Organ music from Westminster

AUDIOFILE - Val A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - July 31, 2015 - 10:00am

Why is the pipe organ considered the king of all musical instruments?

Let me first say that this majestic instrument is the most tangible reason why the “red book” or the standard by which compact discs reproduce music is flawed. The red book ’says that humans can only hear sound frequencies between 20 Hz to 20 KHz, thus cutting off frequencies lower and higher than this benchmark. The result is catastrophic because the red book took out the warmth or the soul of a musical piece.

We may not hear the frequencies which were cut off, but we can absolutely feel them. The extension from the lowest to the highest frequency cannot be measured by hearing but by feeling.

Have you ever heard a musical masterpiece played on the pipe organ? Technically, it is capable of reproducing sounds much lower than the lowest red book benchmark and definitely higher than 20 KHz. These missing frequencies are what tug our hearts

Clair de Lune, inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem, is easily the most recognizable piano piece. Before I heard it played on a pipe organ, I never realized how gloriously it could sound. Hearing it again after all these years made me realize that there is much to appreciate from the piece. I haven’t heard Clair de Lune’s organ version of French composer Louis Vierne, but I gathered it was from him that Dr. Edward D. Berryman (S.M.D, organist) drew the inspiration when he recorded it along with other classical masterpieces in the 1971 album Organ Music from Westminster (Ark Records).

The album is the latest in my ever-growing pipe organ music LP collection, which includes Michael Murray’s “The Great Organ at Methuen” (Telarc), and Virgil Fox’s “At The Organ Plays Johann Sebastian Bach” and On Top of Bach (Command Classics). Westminster, however, stands out as the most accurately recorded among them. The album was recorded at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Record engineer R. W. Fulton pulled out all the stops to ensure that the mighty eloquence of this Kimball organ will be faithfully captured. The pipe organ, built in 1927, had its principal reed and choruses replaced in 1958. It was totally revoiced in 1971.

There’s something about this magnificent royal-looking musical instrument that can leave one awestruck. It is solemn and at the same time playful; it can evoke different emotions from a single track. Majestical, mystical — the sound from this ostensible “king of instruments” has been unfortunately thrown into oblivion and relegated to be used for church music. And even in churches, the organ only serves as an accessory to choir hymns. This is totally disheartening because an affluence of good concert music was exclusively written for the organ.

The pipe organ is also one of the better ways to gauge how well your sound system widely reproduces the audible frequency range. In a well-configured system, you can expect to feel the deepest lows. In an organ, one pipe equals one pitch, far different from other orchestral instruments, like the flute or trumpet, which can produce multiple pitches through the instrument keys. There are no keys or holes in the pipes of the organ to control the pitch. An organ pipe’s pitch is determined by the length of the pipe. If I’m not mistaken, the longest pipe is where those floor-crawling 14 hertzes come from.

How well your analog sources team up to retrieve otherwise hidden musical information determines how the pipe organ will finally sound in your system. The plinth, platter and tonearm should, as much as possible, be made from materials that ensure complete isolation of the turntable from vibrations; the tonearm tracking should be precise; the motor should be able to rotate exactly at 33.3 or 45 rpm, and the cart should be able to accurately “scratch” the record’s groove to retrieve even the faintest musical information: these are just some of the things which make an analog system well-configured. And if your system is such, then you will no doubt be able to hear the heavenly music contained in Dr. Berryman’s “Organ Music from Westminster.” 

Both sides of the album contain masterpieces that will glue you to your “sweet spot.” Fantasy In Echo Style by Jan Sweelink, Adagio-Allegro-Adagio by W. A. Mozart, Finlandia by Jan Sibelius and selections form Pastolare by J.S. Bach, Louis Vierne’s Scherzo From Symphony II, Clair de Lune selections for Sonata V by F. Mendelssohn, and the finale from Symphony VII  by C. M. Widor — all of these selections have those pleasantly jolting lows with the slithering air movements that can either shake your seat or tickle your toes.

The sound character of the pipe organ takes up all the sounds of creation and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments: from joy to sadness, and from praise to lamentation. By exceeding the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the deific. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life.

The multifarious possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the vastness and the grandeur of God.

* * *

For comments or questions, please email me at audioglow@yahoo.com.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with