IT IS A “CIPHER”—ORGAN BUILDER’S LINGO FOR A STUCK note—that has brought us up to a cramped chamber hidden behind a side wall 40 feet over the stage of Yale University’s Woolsey Hall. We are inside the Newberry Memorial Organ, a musical instrument but also a dauntingly complex machine, with thousands of electromagnets, 30,000 pneumatic valves, 1,000 pneumatic motors, and 160 miles of electrical wire, all spread out over 9 pipe chambers and 2 relay rooms and packed into an oak console with 4 keyboards, a pedal board, and more than a hundred stop knobs and buttons. Tracing a fault in all this would seem a nightmarish prospect. But it takes Joseph Dzeda, one of the university’s two associate curators of organs, all of about five seconds pulling a few stop knobs and trying a few keys at the console to diagnose and pinpoint the location of the problem. A tiny leather disk called a pitman valve, sitting underneath the middle-D pipe on the flauto mirabilis stop, has worn out.
When Dzeda is called off to another emergency repair, at a church across town, I follow Nicholas Thompson-Allen, Dzeda’s fellow curator, up the stairs to the hall’s balcony, through a nondescript door, and into a vast and very eerie space concealed behind the ornate front of the organ. I’m sure not one in a thousand visitors to the elaborately decorated Beaux Arts hall, with its paintings of the Muses surrounding a blue sky on the ceiling, is even aware of this hidden world’s existence. Stretching 80 feet across and 10 feet deep, it looks like what a cave would look like if caves had been designed by 1920s industrial engineers instead of by nature.
All around us are ranks upon ranks of stalagmite-like clusters of organ pipes in a seemingly endless array of shapes: cones, inverted cones, rectangles, pyramids. Each of the different stops on an organ requires one or more complete sets of pipes ranging from large to small, each pipe corresponding to one of the 61 notes on the keyboard. With 142 stops, the Newberry Organ contains a grand total of 12,617 pipes, and thus ranks among the dozen or so largest in the world. The fantastic variety in shape and construction and materials of the various stops gives them widely differing tone colors, from dark to flutey to brassy to thundering. Towering 32-foot flues crafted from beautiful 2Vi-inch-thick boards of knot-free sugar pine, an old-growth variety that is extremely difficult to find, stand guard by the entrance; the tallest ones weigh upward of a ton, their gaping mouths big enough to slide an unabridged dictionary through. Against the brick wall that forms the back of the hall is a bank of tin-and-lead-alloy pipes as big around as sewer pipes. Like the many stops that imitate reed or brass instruments, each contains a vibrating reed in its base. These particularly impressive specimens are the low notes of the awesome bombarde stop, played from the organ’s pedal keyboard, which can set the entire hall—and everything in it—shaking at 16 cycles per second. When tuning these big pipes, the curators have to wear ear protection.
Above us are glimpses of endless rows of smaller square wooden tubes and delicate metal cylinders, some bright metal, others a dark, spotted alloy. Clusters of matched series of pipes mark the complex “mixture” stops, sets of multiple pipes that play together, reinforcing each note with several higher pitches that correspond to the natural harmonic series; and the shimmering “celeste” stops, which are made up of two matched ranks of pipes, one tuned just slightly sharp of the other to create a hypnotic, vibrato-like effect.
A dozen ladders, one a grand staircase three stories tall, climb through these thickets to mysterious heights crossed with precarious-looking catwalks. I gamely follow Thompson-Allen up two of the ladders, trying not to look down while remembering Dzeda’s humorous, or perhaps not so humorous, parting admonition: “If you fall and land on any pipes, you’d better hope you die.” We pass an entire room crammed with elegantly slender metal pipes, sprouting like a stand of industrial bamboo, some no more than three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, that imitate the sounds of an orchestral string section; we then squeeze sideways through a narrow door and into another substantial room filled with wood and metal pipes of every description. Down another shorter ladder, we arrive at the spot beneath the windchest where the problem valve must be.
THE WINDCHEST IS AN OBLONG WOODEN BOX THAT carries pressurized air; a half-dozen or so complete ranks of pipes sit atop each windchest. There are scores of them distributed throughout the organ, each fed by ductwork running up from huge blowers in the basement. Thompson-Allen carefully removes 30 screws, disconnects a few wind tubes, and gently removes a board filled with springloaded white leather pouches, intricately routed air channels, and rows of the tiny pitman valves. “There’s the one,” he immediately says, pointing to a disk that looks to me no different from any of the others. But sure enough, a tiny dowel at its center has come loose. Thompson-Allen pops a new one in its place, screws it back together, and that’s that.
