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By GUY GUGLIOTTAPublished: December 21, 2009ROCHESTER — The ceremonial pipe organ of the 18th century was the Formula One racer of its time, a masterpiece of human ingenuity so elegant in its outward appearance that a casual observer could only guess at the complexity that lay within.MultimediaRSS Feed Get Science News From The New York Times »Enlarge This ImageStewart Cairns for The New York TimesMUSICAL Stephen Kennedy, of the Eastman School of Music, pumps the bellows for the organ at Christ Church, Episcopal, in Rochester.Each organ was designed to fit its intended space, ranging in size from local churches where townspeople could worship to vast cathedrals fit for royalty. The builders were precision craftsmen celebrated for their skill in hand-making thousands of moving parts and in shaping and tuning metal and wooden pipes to mimic the sounds of each instrument in an orchestra.The effect was breathtaking. “Each instrument speaks to you in a different way,” said Hans Davidsson, a concert organist, sitting before the console of the organ at the cavernous Christ Church, Episcopal, in Rochester. Dr. Davidsson began to play the Bach hymn “Gottes Sohn Ist Kommen” (“The Son of God Has Come”), and an enormous, bell-clear sound exploded from the gleaming pipes that soared above him.The organ, the Craighead-Saunders, is a unique instrument, not only because of its lovely sound, but also because it is a nearly exact copy of a late Baroque organ built by Adam Gottlob Casparini of East Prussia in 1776. The original stands in the Holy Ghost Church in Vilnius, Lithuania.There is no other contemporary organ quite like the one at Christ Church.Modern instruments take advantage of technologies that have given organ-makers generations of new tools and materials, like air compressors, composites and the electric circuit.But before all that, the builders did it another way. Air for the pipes of the Christ Church organ comes from huge leather bellows pumped by an assistant on a wooden treadle behind the keyboard. Stops, keys and foot pedals use an ingenious system of rigid oak and limewood strips, called “trackers,” connected at right angles to hand-forged iron joints. The organ has neither wire nor pulleys.The metal pipes are made of lead and tin, hand-rolled around wooden templates and soldered. Most of the wooden pipes are made of pine. High-register pipes are small and narrow, some the size of a pencil. Low-register pipes approach the diameter of storm drains. The congregation sees perhaps 100 pipes from its vantage point in the pews. The rest — the Christ Church organ has more than 2,200 in all — are tucked out of sight behind the console.The project to build a replica of the Vilnius organ began in 2000 at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, but Eastman had long wanted a new instrument for Christ Church. David Higgs, a concert organist and head of the Eastman organ department, had been seeking one for years.In 1998, Mr. Higgs met Dr. Davidsson, the founder of the Goteborg Organ Art Center in Sweden. The center specializes in reconstructing historic organs and in making sure that restored instruments sounded the way the builders intended and that they properly played the music that was written for them.Reconstruction is not easy. The technique for building large Baroque pipe organs had matured by the 17th century, but progress since then has put new tools in builders’ hands. Entirely new schools of organ-building, performance, composition and taste evolved. These days, organs are tuned differently. Many are bigger, more robust and designed to play different kinds of music. Older organs needed to keep up with the times, so they were modified, sometimes so radically that their original tone could no longer be discerned.In the 1960s and ’70s, a movement arose to recover a technology that was fast disappearing. Builders began to make new “old” instruments that could play Baroque music as it had originally sounded, “but they didn’t do it very successfully,” said Craig R. Whitney, the author of “All the Stops,” a history of pipe organs in the United States and an amateur organist. Mr. Whitney was the standards editor for The New York Times when he retired this fall.“They had some of the sounds” Mr. Whitney said, “but they weren’t exact replicas.”The old instruments did not fare well in this environment, either. “Most of the preserved organs in Western Europe have been ‘restored,’ ” said Munetaka Yokota, an organ builder for Goteborg. “But frequently the restoration is not faithful. You make choices: wood, iron or plastic; plywood or solid wood. You change the design and the construction process. It looks old, but it’s not, and the sound is much different.”
