Fans Pipe Up About Replacing Venerable Cathedral Organ

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It's called the queen of instruments, the heart and soul of a church. And the Washington National Cathedral is going to get a new ruler.

On Sunday afternoon, organist J. Reilly Lewis (director of the Cathedral Choral Society and the Washington Bach Consort) presented a free concert of French organ music designed to showcase the historic, and all-American, instrument that the cathedral plans to replace with two newer instruments in the coming years.

The existing organ was installed by the Aeolian-Skinner company in 1938, when the cathedral was only partially built. It has undergone a couple of renovations in the years since; today, a favorite statistic of the cathedral is that with 10,650 pipes, it is one of the largest organs in the world. Yet large as it is, the cathedral is larger. The organ, installed in the choir, was not designed to fill a space the size of the cathedral's nave; today, when the congregation sings hymns, those at the back of the church get about three beats behind the organ and singers at the front.

Even the organ's fans admit it has its weaknesses. Renovations in the 1960s and 1970s brought other standards of taste to bear on the instrument's original aesthetic; in the 1980s, emergency work had to be done when the state-of-the-art material used to replace the leather valves wore out prematurely. "A lot of the broad English fundamental sound that one associates with great cathedral organs had been scaled back more with stylistic sentiments of the time," Lewis said in a telephone interview shortly before his concert. "It doesn't really have a defined character anymore."

The Skinner organ is certainly due for an overhaul. But the church's plans to replace it altogether seems extreme to some members of the organ community. According to Michael E. Hill, the cathedral's director of external relations and development, a cost-estimate study revealed that it would actually cost more to renovate the existing organ than to build a new one -- and a renovation would not address the basic problem of allowing the congregation to sing hymns together. Hence, the two-organ plan: a new organ in the choir by the American organ builder Lynn Dobson, incorporating some of the voices from the Skinner instrument; and a French instrument at the other end of the building by the venerable Canadian firm Casavant Freres. The two instruments will be able to be controlled from a single console.

"The proposed new organ -- actually two organs linked together at opposite ends of the church, almost one-tenth of a mile apart -- would at last make it possible for worshipers and concert-goers to experience music in the Cathedral as it is meant to be heard," said the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd, dean of the cathedral, in an e-mail.

The church emphasizes that the project will not divert funding from an already strapped operating budget. "We anticipate it will be funded from a small group of dedicated supporters of organs across the country committed to the building of important new organs for public spaces," Lloyd said. The talk in the organ community is that the new instruments are scheduled to be installed in 2011.

Many organists are torn. The prospect of major new instruments is obviously exciting for the community. But the existing organ represents both local and, to many Washington-area organists, personal history. Not every organist concurs that the cost of building and maintaining two new instruments will really be less than that of the wearisome task of updating a single old one. And some take exception to the idea that a Canadian firm, however renowned, is charged with building one of the instruments in America's national cathedral.

"I like the organ the way it is," said Dale Krider, the organist of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in College Park and a former professor at Catholic University. "I've known it a long time and played it many times. But the cathedral seems to think this is the thing to do."

Lewis, whose relationship to the cathedral and its instrument goes back to the days when he sang in the boys choir there, is even more vocal. "I think it would have been far better to take the essence of that instrument and restore it, enhance it, modify it," he said. "It's like a Leonardo da Vinci. I don't want to say it's quite the analogy of slashing the 'Mona Lisa,' but once it's gone, it's gone." His goal for Sunday's concert was "to show what this organ can do, with all its warts and flaws."

He certainly put it through its paces with a varied program that reached from the clear single lines of Messiaen ("Alleluias sereins d'une âme qui désire le ciel," from "L'Ascension") to the cinematic drama of Henri Mulet's "Tu es petra" from "Esquisses byzantines," depicting the lowering threat of Hell, to the clotted chords of César Franck's Op. 21 "Final," binding notes into stout columns of music.

This organ is clearly not the product of a unified sonic conception; the clusters of sound in the opening Dupré "Prelude" sometimes seemed to come from different places. But it is also beautiful, with a warmth and a range showcased in part by the keening oboe in the final Cantabile movement of Vidor's Sixth Symphony, and the wiggling gamba figures in the pastoral Scherzo of Vierne's Second Symphony.

Organ music is an old sound, magnifying the sound of humanlike breath through venerable technology in large stone spaces, all relics of time long past. Nearly all of the composers on Sunday's program were still alive, or recently dead, when the Skinner organ was built; and in music that is a kind of shrine to the past, it is hard to resist the instinctive pull toward preserving history.

Come what may, there is still time to hear the Skinner organ for at least another season. Sunday's concert was the first of the cathedral's summer series, including the annual Fourth of July concert, all free of charge. The recital was Lewis's personal farewell -- or a gesture of his own not-yet-dead hope of preservation.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company