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Building the Past Anew: The Fisk Opus 116 Organ at Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel

Friday, December 29, 2000 at 9:42 AM

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Thought to have originated with the ancient Greeks, the pipe organ is one of the world's oldest musical instruments. This year, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music - one of North America's top schools for classical musicians - is building a new organ in its premier concert hall in Finney Chapel. The process of installing the organ began last August and will take nearly a year to complete. 90.3's Karen Schaefer takes us on this behind-the-scenes tour of a work-in-progress - the Fisk Opus 116.

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Karen Schaefer- The new organ’s predecessor was a concert instrument built in 1914 by E.M. Skinner - one of the pre-eminent organ builders in North America. But when that organ was rebuilt in the 1950’s, much of its lower register was lost. So when it was time for a new instrument, Conservatory organist Haskell Thompson wanted something special—a lush, Romantic organ in the French style, modeled on the work of 19th century organ master Arisitide Cavaille-Coll.

Haskell Thompson- Having an organ on which to play literature from Cesar Franck, right up through Widor, Vierne, DePres, Olivier Messien and many, many others right along the way is pure joy.

KS- To build such an instrument, the Conservatory turned to C.B. Fisk of Gloucester, Massachusetts, a firm of organ builders near Boston. Founded in 1961, C.B. Fisk was the first modern American organ maker to abandon the early 20th century innovation of using electricity to open and close valves to the organ’s pipes. Instead, they returned to an earlier tradition that uses mechanical or tracker action to open stops and keys. It’s a technique performers say allows greater control of the instrument. The new organ was built in the Fisk workshop in Gloucester, then dismantled and shipped to Oberlin for re-assembly. Last August, Fisk’s Rick Isaacs was there at the back door as the first semi-trucks began to arrive.

Rick Isaacs- We’ll start assembling the framework and start to build it back up inside so it will look essentially like it’s going to look for the next hundred years.

KS- On that first day, it looked like an organ had exploded all over the inside of Finney Chapel. But within three weeks, the organ’s nearly 4,000 pipes and untold number of mechanical parts were re-assembled behind the original facade. That’s when the job of voicing the organ began. David Pike is the company’s executive vice president and tonal director.

David Pike- The voicing refers to the timbre, the speech characteristics, the sustained tone. There are 60 stops on this organ and we need to spend a great deal of time voicing every pipe of every one of those stops, so that they sound musically well individually and in combination with one another.

KS- The organ must also be voiced to the acoustics of the room. The whole process will take nearly ten months. Pike invites me up a narrow ladder to his workshop eyrie inside the organ’s works.

DP- We’re at the level of Grand Orgue division of the organ. I should back up here and explain that all pipe organs have anywhere from one to as many as five or six divisions. Each division is represented by a keyboard. The pipes you see right here behind you on this wind chest are all pipes of the Grand Orgue division. The smallest pipe is about three-quarters of an inch. Let me just blow on this—you can hear the pitch it plays. That’s a pretty high pitch.

KS- The largest pipe is 32 feet long. Everything about the organ—from the cast metal pipes to the white poplar and leather bellows—is made by hand according to practices centuries old. Yet the complexity of this instrument boggles the mind, even the mind of one of its creators.

DP- For me, building a musical instrument on this level, of this size—it’s not for the faint of heart. I think of myself as a pretty driven human being. Driven to create something that will make beautiful sounds, is really what it amounts to. And give people a chance to make those beautiful sounds.

HT- Now you’re hearing barely a third of the organ. And just imagine what it will sound like when the whole thing is able to sound forth.

DP- We’re taking part in an art that is long-term. It lasts for centuries. And when you think back to those times, about what other machines were being built, you really have to remind yourself that the pipe organ was probably the loudest sound—man-made sound, at least—that people heard in those days. The pipe organ can transport you to another place and another time like nothing else can—at least for me.

KS- Completion of the new Fisk Opus 116 organ in Finney Chapel is expected by July. The organ’s first performance will be heard this September during inaugural events at Oberlin College. In Oberlin, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

If you want more information about this September’s concert, call the Oberlin Conservatory at (440) 775-8200.

Additional Information

* Oberlin College's Fisk Opus 116 Organ
* C.B. Fisk, Organ Builders
* French Organ Music of the late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

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