The Chancel Pipe Organ – History

A History and Appeal on the Chancel Pipe Organ by the Director of Music Ministries:

When I arrived at First UMC in July 2009, I was greeted by a pipe organ whose specification and sound exceeds that of many churches in this area.  Henry Pilcher and Sons, selected as the first organ builder, was a fine craftsman.  While our 1925  Pilcher organ was built in keeping with tonal philosophies of the time, the pipe work was extremely good.  As best we can surmise, the pipe work built by Henry Pilcher and Sons is all still in the organ today and makes up the vast majority of the “big stuff” – pedal stops, 8 foot and 4 foot ranks.  While the records kept leave us in a slightly questionable doubtful state, a significant amount of pipe work was then added in 1975, when John Cave, an Evansville organ technician, was selected to overhaul the organ.

Luckily, the organ proper (pipe work, chests, etc) is in extraordinarily good shape thanks to good workmanship and good maintenance.  However, far less can be said about the condition of the console whose 80 plus years of service has led to its decay.

From a tonal perspective, the organ lacked only slightly.  Many rank were voiced very “tubby” or “woofy.” This is characteristic of the time of which the organ was built.  The organ, particularly the Great and Choir division, lacks the brilliance and clarity needed to adequately lead congregational singing.  On the whole, the organ was voiced as an accompaniment machine.  Additionally, the entire enclosure of the organ caused it to sound as though it were in another room.  Also, the system of expression shoes that was devised eliminated the possibility for independent expression of the Swell chamber from the Great-Choir chamber.  All in all, the performance of classic organ repertoire was very cumbersome and difficult.

Improvements beginning in 2012

The process of determining how to improve the organ began by trying to understand it.  Over the course of several months, I strategically examine every inch of the organ that I could physically examine.  I learned many interesting things.  Originally, the Great division included a Mixture II 2 2/3′.  This 122 pipe mixture had been composed from a 2 2/3′ and 2′ rank of pipes.  Due to the low pitch of the mixture and the rather bizarre breaks, this mixture provided essentially no brilliance to the Great division apart from the Great to Great 4′ super coupler.  So I took the pipes out of their chest to examine them more carefully.  I discovered that it was plausible to re-create an independent 2 2/3′ Twelfth (61 pipes) and an independent 2′ rank (albeit missing the top 12 pipes).  After some experimentation, I concluded that an independent 2 2/3′ Twelfth (with no breaks) would be more valuable than the present Mixture II.  I reset the 61 pipes of the Twelfth 2 2/3′  in the bottom rank of the former Mixture II and left the top rank empty.

The current Choir division continued to trouble me.  It’s puny specification offer no real assistance in playing organ repertoire.  Worse so, it was practically useless in choir accompaniment given that the choir could not hear the division once they began to sing.  Formerly the division had two 8′ stops, a Clarabella and Dulciana.  The Dulciana was one of 5 string stops.  I concluded that I could live without it.  After remembering the 49 pipes that I had removed from former Mixture II, I removed the Choir Dulciana 8′ and dropped the removed Mixture pipes into the holes at 4′ pitch (by leaving the bottom octave empty).  Now the  Choir had enough “tonal backbone” to stand up as a respectable division.

Still, I was perplexed by the enclosure of the Great-Choir chamber.  The expression shoe system required that the organist adjust both the Great and Choir shoes in order to effect expression on the Great-Choir.  By adjusting the Choir expression shoe, the Swell shades were also effected.  So I decided to style the Choir more as a Positiv and removed the Great-Choir expression.  I physically removed the swell shades on the Great-Choir chamber and even removed the expression motor.  Now, by using the All Swells to Swell, I could completely control the expression of the Swell division by only one expression shoe.  It was remarkable how much more expressive the organ became after being able to properly control only one division and by having the Great and Positiv as unenclosed divisions.

I returned my attention to the Positiv division.  At that time the specification included an 8′ Clarabella, 4′ Principal, 4′ Violin, 2′ Harmonic Piccolo and 8′ Clarinet.  I began to imagine what might be more useful than a 4′ Violin whose volume was so inconsequential the stop was practically useless.  I decided that the addition of a Quint 1 1/3′ would round off the Positiv division for two reasons.  1.) It would provide a much needed mutation stop for its color and solo qualities, and 2.) the additional of a Quint would provide  brilliance and a “quasi-mixture” clarity to the division.  With the assistance of our organ technician, Steve Hedstrom, we decided to experiment with the 4′ Violin by cutting them and turning them into a Quint 1 1/3′.  Lo and behold, it worked beautifully.  We were able to accomplish all of this (the creation of a credible Positiv division) by some careful exploration, ingenuity, and a repurposing of our own pipes.

Continued Improvement

Currently, the Worship Team is engaged in received proposals from reputable organ technicians and builders to more completely solve many of the issues presently with the organ; most notably the severely deteriorated 1930’s console.  We are also exploring how minor improvements could effect the overall success of the tonal structure of the instrument.

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