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Winds of God -- 75 Years of the Great Organ at Grace Cathedral

By Michael Lampen, Grace Cathedral Archivist

To walk into Grace Cathedral with the organ deep into a towering Bach fugue or a mystic Messaien prayer is an awesome, cosmic, experience. Even more thrilling is the sudden ending of a great crescendo, when dying reverberations sound through the Cathedral for a full seven seconds. No other musical instrument has the power, the near-orchestral range and the sonic variety of a great organ. Grace Cathedral 's 7,466 pipe Aeolian-Skinner instrument, the Charles B. Alexander Memorial Organ, is one of the finest American classic style organs, and is among the largest church organs in the west. It is also the largest of Grace Cathedral's three organs, the others being the Chapel of Grace Aeolian-Skinner (1930) and the portable William Davis hand-pumped organ (1862), among California's oldest. May 2009 marked the 75th birthday of the Charles B. Alexander Organ, Grace Cathedral's 'great' organ.

An organ is a dense forest of pipes, part wind instrument and part keyboard instrument, played on one or more 'manuals'. The organ principle can be illustrated by an open-ended whistle. Air is blown into the narrow mouthpiece, past a little side slit that allows a lip or metal tongue to vibrate and give off a note, causing the body of the whistle to vibrate in sympathy and accentuate the note. The length of an organ pipe, ranging from pencil-sized to 32 feet, controls the pitch. Pencil pipe notes are near the upper limit of human hearing, while the giant pipes are more felt than heard. Brass-sounding cylindrical pipes are made of mixtures of zinc, lead, copper and/or tin, while violin and woodwind tones are produced by rectangular oak pipes. Pipes of specific tonal qualities have inherited colorful names such as Echo Gamba and Lieblich Gedeckt. Most pipes stand in sets on wind chests, and each set is enclosed in a wind chamber, with moveable shutters to control volume. A large organ has a console with several manuals to play the several major divisions of pipes, including a keyboard for the feet! An array of white knobs (draw stops) flanks the manuals. Using a customized computer system, the stops can be set individually or in groups to mix and match pipe combinations, creating an almost unlimited palette of sound colors. In addition to the draw stops there are tilting tablets, pistons, studs and levers. While all pipe organs were once hand-pumped, electricity has supplied pump power for all but the smallest organs, for the last century.

Grace Cathedral's great Aeolian Skinner organ was installed in 1934, the gift of Harriet Crocker Alexander (1862-1935), sister of William H. Crocker, principal donor of the cathedral site. (Installation in the south chamber is shown at left.)  The Crockers were a musical family, and stained glass windows in the William Crocker mansion's music room (that stood on the present organ site before 1906) depicted composers and instruments. The organ was given in memory of Harriet's husband, Charles Beatty Alexander (1849-1927), a noted New York attorney, Princeton University figure and Presbyterian elder, and in honor of their three daughters Harriet Aldrich, Janetta Whitridge and Mary Whitehouse. In the spring of 1934, workers assembled the organ in the two large chambers flanking the cathedral choir. The Alexander Memorial Organ was dedicated on May 20, 1934 by Bishop Edward L. Parsons. Noted organ authority Wallace Sabin played Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat major. The inaugural recital on June 3, 1934, by cathedral organist J. Sidney Lewis, featured works by Bach, Brahms, Rheinberger, Handel, Stanford, Guilmant, Whitlock and others.

Although listed as Opus 910A of Ernest M. Skinner (1866-1960), America's greatest organ designer of the early 1900s, the Alexander organ was in fact largely designed by G. Donald Harrison (1889-1956). By the 1930s, Skinner, a genius designer who had never finished high-school, was little more than a figurehead of the Aeoilan-Skinner Company, created in 1932 when Skinner bought out Aeolian. The educated English-born Harrison, who had joined the Skinner firm in 1927, soon began to edge out Skinner, as fresh ideas of organ building came to the fore. Harrison's design for the Grace Cathedral organ included contributions by Stanley Williams, Warren D. Allen, and Wallace Sabin, and consultation with cathedral organist J. Sidney Lewis, and the cathedral trustees of the day. The installation was one Aeolian-Skinner's first major organs in the west, and one of the earliest and finest examples of what Harrison dubbed the "American classic organ". Balancing Baroque and orchestral sounds by using a broad mix of pipes and stops, the classic organ expressed the eclectic repertoire of church music that developed following the more sentimental Victorian era.

An often overlooked aspect of Grace Cathedral's great organ are the two spectacular English oak screens (1935), designed by cathedral architect Lewis Hobart and carved by Romanian-American master carver Samuel Berger. Weighing a total of 14 tons and assembled without metal nails or screws, they rise on either side of the choir, enclosing the two organ chambers. Carved detail includes robed figures holding songbirds, angel musicians playing instruments, dragons, and a profusion of foliage wreathing the upper portions of the screens. Below, chorister angels with songbooks are joined by blowing figures representing the organ action. On the central bosses, support figures hold shields with the instruments of Christ's Passion. A visitor with binoculars will find even more details. Halfway up the central side mullions are four cheeky monkeys.

