The Great Organ
Excerpts from The Great Organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine: A Plan for Restoration, by Paul A. Baumgarten:
One of six organs in the cathedral complex, the Great Organ was completed in 1911 by Ernest M. Skinner, and enlarged and rebuilt in 1954 by G. Donald Harrison of The Aeolian Skinner Organ Company. It is a four manual and pedal, seven division electro-pneumatic action instrument of 118 speaking stops, 141 ranks, and 8,514 pipes. The Great Organ has several extraordinary features, including the world-famous State Trumpet at the West End, located over five hundred feet from the organ’s console. On fifty inches of wind pressure, it ranks as one of the most powerful organ stops in the world. Also of note are the magnificent high-pressure Solo Tubas, a battery of Bombarde reeds, four remarkably effective thirty-two foot ranks, and a three-rank cello stop in the Pedal division. The console, newly built by Quimby during the restoration and replicating the style of the original Skinner console, is located in the gallery above the South Choir stalls. The organist, invisible to the congregation, can see the choir and clergy by means of a system of video cameras.
The present day replacement value of this organ would be well over $8 million. It must be noted, however, that to replace this instrument today would be impossible, as many of the materials are no longer readily available and the skills and temperament that produced this work of art are not part of today's culture. In this sense, the organ is priceless.
The Great Organ's history is as colorful and intriguing as the cathedral in which it is housed. It has seen many changes and upheavals, the biggest being the conversion of the cathedral from the Byzantine Romanesque plan of the first builders, Heins and LaFarge, in 1892, to the Gothic design of Ralph Cram in 1916. The money to build the Great Organ was donated in 1904 by the Governor of New York State, Levi Parsons Morton. He donated a sum of $600,000 to cover the cost of the organ ($50,000), the Great Choir ($450,000), and the altar ($100,000). Morton's contribution for the organ was intended as a memorial to his recently deceased daughter, Lena Morton. An agreement was signed on May 19, 1906 by Ernest M. Skinner and W. R. Huntington, Chairman of the Fabric Committee, to build the organ for $45,000. The instrument was to be “complete, in every detail, in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, within six months from the time when the building shall have been made weather proof …and sufficient organ shall be in place for service purposes when the building shall be ready for worship.”
Five years elapsed before the structure was sufficiently complete to allow the installation of the organ. The installation was completed in early 1911, and a dedication ceremony was held in April of that year. A stone plaque in the ambulatory, beside the door to the organ console, is inscribed “The organ is Dedicated to the Praise of the Blessed Trinity and in Loving Memory of Lena Kearny Morton, 1875-1904, by her Parents, Levi Parsons Morton and Anna Livingston Morton.” Skinner titled the organ Opus 150.
It is interesting to note that immediately after the organ was installed, an agreement was signed with the Skinner Organ Company which provided for weekly maintenance of the instrument and technicians to be on standby at regular and special services in case of emergencies. The cathedral still adheres to such a regular policy of maintenance, under the direction of the current Organ Curator, Douglass Hunt.
By the late 1930s, the second phase of the cathedral's construction was under way, with the Nave nearing completion. The opening of the Nave would provide a completely new acoustical environment for the organ. Plans were made to finish the Chancel ceiling with limestone rib vaulting, which up to that time had been unfinished Guastavino tile. Drawings were made by Cram's office, indicating minor alterations to the organ chambers. Services were to be held in the completed Nave, and portions of the Great Organ were to be moved to the Nave as well.
Construction work on the Chancel ceiling was nearly complete by March 19, 1941, and plans were being made to demolish the partition wall between the Nave and the Crossing. Skinner was given approval to move the organ back to the Great Choir at a cost of $6,554. The last service in which the organ was used before being moved was on June 8, 1941. During this time of transition, an Everett Orgatron - an early example of the an electronic organ, complete with speakers - was installed by John Wanamaker New York, Inc. on June 9, 1941.
After this phase of construction was completed, the trustees realized the need to update the voicing and generally improve the sound of the instrument. In 1950, the cathedral's organist, Norman Coke-Jephcott, hired G. Donald Harrison - Skinner's successor and the president of the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company - to report on the condition of the Great Organ. Mr. Harrison took this appointment very seriously and noted many flaws in the instrument. He attended services and took notes stating that the organ's “use as an accompaniment for the choir was extremely limited,” as was the organ's effect in the room “when vast throngs of eight to ten thousand worshippers were present on the great festivals.” Harrison outlined his plan for tonal revision of the organ in a report to the trustees and drew up a detailed specification. He also recommended mechanical repairs to correct worn parts which were nearing failure. He estimated that the total cost (depending on the extent of repairs) would be between $39,878 and $48,373. Harrison's enthusiasm for the project was apparent: “The cathedral offers a possibility of the most thrilling instrument I have ever built because of its architectural and acoustical properties, and I am absolutely confident that the plans I am enclosing herewith, if carried out, will produce an effect for you that will be unequalled anywhere.”
His prediction proved right. What was born out of his insight and creativity was an instrument unlike any other in the world. He later added to his proposal the State Trumpet, located at the West End underneath the Great Rose Window and a full 500 feet from the organ console, operating on fifty inches of wind pressure. The new Tubas would operate on twenty-five inches of wind. The work was finally completed in early 1954 and Harrison titled the organ Opus 150a. He took great pride in his work, which he felt had been more than successful. In a promotional brochure put out by Aeolian-Skinner, he wrote the following: “One and all, the men whose hearts, minds and hands constructed this instrument, felt the magnificence and privilege of opportunity and were inspired by the glory of the edifice. More than the mere exhibition of their skills, this organ is their act of faith. I feel that through those of the Cathedral who sensed and met the need for this comprehensive instrument, a significant contribution has been made to our American culture.”
Since the 1954 rebuilding of the Great Organ, the cathedral has had eight organists: Norman Coke-Jephcott, Alec Wyton, David Pizarro, Paul Halley, Dorothy Papadakos, Timothy Brumfield, Bruce Neswick, and Kent Tritle. Restoration of the instrument was begun in 1994 by organ curators Douglass Hunt and Anthony Bufano. The State Trumpet was fully restored, as was the Swell division. However, work eventually ceased due to a leaky roof above the organ chamber. Then, on December 18, 2001, a devastating fire in the unfinished portion of the North Transept resulted in heavy smoke and water damage to the Great Organ, silencing the instrument.
Soon after the fire, under the supervision of Douglass Hunt, the Great Organ was dismantled and shipped to Quimby Pipe Organs of Warrensburg, Missouri. Restoration took five years; reinstallation required a further three months. The restored Great Organ was heard for the first time during the rededication of the Cathedral in November 2008. Today the Great Organ - after months of fine-tuning and settling-in - has once again reclaimed its place as one of the world's most glorious instruments.