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Ode to the Organ
Article by Eli Rochlin

 

  Nothing is so pure as the performance of a solo instrument. The King of solo instruments must be the organ. You may argue for the piano, the violin, the twelve string guitar... and you may be right. Each has the power and the purity and soul that can make you soar, raise the hairs on the back of your neck, or cry. I enjoy all of these as well as others, but none is as BIG nor built with the love and devotion of the organ. My first experience with the organ still makes me tingle with delight. Let me share this happening with you.

The time is about 1940 - ish. I am about six years old. The place is New York City. The location is Sixth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall. Radio City is a monument to Art Deco and it is worth the price of admission just to see it. The hall holds about 5000 people - just about the right scale for New York. The hall is dimly lit and a black and white movie starts to flicker on the screen. Movies were over quickly back then and the house lights came up a bit. Spotlights search out the two corners of the stage revealing TWO complete organ consoles. First, the organist on the left of the stage starts to play. Soon thereafter the organist on the right side of the stage joins in. My G-d! It's Stereo Organ! The piece is Tchaikovsky and I had never heard it before. The sound exploded about the hall and reverberated through each nook and cranny. Each note extending until it's final extinction, only to be followed by other notes, just as the waves of the ocean. Never-ending, never quite the same, the sound flowed through my very body with delight. I was completely taken over by the awesome sounds and power of this instrument. Is this what heaven sounds like? Perhaps, but we will have to wait for the answer.

Soon, yet another miracle reveals itself. The stage itself rises up containing a complete orchestra! The spotlights have a field day, highlighting this or that group of instruments. I am dumbstruck as I have never seen such a sight before in my life. The orchestra plays and the organ takes on a minor role but lets you know from time to time that it has more power than all of them. This was a pivotal experience, and forever sealed the organ as the King of solo instruments - at least for me. I wanted to hear and see more but alas, this was not to be as most great organs are in large churches or in select music halls. The first was forbidden to me due to my Jewish Orthodox up-bringing and the second was beyond my financial reach.

Fast forward to early teen years. Did you know that Wanamaker's Department Store in downtown New York had an organ? Yes it did, and it was non-sectarian and free! I never bought anything at Wanakmakers, and sometimes feel guilty as I never re-paid the debt I owe for the enjoyment. All good things come to an end and Wanamakers closes and the organ is disassembled and shipped off.

Fast forward some more - Can I really risk going into a church to sneak a listen - why, yes I can... and did! A scant ten minute walk from Radio City Music Hall will get you to at least three good organs. Wanamaker was good, but Saint Patricks is awesome! I learn something about hang time and the effects of hard surfaces, interference and reinforcement. I take Physics in High School and read up on my own about Sound. I hang out at Harvey Radio and Sam Goody listening to Altecs, Hartleys, Wharfedales, Bozaks. These were good, but not the REAL THING.

I continue to seek out the great organs and have spent many inspiring moments listening to some good and great organs, including St. Patrick in New York, Notre Dame, Paris, Westminster Cathedral, London, Ely Cathedral, Cambridge, England, Royal Albert Hall, London and others in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Panama. Some are better than others, but none are bad.

The REAL THING about organs, you see, is the tireless labor of love. No large scale organ is mass produced. They can and have taken years to design, build and test. Each is custom built and unique in sound due to materials, surroundings, age and skill of the builders. Big organs are made to deliver sounds inspired by love and devotion, as the music composed for the organ was often commissioned or inspired by The Church. The combination of love and music to move ones' spirit is the task of the mighty organ. It reminds us of heaven. Truly the King of solo instruments.

 

Now playing: E. Power Biggs, Bach, The Four Great Toccatas & Fugues (CBS MK42643)

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