When built, the Grace Cathedral organ had five divisions; Choir, Great, Swell, Solo and Pedal, and 6077 pipes. Thanks to the interest and generosity of Harrison and his successor Joseph S. Whiteford, additions and minor tonal alterations were made in 1952 and 1956, raising the total to 7286 pipes. Swain & Kates made further alterations ca. 1959. Display pipes in the lower screen openings were removed in 1962. Two new divisions by Casavant Freres of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, were installed in 1974, one in the distant cathedral gallery and the other (now silent) the bombarde, in the apse. A tuba section was added in 2000 making the current pipe total 7466. The console, too, went through several incarnations. In 1968 the original console was replaced with a solid-state system by Rufatti Fratelli of Padua, Italy. The organ itself was mobilized in 1984, so that it could be rolled down a ramp onto the choir floor and turned to any position for concerts. A thick electrical "umbilical chord" linked it to the 20-horsepower turbine pump in the crypt. In 1998 the venerable firm of Schoenstein and Co., San Francisco organ builders since 1877, created a new mobile digital control console, doing away with the ramp and downsizing the "umbilical chord".

J. Sidney Lewis, fourth cathedral organist (1916-1942), was the first to have the privilege of regularly playing the great organ. Later organist/ choirmasters of note were the noted composer Hugh MacKinnon (fifth - 1942-1946), and the famed Richard I. Purvis (pictured - sixth - 1947-1971), who fondly knew the organ as "Gertie". John R. Fenstermaker followed (seventh - 1971-2000), and then Christopher Putnam (2000-2001), Jeffrey Smith (2005-2010) and the current Director of Music Benjamin Bachmann. Some of the several assistant organists are of note. Ted Alan Worth (1958, 1967-1969) became a noted concert organist, and Susan Matthews was the cathedral's first female assistant/acting organist (2001-2005). "The organ is not a machine but an expressive instrument," she noted. "My job is to make it breathe like a real person."

Great premieres have taken place on the Grace Cathedral organ and great organists have played its keys. The complete organ works of Bach, played by Vatican organist Fernando Germani (1960), and Paul Jacobs performance of the complete organ works of Messiaen (2002), have enthralled listeners. Other visiting performers have included Marcel Dupre, Jean Langlais, E. Power Biggs, Karl Richter, Simon Preston, Virgil Fox, Pierre Cochereau, Marie Claire-Alain and many others. The great organ accompanied Duke Ellington in the premier of his Sacred Concert (1963), and Vince Guaraldi's Jazz Mass (1965). As well as serving in thousands of services, hundreds of recitals, and numerous choir and orchestral concerts, drama, dance and new age performances, the organ has featured in such events as The Organ in Sanity and Madness, Totentanz, and The Hunchback of Note Dame and other silent movies. Cathedral organists Fenstermaker and Purvis celebrated the organ's 50th anniversary with a gala 1984 concert featuring works by Bach and Sabin. The great organ is even heard in feature movies such as Hitchcock's Family Plot and Bicentennial Man, and has had literary cameos in novels such as Flint by Charles Norris and Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City.

The first commercial recording of the great organ was in 1953 for an LP set Aeolian-Skinner presents -- The King of Instruments (v. 5). The unattributed segments were played by Richard Purvis. A Richard Purvis Organ Recital (v. 1, 2) were recorded for High Fidelity in 1956, as was his Music for Christmas in 1959. A Reader's Digest/RCA set of 1972 also features the organ (lp 14). John Fenstermaker recorded The Organ at Grace Cathedral in-house LP in 1979, followed by cassette recordings in 1986 and 1988. The Organ Historical Society's 1988 Historic Organs of San Francisco CD set includes the great organ. A Brass and Organ Christmas Gothic CD followed in 2000. Susan Matthews recorded Chosen Tunes, a Gothic CD, in 2004. Visiting recording organists have included Michael Murray (1973), Catharine Crozier (1990), Cherry Rhodes (1995) and John Weaver (2000). For full record information see click here.

Like all organs, Grace Cathedral's great organ requires maintenance. Fluctuating temperature and humidity, loosening due to vibration, general wear and tear, occasional earthquakes, all take their toll. Like a living creature, an organ requires constant attention and loving care, including a bi-weekly tuning of a portion of the many pipes. Edward Millington Stout III, Bay Area organ curator emeritus, now retired, worked with often-limited resources to restore and repair the great organ during his 42-year tenure. A pressing problem was the two concrete and steel organ chambers, in which concrete "cancer" due to rusting re-bar required partial rebuilding of the chamber ceilings. Concrete debris dropping into organ pipes would be a disaster. The project was completed in 2010 with a temporary nave gallery organ as substitute.

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