By Jonathan Ortloff
It’s a pretty good bet that Joni Mitchell’s name has never graced the pages of this journal. Her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi” sums up the very human experience of not realizing how important something is to you until it’s gone. Fifty years later, the COVID-19 pandemic made this all too real. We missed connecting with other people. We missed birthdays, dinners out, holidays with family. We missed church and the fellowship that can only come with communal worship. And we missed singing.
Our Opus 3, contracted before but developed during the pandemic, was born of a process at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church—spurred by the failing mechanical state of the previous organ—that grew into an all-church deep dive into how the congregation worships and what is most important to its members. In addition to commissioning a new pipe organ, the church also decided to radically redesign its worship space. All the committees and meetings, all the prayer and discernment led the parish to clearly recognize and articulate the centrality of not just music but specifically singing to its worship identity—just as worship and singing were taken away. As the church’s new pipe organ took shape in our shop, worship moved online, then cautiously back in person, but with masks on, stifling singing.
Begun in 1914 as a bishop’s mission to war-bound troops at nearby Fort Williams, St. Alban’s constructed its current building in 1956: a clean and spare mid-century A-frame across the street from the ocean, and an easy walk from the famous Portland Head Light. Its growing congregation, the largest in the diocese, is filled with hearty Mainers—the type who keep wearing the sweater long after the elbows have disintegrated. As a thrifty Yankee myself, I knew we would get along famously.
The emphasis on singing at St. Alban’s resonated with us as builders. Many of us in the shop, myself included, are church musicians and have variously struggled and triumphed at coaxing different organs to accompany choirs with subtlety and color, or lead ecstatic congregations in hymns. If singing was the central orb of worship at St. Alban’s, it needed to be the central goal of our new instrument. Indeed, we took the following line from the church’s request for proposal as our lodestar: “If the new organ leads the congregation with confidence, panache, and some variety, we will have met our goals.”
An organ that supports singing first and foremost will of course mean different things to different people. As I have written before, the paramount feature of the singing organ is that it need not—and should not—be overly loud; it should at all times be a partner, inviting and compelling you to sing, not a competitor. Its ensemble, however, should be energetic, giving an impression of power. As I described this unforced, energetic approach to the St. Alban’s organ committee, a member’s face lit up, and she interjected excitedly: “Just like singing!” We had a common understanding.
The usual discussions ensued about specifics, and in time, the overall size of the instrument, as dictated by budget, came into focus. Though this is our largest organ to date, at 19 stops, it is still a modest instrument. Like the thrifty Mainers for whom we were building, modesty with integrity was a guiding principle for this project. The organ is crafted around an orthodox tonal design that avoids the temptation to exploit electric action in ways that upset standard divisional relationships and proper chorus structure. Each division is built around a proper independent chorus; manual unification is limited to one stop, the Swell 16′ Bourdon; and the three Swell borrows to the Great contribute accompanimental variety and flexibility, not missing elements of choruses.
Within this framework of goals and size, a number of requirements, variously specific or broad, were worked out. For the Great, owned by congregational singing, these included the following:
- A bold 16′-based chorus with a strong 8′ line, but also crystal-clear, silvery upperwork for leading hymns—the essence of restrained energy.
- A true soloistic Harmonic Flute, usually only present in larger organs, and a tremolo to match—think Anglican chant descants.
- A noble, high-pressure Trumpet. This modest space did not need the power of a Tuba, but choral literature and the great hymns of the church certainly benefit from that tone. Again, the semblance of power without loudness.
- Soft stops borrowed from the Swell for accompanying.
For the Swell, owned by the choir:
- A chorus of the same scintillating energy as the Great, but more restrained and of a contrasting character.
- A proper 8′ Geigen to be the warm blanket under the choir singing mezzo forte—something that a string and flute together can never equal.
- A mild but keen Fifteenth for adding brightness before getting to the Mixture.
- A smooth, buttery Oboe to blend with the Swell foundations.
- The most effective swell box we could make. We consulted acoustician Dan Clayton on its construction, leading to the inclusion of concrete panels in its walls. Its ability to cage the roar of full Swell was well worth the extra weight.
And finally, an unapologetically whomping high-pressure Trombone in the Pedal, to push hymns along and stir souls while singing fortissimo.
While the majority of the pipework in the organ is new, we recalled elbow-less sweaters and incorporated a number of vintage ranks into the Swell, including the strings, Stopped Diapason, and reeds. A 1933 Möller Oboe, with hints of English Horn color, became a wonderful, chameleon-like voice—two stops in one. The Trumpet, formerly an infamous solo reed at a major Boston church, is much happier on 4ʺ pressure than 18ʺ. Both were beautifully restored and revoiced by Chris Broome. The new Trombone, properly whomping, is the work of David Schopp.
The organ’s visual design was all the more important in this case, as Terry Eason’s redesign of the space placed the instrument against the east wall. While there were normal concerns about “worshiping the organ,” former rector Tim Boggs casts the reorganization of the space in a different light: “There is an order now. The prominence of the altar reflects the centrality of the Eucharist. But music is always nearby; it’s directly behind, visibly and metaphorically supporting the word and table.”
The design process went through a number of sketches, referring back to the language in the request for proposal that “a simple, function-forward case is desired, with any embellishment in keeping with the spare decoration found elsewhere.” The organ could not upstage the liturgy; rather, it needed to give the impression of growing out of the building. The shape of the case follows the shape of the room; its tongue-and-groove base reflects the ceiling; and even the “Ort-loff red” pipe shades recall similar shapes and colors in the stained glass windows. Spotted metal facade pipes present a variegated, diaphanous backdrop for proceedings at the altar.
The placement of the organ presented some challenges, mostly connected with its proximity to the choir. Not wanting to swamp the singers with tone, we chose horizontal swell shades that open to point the sound up, over their heads. This gave us the option of blocking closed the bottom few shades for the same reason, which proved a simple and effective solution. The pipes of the Great, divided on either side of the case, are actually positioned below the level of the facade openings, once again to direct sound up, where it can use the ceiling for projection out into the nave, rather than directly into the choir’s ears.
As parishioners at St. Alban’s returned to in-person worship in October 2021, it was into a space with no pipe organ, and with masks required—certainly not an environment for the kind of joyful singing they had known before. Thus, the excitement among the 30 or so volunteers who helped unload the organ from the truck in March 2022 was palpable: even behind their masks, big smiles were clearly evident. As often as I heard, “We can’t wait to hear the new organ!” from congregants, I also heard, “We can’t wait to sing with the new organ!” On Palm Sunday 2022—two years into a pandemic, and three years into the process of reimagining its worship space and doubling down on its commitment to singing—St. Alban’s sang again, as the organ made its first sounds in worship.
Unlike in “Big Yellow Taxi,” we have gotten back the singing that was taken away from us in 2020. I certainly feel—and I hope this is true for the congregation at St. Alban’s, now worshiping with the support of our organ—that singing has taken on a deeper meaning, not to be taken for granted. Perhaps it has become even more vigorous as a result. And if our work at St. Alban’s compels people to lift their voices and unite in the praise of God in ways they never imagined they could, we have met our goals.
Jonathan Ortloff is the founder and president of Ortloff Organ Company, LLC. He holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester in organ performance and engineering.