Tales from the Organ Loft #2

Have you ever seen the guts of a pipe organ?

It’s awesome. I wanted to get a feel for what needs done when we call the organ technician, so I went up in the organ loft last thursday. Other than a tuning and a slightly leaky bellows leather, we’re in good shape. And something needs tweaked in the wiring for the chimes, but that’s no big. The organ at St. Luke’s is really a marvel. It was brought to the church by an amazing gentleman named Ranny Duncan. This is the second pipe organ installed at St. Luke’s. The first was installed in 1901, and the current organ was installed in 1973. (I think. I’m hoping I have that date right.)

A pipe organ is made up of thousands of pipes, relays, cables, switches, racks, the control console, huge bellows. A pipe organ is truly built into a place, a part of the building. Some of the pipes are smaller than a pencil, some are as big as … well, I don’t know. But they’re big. I can hardly believe that Ranny disassembled this thing and brought it to Saranac Lake; then reconfigured, tweaked, and reassembled it! Amazing achievement by an amazing guy.

Why don’t I tell you a little bit about it? I know just enough to be dangerous.

Here’s a good shot of some wooden pipes. Wooden pipes are particularly good for producing strong fundamental tones – the meat and potatoes. The main bass-producing pipes in most organs are made from wood.

The straight up-and-down metal cylindrical pipes are called flue pipes. This is where you get your flute and principal organ sounds. They’re made of a metal alloy. The wider the diameter of the pipe, the more mellow and flute-like the sound, and the more tin there is in the alloy, the brighter the sound. Flue pipes have a mouth on the side, and kind of look (and act) like a giant whistle. Air from the bellows enters the pipe through the foot, passes the mouth, and a tone is produced.

These are reed pipes. Reed pipes are slightly conical. The tone is made by the vibration of a metal reed located in the base (or “boot”) of the pipe. The boot also contains a shallot, which is like a woodwind mouthpiece. It focuses the air, and with the reed, produces the pitch.

Now, for the question I get asked most. “Which pipes make that big Phantom of the Opera or Toccata and Fugue sound?” Tricky answer. It’s not really one set of pipes. It’s that the control console on a pipe organ is capable of coupling many pipes together. For instance, if I wanted that sound, I could couple the 16-foot principal (flue) pipes with the 8′ principals, plus the 2′ principals. And add the reeds. Add some overtones (or “harmonics”). Plus the big bass sound of the pedals. So, you see, that sound is not found in one type of pipe as much as it is found in the combination of pipes. What you’re hearing is the fact that most of the pipes on the organ are being used – that is, the organist has “pulled out all the stops.”

On this particular organ, when I want some variant of that big glorious sound, I use just about everything, except maybe the crumhorns and regals, which sort of sound like bagpipes. And sometimes, I even use those.

At any rate. Ours a fabulous instrument, us at St. Luke’s, and I am privileged to play it, sweet little flutes to that big pipe organ roar. Thank you, Ranny, and don’t you worry. We’re going to keep her in great shape.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Tales from the Organ Loft #2

  1. What a fascinating post. I never knew there were so many kinds of pipes in an organ, or that some are made of wood. It must be an awesome experience to be able to play one of these.

    I think I passed your church when we were on vacation in the Adirondacks a couple of years ago, when we were out exploring in the area. I remember the shape of the steeple and the bell caught my eye. Had I known about the pipe organ, I might have come back to attend a service.

  2. hideawayhill

    Wow, thanks for sharing these marvelous pics and description. I’ve never seen one of these up close and only heard one once or twice.

  3. My parents’ church in Glens Falls has a beautiful pipe organ. Very childhood comforting.

    And then I got all distracted by your pictures of lakes. Oh sweet lakes. Oh I how I miss them.

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