March 2019 TAO Feature Article

Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral
Raleigh, North Carolina
Fisk Opus 147
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View the Stop List

by Gregory Bover


In the early spring of 2014, C.B. Fisk received a request for a proposal from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, asking us to imagine an organ for the new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, then in the middle stages of design. The planned building was enormous: 43,000 square feet of floor space with seating for 2,000 people under a barrel-vault ceiling nearly 80 feet high. Although we have built more organs in North Carolina than in any other state except Massachusetts, this would be our first new instrument in a Catholic church in 50 years. Our enthusiastic response included two proposals: the smallest organ we felt appropriate, at three manuals and 51 stops, and a much larger four-manual instrument of 72 stops. A letter of intent was signed several months later based on the smaller specification with options allowing for additions to be made at a later date. The agreement allowed us to begin design, and gave the diocese a guaranteed spot on our docket. A full contract was signed the following year with a specification that eventually expanded to 62 stops.

Our experience on almost every project we undertake, and especially those of similar grand scale, is that the best results are obtained by a three-cornered collaboration between the architect, the acoustician, and the organbuilder. We were fortunate to have been contracted early enough in the design of the building to allow us to work with architects O’Brien & Keane and acoustician Dana Kirkegaard toward a successful synthesis, not only for the organ but for music making of all types in the west end gallery. Our proposal advocated for the inclusion of a massive wall of filled concrete block behind the organ to efficiently project the sound of the organ and the choir into the vast nave, and for the diocese to involve Mr. Kirkegaard in many other design decisions, including an HVAC system that could maintain the entire organ at consistent tuning temperature while operating very quietly. He also proposed angled lower side walls in the gallery, creating a horn shape in which the choir risers might be arrayed, with reflective projecting soffits at their upper edges, allowing choristers to hear themselves and one another—so important for cohesive ensemble. In addition, the walls and ceiling of the nave received two layers of gypsum and cement board bonded together. Closer to the organ and choir, where early reflection is essential, the walls are three layers thick.

With these architectural/acoustical elements in place, the Fisk design team could begin the crucial layout of the divisions within the instrument. The inevitable acoustical-focusing properties of the barrel-vault ceiling all but required that the Great division’s powerful choruses should be at the top of the organ to dramatically project their speech unimpeded down the lengthy nave. The enclosed Choir division, with its primary role of choral accompaniment, was situated at the lowest level of the case, where its voices could take advantage of the reflecting walls and soffits that also surround the choristers. This division is voiced gently enough not to overwhelm, yet focused enough to be pleasantly present when heard from the nave floor. The Swell division, also under expression, is at mid-height between the other two manual divisions, speaking into the widest part of the room with no close-in support from walls or vaulting. This placement resulted in a more diffuse and ethereal sound, an appropriate contrast to the more unequivocal impact of the other manual divisions. The Pedal division, which includes three stops at 32′ pitch, somewhat less sensitive to placement at these low pitches, is arranged on several levels of the organ. It stands in close proximity to the massive back wall so that it will efficiently rumble into the room. The eight lowest pipes of the immense wooden Great Bass 32′ form the side walls of the organ case.

1:16 scale model in production

The location of the divisions within the case informs the visual design of the outside. The three-tiered composition honestly conveys the internal musical hierarchies to both casual and erudite viewers. As is our long-established practice, we built a 1:16 scale model of the west end of the cathedral-to-be, itself the largest we had ever created. A model at this scale allows visual designer Charles Nazarian to work out the pipe arrays, casework shaping, and decorative detail. It fosters collaboration between the organbuilders and all the partners in the project—architects, client representatives, and musicians—so that the result is an organ that looks “as if it had always been there”—the high bar set by our founder, Charles Fisk.

