By Didier Grassin
The Cathedral of St. Paul is an 1893 building that offers a feeling of majesty to the visitor, and it is not surprising that in 1969 it was chosen to be the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham. Despite the limited length of the nave, the architect Adolphus Druiding infused the 600-seat room with a sense of grandeur through its proportions and intricate decoration. While the main lines can be recognized as Neogothic Victorian, the detailing is much more eclectic. Still, the overall composition flows effortlessly and leads to the architectural success of the building.
During our first visit, we found an instrument standing in front of a large window that was installed after a devastating windstorm in the 1960s, replacing the original lancet and rose windows. The organ nearly covered that window, perhaps as a screen from the summer heat. The tonal divisions of the instrument were laid out over three levels, creating temperature stratification and rendering use of couplers impossible in the summertime. Furthermore, after several decades of use, the organ’s mechanism had started to show terminal failures. Still, its position—set centrally in a rear gallery—was optimal. Heard from the nave floor, the instrument projected clearly, with an immediacy of sound. The challenge here was not to add volume, but rather to generate more subtle sounds, the various hard surfaces and the high vault producing pleasant, live acoustics with good bass support.
Creating a new organ for such a place of worship is always a humbling but exciting challenge. This new instrument would need to support the liturgy through accompanying the congregation and choir, while also providing sufficient tonal resources to serve the large repertoire expected in a cathedral. At the same time, it would have to harmonize visually with the bold Druiding vision. Through discussions with Bruce Ludwick, director of music, and Mark Hayes, assistant organist, a general scheme for a generous three-manual organ started to take shape. Both men visited Noack Opus 162 in Washington, D.C., and felt that its tonal architecture would fit the cathedral’s needs. Hence, a stoplist emerged of 60 stops articulated over three manual divisions (two of them enclosed) and pedal. Like our instrument in Washington, D.C., the tonal architecture is largely shaped by French influence. Bertrand Cattiaux, a colleague and longtime friend with whom I share common roots in French organbuilding, joined us again in refining the vision and brought his unparalleled experience in reed voicing.
The internal layout was designed to limit temperature stratification. The two substantial enclosed divisions (Choir and Swell) sit side by side at impost level. The Great is at the upper level with the Pedal on either side. Comfortable stairs lead to each division, ensuring good access. An internal air-circulation system, independent from the organ windlines, moves the air from the base of the instrument all the way to the top of the case, creating a slow but continuous flow. This simple system proved very efficient in keeping the temperature of all the divisions only a few degrees apart.
The stoplist is generous, and the lively acoustics of the room allowed us to focus on creating a kaleidoscopic gradation of dynamic and colors rather than sheer power. There is no doubt that French DNA permeates the overall tonal approach—broad foundation stops, fluty mutations, luscious harmonic flutes, and tonic reeds—and many visitors are quick to voice their surprise at the musical flexibility of the instrument. Perhaps this organ can demonstrate that French does not necessarily mean loud and bright. Indeed, the fond d’orgue here is calm and relaxed. In particular, the Great 16′ Principal, beautifully voiced by Nami Hamada, is a musical delight on its own. The basses enhance a sense of transparency while retaining substance. As they climb toward the treble, voices grow in intensity but keep their singing quality. Similarly, the reeds are full bodied and rich but not shrill or brassy. Each division takes a different slant: brighter in the Great (Clicquot shallots), darker and more Romantic in the Swell (Bertounèche shallots). The Choir reeds include a copy of the Notre-Dame 16′ Clarinette from Cavaillé-Coll, while the Cromorne is a full-blooded Clicquot based on Poitiers.
The key action is mechanical for all the divisions, with some basses on electric chests. Balanciers assistance was provided for all the manual basses, but the key action proved sufficiently light that they were never engaged. The new case, in solid white oak, honors the Neogothic style of the room with some details reminiscent of A.G. Hill designs.
In the end, the success of an instrument is never based on its use of disparate sounds or techniques (regardless of their pedigree) but on the cohesion of all its parts. This organ has been thoughtfully integrated, and the choices that we made regarding each facet of the instrument—tonal, mechanical, and visual—have been implemented to build up such a coherent whole. We hope that the passion, care, and craftsmanship that all the participants brought to this project will shine for many years to come.
Didier Grassin has been designing organs for more than 30 years. His interest in organbuilding began in the shadow of the famous Clicquot organ of Poitiers, France, his native town. His professional path took him through European workshops, ultimately leading him to head the drawing office at Mander Organs, U.K. From 1996, he spent several years as freelance designer, working for many major European and American firms before joining Casavant Frères for eight years as director of tracker department. In 2011 he joined the Noack Organ Company, assuming leadership in 2015 upon the retirement of Fritz Noack.