The maintenance and restoration of the Newberry Organ has been a 50-year labor of love, dedication, and defiance of both musical and technological fashion. It began under Thompson-Allen’s father, Aubrey Thompson-Allen, who was curator of organs at Yale in the 1950s and 1960s, and it continues today under the care of the literal and figurative second generation represented by Nick Thompson-Allen and Joe Dzeda.
Along with the inevitable emergency repairs carried out throughout the school year, like that worn pitman valve, the curators have for half a century devoted six to eight weeks every summer to taking down one whole section of the organ in turn. They replace worn leather valves and bellows; clean and reshape the thin metal pipes, which slowly distort from the weight of gravity; rewind the electromagnets on the two 1915-vintage 20-horsepower blower motors and replace their bearings; and maintain the room-sized electropneumatic computer that operates the programmable combination action, an amazing piece of handcrafted machinery that allows the organist to preset selected stops to operate at the push of a single button. “I’m practical enough to know that everything goes to dust,” says Dzeda. “I have no delusions about that. But we’re preserving a bit of history while we’re here, for as long as we can.”
As a result, the Yale organ is today one of two faithfully preserved examples of the heroically proportioned instruments built by the legendary Skinner company during the golden age of American organ building in the first decades of the twentieth century. That was a time when not only churches but municipal auditoriums, concert halls, and even movie theaters and world’s fairs were incomplete without a pipe organ. In an era when live performances by symphony orchestras were still a rarity and radio and recordings were just getting off the ground, huge concert pipe organs brought orchestral music to the masses. And the masses came—literally by the thousands—to hear transcriptions of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” or the Grand March from Aïda or complete Tchaikovsky symphonies played on these great instruments. San Francisco hired a municipal organist at the astronomical salary of $10,000 a year to give concerts on the organ installed in its Civic Auditorium. Magnates had huge pipe organs installed in their private mansions and even aboard their yachts.
Ernest M. Skinner’s Boston firm was the Rolls-Royce of organ builders of the day. Theaters and cinemas might have their bone-rattling mighty Wurlitzers, with their lush but garish sound and gimmicky special effects like tear-jerking tremolos, birdcalls, Klaxons, and cymbal crashes. But Skinner’s organs, even at their most grandiose, were refined and highly musical instruments, sought after by the best classical performers and symphony orchestras and the wealthiest churches. Their price was in the Rolls-Royce league as well. The Yale organ, Skinner’s Opus 722, cost $52,000—a prodigious sum in 1928, equivalent to more than $500,000 today—even though just over 5,000 of the pipes and some other components had been recycled from an earlier instrument in Woolsey Hall with sections dating from 1902 and 1915.
Skinner was renowned not only for his acutely sensitive musical ear but for his inventive mechanical genius. The preservation of the Yale organ has thus not just saved a musical treasure, praised today by organists for the incredible variety and richness of its musical tone palette; the Newberry Organ is also a meticulously preserved living museum of the pinnacle of 1920s-era electropneumatic technology—of the ingenuity with which switches, relays, and valves were made to perform tasks that today have been completely taken over by the computer chip. Skinner made brilliant use of air pressure and pneumatic motors to do most everything, instantly operating valves to admit air into pipes when a keyboard note is depressed; performing complex logical functions; and silently and reliably opening and closing the one-ton arrays of wooden shutters that surround several of the organ’s pipe chambers, allowing the organist with the touch of a foot pedal to expressively vary the sound reaching the hall, from a muffled whisper to a full-throated roar.
“Anyone can look at this and see how beautifully it was built,” says Nick Thompson-Allen, waving at the many glasswindowed boxes filled with cables and wire junctions, the wind-chests with their neat India-inked script labeling each stop, the dozens of shellacked wood regulator bellows, the endless runs of carefully soldered sections of air ducts. Though many parts are covered with thick layers of dust, they still not only work for the 40 hours a week the instrument is played throughout the academic year but also bespeak a kind of artistry and pride of workmanship that even in the 1920s was a holdover from the pre-electrical, pre-industrial age.
It has not always been easy to defend Skinner’s instruments. Within a decade of his completion of the Yale organ in 1929, the tide of musical fashion already started to turn against him. To the growing numbers of American organists who began to travel to Europe and rediscover the Baroque-era organs of Bach and his contemporaries, Skinner’s large “orchestral” organs, with their many colorful solo stops that evoke the sounds of the orchestra—violins, clarinets, flutes, oboes, French horns, trombones, tubas—now seemed decadent and inauthentic. Skinner’s thundering bass stops, which sounded two or even three octaves below written pitch, adding weight and majesty to the notes played by the feet on the pedal board, seemed muddy and ponderous. Special features, such as the Newberry’s blaring trumpet harmonique stop, powered by an air-horn-like wind pressure two and a half to five times greater than in any classical European organs, were dismissed as vulgarities better suited to theater organs.
