Complex, Versatile and Often Expensive, Church Organs Make Beautiful Music and More
For Alison Shafer, Sundays are spent in the wooden enclave of an organ pit. Although she sits just a few feet from the pulpit in the front of the sanctuary of Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ, the pit cuts her off from the rest of the congregation. Unseen except by curious eyes, she works keyboards and foot pedals to fill the sanctuary with music, lifting souls with the soaring tones of a pipe organ.
“I’m very fortunate that the music is pretty much in my heart whenever I’m playing it,” Shafer says. “I feel connected to the music and the organ in particular. And a favorite hymn tune [brings] a feeling of euphoria as you’re playing it. It lifts my soul.”
Shafer and many other organists like her around Frederick County provide the musical complement that reinforces a sermon or carries a congregant to a place of reverence and righteousness. “An organ helps transport the worshipper,” says Joche Wilmot, director of music ministries/organist at Calvary United Methodist Church. The organ offers, he says, “different colors and different sounds that has much more variety [than other instruments], more ethereal beauty for the worshipper.”
That ethereal beauty is a function of the industrial age. A blower fills a reservoir with air, and levers and pneumatics operate valves that direct the air to the pipes. Each pipe has been tuned to mimic a trumpet or a violin or any of dozens of other instruments. “The organ is the first synthesizer. Back in the day, it could synthesize the sounds of the orchestra,” Wilmot says.
To direct this orchestra, an organist has keyboards—usually two or three, each called a manual—and an array of knobs, each called a stop. As nimble-fingered organists stretch their fingers to get the right combination of keys, their feet dance across a pedalboard. Watching an organist, you might think you’re watching someone work too hard.
“With pipe organs, especially in rural locations, they were sturdily built. They were really just utilitarian music machines,” says Bynum Petty, archivist for the Organ Historical Society. The society, based in Villanova, Pa., maintains a database of organs across the United States.
The proliferation of pipe organs in and around Frederick coincides, more or less, with the area’s growth during the late 19th century, a time that included new approaches to manufacturing and changing demographics. There was an influx of European immigrants, who brought their cultures and traditions with them.
“Even the smallest parish church in Germany had a pipe organ,” Petty says, “In German culture, the organist was very important not only in religious, but in public life.”
Petty is an expert on what was once the largest pipe organ company in the United States, M.P. Moller in Hagerstown. The title of his book about the company, An Organ A Day, is a reference to the speed at which the Moller factory was turning out organs. “They weren’t trying to corner the market. They had the market,” Petty says.
At age 17, Mathias Peter Möller came to this country from Denmark in 1873. By 1881, he had established his factory in Hagerstown and built more organs than any company in the world. Many local organs were constructed at the Moller plant and then delivered to Frederick-area churches. Evangelical Lutheran Church, with its twin spires on East Church Street, has a Moller organ that is one of the largest in the region. “It’s not surprising you’ll find lots of Moller organs in Frederick. That was their home turf,” Petty says.
But if Moller could crank out organs quickly, the company couldn’t change with the times. “They were too big, too mired in the 19th century and big factories, and too reluctant to make changes,” Petty says. “They couldn’t keep up with the more agile, forward-looking companies.”
Petty says Moller produced 12,000 organs, and then went out of business in 1992. Its assets were sold at a bankruptcy auction.
King of Instruments
At Evangelical Reformed, on West Church Street, worshippers see a beautiful array of pipes, but they represent just a facade. About 1,800 pipes, mostly hidden from view, supply the sacred music of the service. In the rear balcony of the church is a collection of 61 powerful pipes called a trumpet en chamade. The console where Shafer plays was refitted in the 1990s, with new manual keys of pear wood for the naturals and teak for the sharps, an impressive combination for people expecting a keyboard’s familiar black and white. Such a mammoth, versatile instrument must be what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had in mind when he called the organ “the king of instruments.”
One of the oldest organs in the county is at the South Mountain Heritage Society on Main Street in Burkittsville. The organ was built in Baltimore by Pomplitz and Rodewald, sometime between 1851 and 1862. At the time, the German Reformed and Lutheran churches shared worship space, says Jody Brumage, the historian and curator of the society.
August Pomplitz was born in Prussia and apprenticed to be an organ builder. He immigrated to Baltimore in 1851, where he joined up with Henry Rodewald and formed a partnership that lasted until 1862. Pomplitz then continued constructing organs under his own name, according to the society.
