNDER BAY, ON ------ February 12, 2011 ----- Not many people get to sit down at the consol of a pipe organ, likely because there are not that many organists around. I just wish that many of the other things that people buy were as well built as the organ at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Donald and Brodie Streets. This organ predates the city of Thunder Bay, and was installed in the city of Fort William in 1909 as Casavant opus 351.
My occasion to play this instrument was the annual members recital of the Royal Canadian College of Organists, and I was anxious to hear the sounds and play an instrument that has changed only a little in its 101 years. As the recital continues on I could hear how different organists have adapted their music to the sounds of this century old instrument. There is no MIDI connection on this one.
The organ lived its 21 years as a tubular pneumatic pipe organ. This type of instrument is rare in Canada but there are a surprising number of them functioning on the east coast of Canada. In Thunder Bay the parish church of St. Agnus has a functioning tubular pneumatic pipe organ. This type of action evolved in the late 1800’s as a way of relieving the stress organists had to apply to the keyboard on larger mechanical instruments. Also having pneumatic action allowed builders to easily locate pipe were they wanted to rather than be confined to the positions a mechanical layout would have to offer. These organs actually had small lead tubes which ran from the keys all the way to the pipe chests where they would evacuate a leather pouch under the foot of a pipe when they key was pressed. Air pressure in the pipe chest would force the leather pouch to collapse which in turn would supply air pressure to the pipe.
Tubular pneumatic action works best when the distances involved are relatively short, thus the St. Agnus instrument still works as well as new today, but by 1930 the gremlins in the system of the larger instrument at St. Andrew’s made themselves apparent, and the congregations undertook the electrification of the organ. Thus instead of a lead tube running from the key to the pipe chest a wire replaced this and operated a small primary electric valve mounted to the chest which then evacuated the air contained in the leather pouch valve that actually plays the pipe. The 1930 renovation also added the organs wonderful 16’ trombone stop to the pedal division, giving it some definition and the ability to balance the rest of the organ.
The renovation did what it was supposed to do, it solved the never ending adjustments which must be made to tubular organs as the seasons change and the organ has been a reliable performer ever since. The small tonal additions and adding an extra two pedal notes to the organ brought the organ up to a the standard which is still in place today for pipe organs. What I like about this organ is the fact that Casavant kept the scale (width) of the pipes under control and did not make them too wide. This allows the sounds of the various pipes to blend with one another. On this organ the tonal pallet of stops is conceived as a symphonic in nature, and the organ is full of 8 foot stops on the manuals. To achieve brightness needed for playing music by Bach and others the organist must use lots of string stops and the super couplers which will also play the notes one octave higher. It is not the sound that Bach would have imagined but it very closely resembles the instruments that Brahms and Mendelssohn had at their disposal. The organ is therefore ideally suited to the music of the romantic composers.
Not only is a pipe organ supposed to sound well, they should look impressive as well. You can’t be King of the instruments and look bland. This instrument is split into four parts, Pedal, Great, Swell, and Choir organs. Half the organ is on one side of the great stained glass window of the church and the other half is mirrored on the opposite side of the church.
I have made a recording of this organ playing the G minor fugue BWV 578 by J.S. Bach.
I hope you have a good set of speakers!
Arts Editor: LakeSuperiorNews.com