The European instruments had direct mechanical actions linking the keyboard to the valves that admit air to the pipes; this seemed purer and more intimate than the electropneumatic actions of the Skinner organs. (The famous American organist E. Power Biggs, a leader of the neo-Baroque movement, sniped that electric buttons and wires were “a fine way to ring a doorbell” but not to make music.) Of necessity, the classical instruments were also smaller, since a mechanical action becomes impossibly heavy when too many stops are pulled. Skinner’s instruments were, by comparison, monsters. The late-nineteenth-century Romantic organ music and the once popular transcriptions of orchestral pieces that organs like Skinner’s were eminently suited to playing were falling out of fashion too.
SO ONE AFTER ANOTHER, ALL THE LARGEST SKINNER instruments—at such universities as Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, and Michigan; at such great churches as St. John the Divine and St. Thomas in New York City and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; and at civic halls in Cleveland and St. Paul—were allowed to decay into hopeless disrepair, or were altered beyond recognition, or were dismantled altogether and replaced by neoclassical organs. Besides the Woolsey Hall organ, there are probably fewer than 100 of Skinner’s instruments (out of the nearly 1,000 he built in his lifetime) that survive in playable and original condition today. Most are considerably smaller church organs, and even the largest of them—at St. Peter’s Church in Morristown, New Jersey, and St. Luke’s Church in Evanston, Illinois, to name two—are no more than a third the size of the Yale one.
“I remember in the 1950s, when my dad was here, this organ was looked on with utter contempt. It was laughed at,” Thompson-Allen says. The few students who were interested in playing it at all generally used it as a practice instrument, not for performance. A similar Skinner organ at Williams College was actually vandalized, rendering it permanently unplayable. Pipes were pulled out by the hundreds and trampled.
Dzeda recounts that even most organ builders of the 1950s and 1960s showed little sentiment for preserving Skinner’s “monsters,” and not a few of them betrayed an equally vandalistic urge. Walter Holtkamp, a Cleveland organ builder who was installing a new, neoclassical organ at Yale’s Battell Chapel in the 1950s, was taken on a tour of the interior of the Newberry Organ; after surveying its sea of pipes, he told Aubrey Thompson-Allen that he’d “like to run a bulldozer through it.”
But Aubrey Thompson-Allen had come to love these great instruments from his many years of work for the Willis company of England, which produced organs in much the same tradition. After Willis’s factory was destroyed in the Blitz during World War II, Aubrey came to America for a brief and unhappy stint at the Skinner company. The company had never recovered from the loss of business in the Depression; the collapse of the market for municipal and residential organs following the stock market crash was exacerbated by a longterm decline in church attendance, which cut into its core business of new church organs. Worse, quality had begun to deteriorate after Skinner himself was forced out of his company in the 1930s over aesthetic disputes, the older generation of skilled craftsmen started retiring, and the new management hunted for ways to cut costs and corners.
On a trip to New Haven, Aubrey Thompson-Allen stopped by to see the Newberry Organ, and he soon landed the job as curator. His strategy, recalls his son (who while growing up often worked with him on weekends and summers), was to keep the Newberry playable at all costs, with Band-Aids and quick fixes, if necessary, so that no one could say it was unusable and thereby justify scrapping the whole thing.
One of his quick fixes was to apply cheater electromagnets as temporary patches when pneumatic valves failed. The heart of Skinner’s mechanism linking the keyboard to the valves that admit air to selected pipes is a pneumatic amplifier that produces an almost instantaneous response. Depressing a key on the keyboard closes an electrical contact that energizes a small electromagnet on the windchest of the selected stop. The electromagnet pulls a tiny armature a distance of no more than one thirty-second of an inch, opening a valve that causes pressurized air to escape from a tiny chamber. A rubber or lead hose connects that chamber to what Skinner termed a “primary” pneumatic valve; when the pressure is removed from one side of a small leather pouch on the primary, the pouch collapses, pulling a linkage that opens a valve allowing air pressure to escape from yet another, larger chamber. A “secondary” valve in that chamber then repeats the process on a larger scale, exhausting pressurized air from a channel in the windchest that runs under spring-loaded valves that actually admit air to the selected pipes.