The Burkittsville organ has just 120 pipes divided into two ranks, or collections of pipes, Brumage says. A single, 54-key manual and 13-note pedalboard controls the organ. It has four stops to control the ranks.
The organ requires two people to play. Because it predates electricity, one person cranks a handle on the side, which operates the large bellows that pump air into the wind chest. The wind chest supplies the air that blows through the pipes. A keypress pulls a wooden rod called a tracker, which opens a valve under the pipe, and whoosh air blows through the pipe like a whistle. The organ is entirely mechanical save for an electric light over the keyboard. It’s still playable, even though it has several air leaks, Brumage says.
Although the historical society doesn’t know when the organ was installed, it’s possible it was in place during the Battle of South Mountain, on Sept. 14, 1862, which took place just days before the Battle of Antietam. Damage to some of the organ’s ornamental parts could have occurred during the months after the battles when the church served as a hospital, but there are no formal records that verify that.
Brumage says actual organ maintenance is no different than a piano, but he says older organs are easier to maintain. “Because of the mechanical action in historic organs, the keys have a lot more weight when you press them,” he says.
But the organs from different eras share one unexpected worry: climate change, or at least, the climate change from season to season. Organs, especially certain stops on an organ, can go out of tune as the seasons change, Brumage says.
“It’s a never-ending battle in small churches with limited resources,” he says. Organists often want the heat or air conditioning on longer than a small church’s budget might allow to protect the sound.
In recent years, two Frederick City churches decided to replace their organs. Though the houses of worship are just around the corner from each other, they took different routes.
In March 2017, All Saints Episcopal Church removed its 1929 Moller organ, which was installed in 1929, and took possession of an instrument from the Allen Organ Co., manufactured in Macungie, Pa. The Allen organ is all electronic—no working pipes—with three manuals, about 70 speakers and two subwoofers, says Mark Gibson, a parishioner. The visible pipes form a facade.
One of the influencing decisions for the West Church Street sanctuary, Gibson says, was the physical limitations of the church. The church couldn’t effectively control the temperature around the organ, and the varying temperatures meant the organ would often slip out of tune. Plus, there was no room to expand.
“We got rid of those problems by going electronic,” Gibson says. The Allen organ, he says, gives the church more versatility, and lower long-term maintenance costs. The cost to purchase? About $280,000.
Meanwhile, Calvary United Methodist Church has taken the first steps toward its new organ, one that will have greater ties to the past rather than a modern marvel.
The current organ has parts that were used when Calvary was on East Church Street (now the location of the Church Street Parking Deck). Those parts made the move in 1929 to the neo-Gothic church on West 2nd and North Bentz streets. Refurbished in 1970, the organ is due for replacement, Wilmot says. The church is now raising money for the new pipe organ, which could cost $1.5 million.
“It’s not a cheap venture,” he says.
Because of the keyboard, playing an organ is often compared with playing a piano. “The basic musical skill is not that removed from the piano other than adding your feet,” Brumage says.
Brumage says his formal training came from learning to play the piano. The organ, he says, took some trial and error. “There are standard things about them, then once you know what certain stops sound like, you can go with it,” he says.
Brumage says he started playing around 8 years old, trying to pick out hymns on his grandmother’s little electric organ. At around 12 or 13, his father urged him to take piano lessons, with a goal of learning to read music. His father, Brumage says, could play a banjo but never learned to read music. By about age 15, he was playing in church. “From there, I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t playing music in church,” he says.
Calvary’s Wilmot says that when he was 9 or 10 he became fascinated with the sound of the small pipe organ in his charge and he wanted to learn how to play. The church organist told the boy he would need two years of piano first. So, Wilmot signed up for piano lessons, and two years to the day later he went back to the organist. “I heard it, and it was so magical for me as an instrument of worship. It struck me right away,” says Wilmot, Calvary’s organist for the past 22 years.
Shafer also became enamored with pipe organs at an early age. Her father remembered when her home church, a UCC church with Sharpsburg, installed its organ. He was fascinated with the organ’s mechanics. His interest sparked her interest in its music, she says. Her organ studies led her, as a high school student, to hold Sunday gigs playing organ at two of Sharpsburg’s churches.
Today, the familiar wooden pit at Evangelical Reformed is where she plies her craft. It’s where her deft control of the keys, stops and pedals makes beautiful music—from the booming to the delicate—and does something even more profound.
It lifts souls.