The Pieter J. Schiller Memorial Pipe Organ
St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church
Dobson Pipe Organ Builders
Lake City, Iowa
By John Panning
What could be easier than designing a two-manual church organ? Such instruments have been the organbuilder’s bread and butter, the most common configuration of pipe organs, found in churches the world over. After centuries of designing and building them, surely we’ve figured out within this framework how to lead hymn singing, accompany a choir, and perform the literature, as all of us rather tritely describe in every one of these articles, haven’t we?
Of course, it’s not that simple. Organists of the late 19th century might be delighted to have a stock-model instrument from Johnson or Hook & Hastings. But with five centuries of literature in regular use today, church musicians expect more in a new organ than a loud Open Diapason and pretty soft stops in a tasteful but generic organ case. We want to play with some degree of authenticity Buxtehude toccatas, French Classic dialogues, English voluntaries, and Edwardian choral accompaniments—and surely we need a chamade and a 32′ reed! For the thinking organbuilder, restrictions of budget and space are the proverbial refiner’s fire, driving us to weigh what is essential in each situation and what must regrettably be considered dross.
By New England standards, St. Christopher’s is a young parish. Founded in 1961, it occupies the 1879 home of the former Universalist church in the center of town. In 2004, under the leadership of the present rector, Rev. Brian W. McGurk, and with an organ committee to guide the design, the parish undertook a substantial building project. The design by Dan Barton of Maugel Architects in Harvard, Massachusetts, included enlargement of the nave and construction of new entrance and office spaces. An attractive feature of the new commons area is its use as a gallery, where sacred art exhibitions are mounted.
In the church building proper, the orientation of the nave was rotated 180 degrees, placing the chancel at the street end of the building, and a new music area was constructed at the opposite end. Although the historic pews were retained, new altar furniture and music area railings were designed. A pipe organ was anticipated as part of the building project, but funds were unavailable at that time. In 2014, organist and choirmaster Maury A. Castro began exploring options for a new instrument with a team of parishioners, including musician-in-residence Haskell Thomson. We met the committee in 2015, and they visited a number of our instruments. A capital campaign was launched in 2018, and a construction contract with us was signed later that year.
Among the several Dobson instruments the committee visited, our Opus 80, at St. Paul’s Church, Rock Creek Parish, in Washington, D.C., stood out. Its efficient specification gives little indication of its true musical versatility. After their experience there, members of the Chatham committee were unsurprised to learn that our involvement at St. Thomas Church in New York City came about in no small part because of John Scott’s satisfaction with the Rock Creek organ.
As is true nearly everywhere, architectural and programmatic realities shaped the instrument’s physical size. The organ case had to be shallow enough to permit two rows of seats between it and the detached console. In turn, the console could not move farther into the nave without the music area railing obstructing the main entrance doorway.
With those relationships established, case design began. The first sketches were traditional, inspired by features of the original 1879 church. Although not wishing to deny the history of the building, design discussions pivoted in a more modern direction. Chatham is located on the southeastern tip of Cape Cod, and its famous lighthouse looks directly out on the Atlantic Ocean; stylized versions of the lighthouse appear as newel posts in the renovated spaces. Drawing on this nautical theme, the final organ case design has sail-shaped compartments, waves of facade pipes (four layers deep at some points), and gilded stars set in a dark blue pipe-shade sky. Built of painted white oak with dark-stained oak trim, the case reveals its complexities slowly, with its front curving in three dimensions, both outward and downward. The detached console is made of black cherry, minimally stained; in time, it will develop a gorgeous red-brown color.
Opus 98’s earliest specifications took our Rock Creek organ as a point of departure. As the design evolved, a French sensibility was incorporated: principal mutations became flutes, additional harmonic flutes appeared, the design of the reed stops changed. It was agreed that the unison flues would be more comparable in strength than is often typical of Anglo-American practice. And we all agreed that the strong manual Trumpet would be happier in the Swell, under control, with the Clarinet on the Great. Beyond its traditional solo role, this latter stop has proved effective as a mild chorus reed.
The quest for beauty is the foundation of what we do, and beauty knows no dimension of stops or pipe count. Truly compelling voicing is in fact a greater necessity in instruments of modest resources, as every pipe is relied upon that much more. Opus 98 doesn’t possess the simplistic thrill of large size, nor is it situated in a reverberant acoustic that flatters casual voicing. Every pipe has been painstakingly considered on its own: how it relates to the neighbors in its rank, to the others in its division, and to voices elsewhere in the instrument. Extensive listening takes place, revealing both the typical small things (a certain frequency is absorbed or encouraged by the room) as well as larger concerns (ceiling reflections make the Swell more prominent at the console than in the nave, for example). The process is at first global (do samples make musical sense in the room?), then local (is this pipe working perfectly?), and then global again (with other pipes voiced, are the original decisions about relationships still the right ones?). A moderate pressure of 3ʺ, delivered from a weighted, single-rise reservoir, permits a responsive, approachable mechanical key action and voicing of a natural, gracious style.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected the instrument in various ways. Unlike our customary practice, we could not travel to Massachusetts to voice sample pipes in the church before preliminary shop voicing. By happy coincidence, however, a local Lake City church has almost the same dimensions and acoustic as Chatham’s, and we were happy to find that samples set in this space fit Chatham well. With our workshop closed for seven weeks during the pandemic, Opus 98’s installation and voicing schedule was pushed into the high tourist season, making lodging on the Cape—difficult and expensive under the best of circumstances—nearly impossible during the intense “post-COVID” 2021 vacation season. Parishioner Bob Lynyak came to our aid, with comfortable quarters in his home and the agreeable attentions of his standard poodle, Owen.
This was but one of many ways in which St. Christopher’s has been the best of clients. The generosity of parish members, led by finance chairman Pieter Schiller, not only made the instrument possible, but also permitted three initially prepared-for ranks to be installed with the rest of the organ. While the destruction of our workshop by fire on June 15, 2021, did not directly affect Opus 98 (it had been shipped several months earlier), I was at work in Chatham when the news came through. That night, the vestry met specially, offering to advance the organ’s final payment even though the instrument was not yet complete.
Such acts of generosity and confidence make us grateful for much: the friendship of talented musicians and the good people of this parish, the opportunity to build this organ to help them sing God’s praise, and the privilege of working in a craft that has shown us such soul-sustaining support in the midst of almost overwhelming challenge. May this instrument inspire and comfort the people of St. Christopher’s Church and the greater Chatham community for many years to come.
John A. Panning is the owner and president of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders.
All photos by Benjamin Hoskins except where noted.
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