The mechanical advantage of this system is that it allows small, fast, and highly reliable magnets to initiate the process (using minimal electric current; most of the electromagnets draw no more than 50 milliamps), while taking advantage of the organ’s abundantly available air pressure to do the heavy lifting. Throughout the Newberry Organ the original electromagnets remain in place and in good working order about 75 years later. (In some later instruments heavier solenoids were used to perform the entire function of opening the air valves to the pipes.)
When the leather on the pouches of some of the secondary valves first began to deteriorate, Thompson-Allen senior would slap in one of his rigged-up electromagnetic “pushers” to operate the valves in their place and so keep all the notes of all the stops playing until the valves could be releathered in his overall program of systematic renovation. He also devised rubber cloth bags that could be quickly installed around the organ’s pressure-regulating bellows as they began to spring leaks. “He did it on a shoestring because no one wanted to put any money into it,” his son recalls. Today the university not only provides the equivalent of a halftime salary to the two curators for year-round maintenance of all of Yale’s 15 organs but also has a small budget (about $20,000 a year) to cover the annual summertime overhauls of the Newberry.
BOTH NICK THOMPSON-ALLEN AND JOE DZEDA BEGAN working as assistants to Aubrey Thompson-Allen in 1968, learning the myriad skills of electricity, woodworking, metalworking, leatherworking, tuning, and voicing required to keep the organ in playing condition. Organ building is one of the few trades left in America today in which the only way to learn is through apprenticeship; the two partners say it takes four to five years to train an employee before he’s “worth anything.” As Thompson-Allen notes, dealing with mechanical problems that arise is “99 percent experience.” There are no complete blueprints, wiring diagrams, or plans for any Skinner organ, the Newberry included. Building on what they learned as Aubrey’s assistants, the pair basically had to write the book on refurbishing Skinner organs when they took on a major restoration of a North Carolina organ in the early 1970s.
Often they have had to devise new methods for diagnosing problems or carrying out repairs. Some of the tasks have seemed almost Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, as when they had to lift out some of the 32-foot metal pipes; these are so heavy yet so delicate that as soon as they are laid flat, they begin to collapse, each cross section changing from round to oval. At the other extreme, the string-chorus pipes are so small and narrow that even a speck of dust or a stray hair can make them go off speech.
One time the university organist left Dzeda a note saying that the low C on the 32-foot bombarde was not speaking. Dzeda opened up the windchest and checked the valve, and it seemed fine. He climbed to the top of the 32-foot pipe and peered down with a flashlight; again everything looked normal. He then took off the cover that encloses the vibrating reed, a very large vibrating reed in the case of this lowest pipe, and was hit at once by what he politely terms an inappropriate smell. Wedged into the reed mechanism was a dead bat. It was so tightly jammed in that it was clear it had not flown in of its own volition; rather it had been sucked in forcibly by the downdraft of the massive column of vibrating air created at the top of the pipe when it was played. (On another occasion the low D on that same stop was out; Dzeda lowered a rope and hook into the pipe and extracted a blue balloon, blue being the Yale color. This was the day after the annual midnight Halloween concert, which always features a rip-roaring, pull-out-all-the-big-stops performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue —not coincidentally, the one in D minor.)
When Aubrey Thompson-Allen retired in 1973, the pair took over his position as organ curator and also became partners of his outside business, A. Thompson-Allen Company, which maintains and restores organs for private clients, with a staff of five employees. The firm has fully restored 12 Skinner organs, and its main shop, located in an anonymous industrial building across town, has one corner crammed with spare Skinner parts rescued from dismantled or discarded organs that continue to fall by the wayside.
The basic problem, Nick Thompson-Allen notes, is that “to properly restore an instrument that is in complete but barely playable condition costs at least half as much as buying a new one,” and most churches and institutions aren’t willing to spend that kind of money when they can get something seemingly much better by spending a bit more. Moreover, nostalgia for old organs remains a highly selective emotion. Organ aficionados and preservationists universally decry the trend a century ago to improve historic eighteenth- or nineteenth-century organs by replacing them with more modern instruments or supplanting their mechanical actions with electric or pneumatic systems. “That thought is horrific to organ builders today,” says Thompson-Allen, “but it hasn’t yet transferred to Skinner’s instruments and their electropneumatic actions.”
Dzeda is an unabashed nostalgist, not just for the Newberry Organ and its kin but for everything connected with them. His employees practically had to stage a revolt to get him to replace the ailing 1940s drill press in the small curator’s shop in the basement of Woolsey Hall. Dzeda hated to lose it in part because it appears in a photograph of the shop from a half-century ago that hangs on the wall. “I can no longer point to that picture and say nothing has changed,” he laments. Close inspection, though, reveals that the very same glass jars and tea tins full of parts stand on the shelves in exactly the places they did when the photograph was taken.