In 2000, Dr. Davidsson joined the Eastman faculty, and he and Mr. Higgs decided to expand the school’s organ collection. They formed a partnership with Goteborg and enlisted expertise from several noted American organ builders.Enlarge This ImageStewart Cairns for The New York TimesBIG SOUND David Higgs, left, and Stephen Kennedy at the replica of an 18th-century pipe organ. Played right, Mr. Kennedy said, it “screams with joy.”MultimediaRSS Feed Get Science News From The New York Times »Enlarge This ImageStewart Cairns for The New York TimesThe inner workings of the organ.The team wanted to make a replica of an organ from the high Baroque, preferably one that Bach himself had played. The instrument would be named after the Eastman organ teachers David Craighead, now retired, and Russell Saunders, who died in 1992, and whose family left the school $500,000 to begin the project at Christ Church. In all, the replica would cost $3 million.“But such an organ didn’t exist,” Dr. Davidsson said. The instrument they built would have to fit into the west end of Christ Church. The organ they copied would also have to be in virtually pristine condition so the team could understand how it looked when it was brand-new. None of the Bach-era organs they examined matched the specifications.Then they thought of the Vilnius organ. It had been built 26 years after Bach died, but Casparini had worked as a journeyman on at least one organ that Bach had tested, and could have known him.More important, the Vilnius organ, although it was modified during the 19th century, had never been restored and had seldom been repaired, and it was easy to see exactly how the original was built. In the 20th century, its custodians, led by Rimantas Gucas, a Lithuanian organ-builder, shut it down and mothballed it so the Communist government would not tamper with it.They measured the organ, and when the replica was finally installed, it was perfect for Christ Church — 25 feet across and 24 feet tall, stopping just short of the rose window at the church’s west end. From the altar, sunshine appears to burst from the organ’s central pinnacle. “It was meant to be,” Dr. Davidsson said.The Goteborg Center formed a collaboration with the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture and Mr. Gucas to support Lithuania’s efforts to restore the Vilnius organ and make a replica as part of the project.“I was very skeptical at first,” said the Japanese-born Mr. Yokota, now a resident of Sweden. “But I changed when I inspected the pipes. I couldn’t believe they were in such good condition.”Mr. Yokota emphasized the need to understand the organ’s “proportions” — the relationship between the size and shape of the instrument and its components. This is what gives an organ its unique character.The team began by measuring everything in the Vilnius organ, including the cabinets and the smallest hand-wrought iron fixtures and nails. Team members made drawings of every fixture, every join, every pipe and every surface. The data were printed out and put together in enormous manuals the size of telephone books.Then they were analyzed. The team removed the pipes to study the metal composition and to test the acoustics. The Vilnius organ was not playable, so the team could not hear what it sounded like. In fact, the meticulous preparations were necessary partly because the replica was to provide guidance in restoring the original.It took four years to make the parts in Goteborg. Meanwhile, in Rochester, specialty cabinet-makers were building a new organ balcony for Christ Church, using lumber salvaged from a 19th-century South Carolina factory. Digital scans enabled the team to reproduce the carvings of the Vilnius cabinet, including the statue of King David above the console. German specialists painted the exterior wood surfaces with 18th-century-style gesso.The organ arrived in Rochester in 2007 and took a year to assemble. Behind the soaring facade, the interior is roomy and airy like a three-story, walk-in pine closet. Pipes of all sizes leap toward the rafters, but virtually all the moving parts — stop throttles, key action, air valves and trackers — are made of wood and driven mechanically by the power of human hands and feet.The organ made its debut in October 2008, with four days of lectures, workshops and concerts. Today it is used for Mass, choral accompaniment and as a teaching instrument for Eastman students — the only opportunity they have in the United States to play an organ that is, in all respects, a Bach-era instrument.“There’s a lot to understand,” Dr. Davidsson said, depressing keys and pulling stops for emphasis.“It’s low-tech and simple,” he said, adding that the action of the keys and stops “gives you noise all the time — a kind of clackety-clack.”“A lot of organists don’t like this,” he went on, “but you mess around with it and you corrupt the instrument right away.”But if you play it right, added Stephen Kennedy, the musical director at Christ Church, it will do you proud. “It’s fabulous for hymn-singing, and the lighter sounds have incredible vitality,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It screams with joy.”