From the Pastor and Rector
Although music had long been a passion in my life, I never imagined that as a priest I would be “buying a pipe organ”! Much less did my seminary training prepare me in any way for such an endeavor. Even still, it was a great joy for me to have the opportunity to learn more in a hands-on way about these venerable instruments, discern with my staff and consultants the best way forward for our situation, and guide as a pastor this beautiful project for the Cathedral of St. Paul. I could not be happier with the outcome, Noack Opus 164—or, as we have called it, the Anna Catharine Grace Memorial Pipe Organ, after the late parishioner whose legacy gift paid for fully half of this grand instrument.
Together with my director of music and organist, Bruce Ludwick, and our assistant organist, Mark Hayes, we reviewed various builders and proposals. We met many fine people who have dedicated their lives to keeping alive an art form that is perhaps not as appreciated now as it was in other ages. We benefited from the hospitality of several distinguished musicians and artisans. But with Didier Grassin and his team at Noack, I experienced a particular level of confidence, as he presented a proposal that responded to our eclectic needs and desires, and to my concerns as a pastor. We are all very proud of and thankful for the outcome achieved.
Who of us could forget watching Notre-Dame de Paris burn on live television? For many of us who had been blessed to visit it and to hear its grand orgue live, even in the context of divine worship, there was a particular sadness at the thought that such a great instrument might have been lost. Thanks be to God, it was spared major damage. But then—to learn that one of the key figures in its conservation, Bertrand Cattiaux, would join the already skilled Noack team in the preparation of our instrument! This was a special blessing and a gift. It was fascinating for me to watch Didier, Bertrand, and all the Noack team work to such a splendid result. Kudos!
~Fr. Bryan W. Jerabek, jcl
From the Director of Music and Organist
Our journey to the Anna Catharine Grace Memorial Pipe Organ began in the 1990s. The zinc pipework of the 1985 Möller began to fail shortly after the instrument was installed. My predecessor, Stephan Calvert, and Fr. Kevin Bazzel, the rector when I was hired in 2013, were both aware that work needed to be done; however, this was postponed due to a critical exterior restoration of the cathedral. In 2015, Mark Hayes (our technician, and now assistant organist) brought the true scale of these problems to our attention; a massive failure of the action during Christmas masses confirmed that work had to be done.
Each firm from whom we requested a proposal advised a new organ, due to flaws in the original concept. At this point, a decision was made to pursue a mechanical-action instrument, both for maintenance economies and for the more intimate, conversational playing experience that it provides. Beginning with an eclectic concept (where service playing, choral accompaniment, and organ literature all have top billing), I was reminded of the dramatic effect of French reeds in a generous acoustic like ours. The French organbuilding school was not represented in Birmingham or our region, so we found our way to Noack. Didier Grassin’s elegant designs and crisp actions, along with tonal oversight from Bertrand Cattiaux, seemed a perfect recipe. Playing this instrument daily has confirmed that!
Opus 164 has an unforced, vocal character that complements the grounding of our music apostolate in Gregorian chant and polyphony, but it also has ample power to support the robust congregational singing for which our parish is known. Unique voices, such as those modeled directly after Clicquot and Cavaillé-Coll, and the instrument’s enormous expressive range, are a revelation. Many visitors are surprised at the organ’s chameleonlike ability to faithfully render German repertoire and English anthem accompaniments. This is not a one-trick pony! Here I must mention the sensitive, refined voicing of Nami Hamada, whose faithful work in “making things polyphonic” led to an elegant and versatile instrument.
Special thanks to Mr. Grassin, who managed to deliver the organ in the middle of the COVID pandemic, and who artfully coordinated and shaped the various parts of the project. We continue to give thanks for the entire Noack team and M. Cattiaux for patience with my many questions and for becoming friends during this amazing journey. Your commitment to quality speaks for itself. Mark Hayes was invaluable at every stage, as were Cindy Coyle and Andrew Hicks of ArchitectureWorks, who helped prepare many upgrades surrounding the instrument’s installation. Finally, I wish to thank our rector, Fr. Bryan Jerabek—who guided and supported the project from inception to completion—and our parishioners. It is an amazing gift to work for those who value and participate in our music and liturgy, but who also see this project as an offering to Almighty God for his many blessings.
~Bruce Ludwick Jr.