Thunders & Whispers

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
One hundred years ago this spring, technicians from the Hutchings-Votey Organ Company of Boston delivered more than 3,000 metal and wooden pipes to campus, along with wind chests, electrically activated bellows, and 100 miles of wiring—all to assemble what was to be one of the largest organs in the country.

The construction project, which took months, generated much excitement, both in the local press and in the international music community. Music periodicals of the day ran articles and illustrations. The Providence Journal lavished praise on the design, calling the organ “handsome and rich in effect, but without any gaudy ornamentation.” For the opening recital, held during Commencement weekend on June 16, 1903, the University lured a world-renowned Belgian organist, Chevalier Auguste Wiegand, to perform. He proclaimed the Sayles Hall organ one of the best he’d heard in the United States.

As it celebrates its 100th birthday, the Sayles organ is now the largest remaining Hutchings-Votey organ in the world. It boasts three keyboards, a row of pedals, and 3,355 pipes, the smallest two feet tall and the largest thirty-two feet in height. Most of the pipes are rarely seen, hidden as they are in a room behind the instrument’s grand façade.

Organs, perhaps the most massive and intricate of all musical instruments, were first devised more than 2,000 years ago. Pipe organs usually contain multiple “ranks,” or graduated sets, of pipes. Striking a key on the keyboard activates a valve connected to a wind chest, which sends a gust of pressurized air to a pipe, which in turn releases a mesmerizing sound.

The Sayles organ arrived when the building was still the University’s religious center. Students gathered in its pews every day for mandatory chapel. Some of them had lamented the lack of an organ, until Lucian Sharpe, class of 1893, donated money in his parents’ memory to remedy the situation.

The organ has received two major facelifts over the past century, the first in 1949. Technicians that year replaced the console, which the Providence Journal described as still functioning but obsolete in design. Workers also soundproofed every moving part, according to the newspaper, “in deference to the nice ear of President Henry M. Wriston, which is easily irritated by any hint of clanking or grumbling in the mechanism.” The restoration went against the day’s trend, which was to replace, rather than repair, old organs. In fact, by the 1950s all the largest Hutchings-Voteys had been dismantled—except for Brown’s.

Mandatory chapel ended on campus in the mid-1960s, after which the organ was played only on special occasions. That changed in the early 1980s with the arrival of University Organist Fred MacArthur. He introduced midnight and lunchtime concerts that became a popular tradition on campus. “Some people tell me that I must get such a feeling of power,” MacArthur told the Brown Daily Herald in 1986, describing what it’s like to play the instrument. “But it’s not true. It’s just an extension of my being. It thunders and it whispers … to the glory of the almighty, I guess.”

Sadly, before the end of the decade, leaks in the roof had caused devastating damage. “It was hopeless,” Wayne Schneider, who succeeded MacArthur in 1988, told the Brown Daily Herald. “Most of the notes stuck and it was impossible to play anything.” Another overhaul began in 1990. Speaking to The Tracker: The Journal of the Organ Historical Society, Nelson Barden, who led the restoration, said of the organ: “When I first heard it, it was totally characterless, but there was an incredible tonal change after we had removed three-quarters-inch of dust from the pipes.”

For the rededication concert, which was held during Commencement weekend in 1992, composer Stephen Scott ’69 A.M. wrote his first organ piece. “Like many another composer,” he said in the program note, “I found the thing intimidating—so many knobs, keys, and buttons, the whole contraption resembling more an airliner cockpit connected to 2,500 jet engines than it does any other musical instrument.”

Another grand celebration is in the works for this spring. Mark Steinbach, who has been the University organist for the past ten years, hopes to bring guest organists to campus for a birthday concert. “There’s a lush sound to this instrument,” he says. “It’s almost understated. I love playing Romantic music on it.”

At the midnight Halloween concert, students still arrive, as tradition dictates, with pillows and blankets. And at Christmastime, the Service of Lessons and Carols still draws a crowd. Although no longer a part of daily campus life, the Sayles organ can still awe a roomful of listeners with its imposing, crashing notes.

Emily Gold Boutilier is the BAM’s senior writer.
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January / February 2003