Thompson-Allen seems less convinced that “everything was better in the old days,” as Dzeda likes to proclaim, but both share an uncompromising commitment to the strict preservation and faithful restoration of the Skinner organs that have come under their care. That extends even to components that have no effect on the sound, appearance, or touch of the instruments—a stance that, Dzeda admits, many of their fellow organ builders consider “crazy.” The craziest example of this is their steadfast defense of the Woolsey Hall organ’s electropneumatic combination action, the room-size assemblage of 633 pneumatic motors and thousands of brass cams that make up the “brains” of the organ, as Thompson-Allen puts it.
“This is the last operating combination action of this type anywhere,” Dzeda says. Frequently, he admits, the question comes up of “why not just rip it out, as everyone else has done, and not even have a good-bye party for it and just replace it with a gray box a hundredth the size.” Electronic combination actions that offer the player hundreds of programmable settings are now standard. The 1928 Skinner action has only a dozen or so preset buttons for controlling the stops on each of the organ’s four keyboards and its pedal board.
But Dzeda and Thompson-Allen insist that preserving the original Skinner combination action is not only a conservation issue but a practical one as well. “This works; it’s reliable; it’s infinitely renewable; it will be here 100 years from now,” Dzeda says. While digital standards keep changing, making the exact replacement of electronic devices that are even a few years old problematic, leather will always be available for renewing these valves and pneumatic motors as they wear out every few decades. “As long as God remembers the recipe for sheep, we’re in business,” says Dzeda.
Altogether it is a beautiful and amazing piece of machinery to behold. To program one of the preset buttons to memorize a combination of stops that can later be recalled, the organist first holds down a setter button. Electrical signals are sent from any stop knob that is currently pulled; these cause a pneumatic motor in the combination action to pull a corresponding “trace”—a long strip of mahogany, one for each stop— seven-eighths of an inch to the right. Along the length of each trace is a series of brass cams, one for each of several preset buttons available. When one of the preset buttons is now pushed (still in “program” mode), it causes a pneumatic motor located above the traces to push down on its corresponding set of cams. The traces that have been pulled to the right when this happens have their corresponding cams pushed one way, which corresponds to an “on” position; the traces that are in their resting location have their cams pushed the other way, to their “off” position.
Now, to recall this preselected set of stops at any time, all the organist has to do is push the preset button again. Doing so activates yet another pneumatic motor, positioned so that it catches all those cams that were previously set to the “on” position, thereby pushing to the right the traces for whatever stops were pulled when the setting was established. The movement of the traces closes electrical contacts that finally complete the process, sending signals back to the console to activate a battery of pneumatic motors that make the stop knobs move in and out. The engineering in the console is breathtakingly precise, with 510 tiny, exquisitely crafted pneumatic motors and their related electromagnets, air tubes, valves, and levers all packed into a surprisingly small space.
Dzeda defends keeping the original Skinner console and combination action for another reason: Any change is the camel’s nose under the tent and will inevitably lead to more revisions and alterations. “It doesn’t change the sound, but it does change the technological integrity,” he says. “As curators we are acutely sensitive to this. And so far, the musicians at Yale have been very understanding, because they know it’s a tender issue with us.”
Feeling more than a bit like Walter Mitty in one of his imaginings, I sat down at the console at Dzeda’s invitation to try a few riffs. With the chorus of principal stops and reeds pulled, backed up in the pedals with the mighty 32-foot bombarde, playing even a few simple chords is a thrilling experience. (Part of the magnificence of the Newberry Organ’s sound is the four-and-a-half-second reverberation of the hall itself; one of the curators’ constant fears is that at some point there will be a push to renovate the hall, replacing the old wooden chairs with plush upholstery that will kill that wonderful echo.)
Hearing a great musician like Yale’s university organist Thomas Murray play it, as I did earlier in the year, is an astonishing experience. Unlike some of his predecessors, Murray is an unabashed champion of the Woolsey Hall organ. “It is a genuine creation of the Romantic aesthetic, and it places the authentic sounds for great nineteenth- and twentieth-century repertoire under the player’s fingers,” he says. It is also unusual in its “uncanny ability” to reproduce the inflection and nuance of an orchestra and in what he calls “its seamless Crescendi and kaleidoscopic blending of sonic colors.”
One of the unique effects of the Newberry Organ, with its huge chorus of string-tone pipes, is the swirling crescendo from the distant shimmering string chorus to full organ—literally pulling out all the stops. You don’t have to be a musician to be awed hearing it. As Dzeda puts it, “I’ll bet this organ has raised acres of gooseflesh over the years.”