The design that emerged from a long gestation and countless experiments emphasizes the beauty of the front pipes in forms reminiscent of classical Italian organs, showing their true speaking lengths in dramatic contrast to the dark background inside the organ. A key feature of this style is the visual connection of the pipe mouths in ribbon-like patterns across the instrument’s facade. The major casework elements, such as column plinths, capitals, arches with keystones, balustrades, and a grand semicircular pediment at the top with a central cross, all speak in the language of the Italian Renaissance, but without the extreme level of decoration in the original examples. Like O’Brien & Keane’s building, the organ’s outward design is an exercise in restraint and noble simplicity.

The central purpose of the final specification and tonal design was to create an organ devoted to accompanying the 21st-century Roman Catholic liturgy. Having the resources for encouraging congregational song, supporting a wide variety of choral repertoire, and serving as an inspirational vehicle for improvisation, were all paramount. Authentic performance of solo organ repertoire, although a lesser priority, was always present in our thinking.

Completed model

The stoplist represents an exploration of organ sounds beyond the stereotypical. The complex relationships of the eclectic collection of voices, as opposed to those of a single national tonal style, require extraordinary thought and care in voicing and balancing. The Great, based on the Double Diapason 16′ in the upper facade, is home to five 8′ flue foundations: Open Diapasons I and II in the English style, a Gamba and Harmonic Flute based on models from Parisian Cavaillé-Coll, and a Double Flute after those encountered in the work of the 19th-century German master Friedrich Ladegast. Two heroic solo voices are also found in the Great: the Corneta Magna X, which takes as its antecedent the stop of the same name in Jordi Bosch’s 1765 organ at Santanyí, Majorca (details generously provided by Gerhard Grenzing, who restored this amazing instrument); and the Pontifical Trumpet, a high-pressure reed after Henry Willis examples. Their disparate origins and strong individual characters notwithstanding, the foundations, upperwork, and reeds throughout the organ were carefully chosen and voiced to be used in combinations limited only by the imagination of the player.

Both the Choir and Swell divisions are under expression, and both, like the Great, include a multiplicity of 8′ flue foundations. Together they also feature no fewer than five undulant pairs. The impressive dynamic range of Opus 147 extends from the quietest stops in the Swell division, nearly inaudible with the shades closed, to the cast-iron full-organ sonority with manuals coupled and full, fiery, yet rounded reed choruses engaged. Some firsts for Fisk include the wooden harmonic Orchestral Flute 8′ in the Choir, as well as the Contra Gamba 16′ with Haskell basses and the Dulciana 8′ and Dulciana Celeste in the Swell. The Pedal division boasts three 32s: the mp Sub Principal with Haskell basses, the f full-length Great Bass, and the ff Contra Trombone.


Case lift

The decision to detach the console from the main organ, while allowing the organist and choir to communicate more directly, is not one to be taken lightly in a mechanical-action organ. Adding 12 feet to the length of tracker runs already approaching 50 feet up to the highest windchests could compromise the sensitivity of the keyboards were it not for the experience we have at engineering such lengthy actions. The use of ultralight, non-stretching carbon fiber rod as tracker material and careful attention to detail at each turning of the connections has produced a light and responsive action. A Kowalyshyn Servopneumatic lever, developed at C.B. Fisk and similar to a Barker lever, is engaged when any division is coupled to the Great or when the Octaves graves coupler is drawn; however, the Great itself is always played mechanically. The stop action is electric solenoid with a combination action and sequencer by Solid State Organ Systems. The 58-foot-tall, 22½-ton organ was delivered to Raleigh in February 2018 in three semitrailer moving vans.

Corneta Magna X

Five 8′ flue foundation stops


The work of architect James O’Brien and acoustician Dana Kirkegaard resulted in a cathedral of visual and aural beauty. Our installation and finish-voicing crews spent more than ten months ensuring that Opus 147 perfectly complements that beauty. The support of the donors, staff, and governance of the Diocese of Raleigh has been indispensable to the pursuit of our art. The men and women of C.B. Fisk commend this instrument to the present and future congregations of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral.

Gregory Bover is project manager emeritus for C.B. Fisk Inc.

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