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“Arbor eram vilis quondam sed viva tacebam / Nunc bene si tangor mortua dulce son” counts as one of the most lovely and lengthy of the Latin mottos used to decorate the inside of the lids of seventeenth-century Flemish harpsichords. It translates: “I was once an ordinary tree, although living I was silent; now, though dead, if I am well played, I sound sweetly.”
The same defense of the human improvement on nature could well adorn the largest and oldest of the keyboard instruments—the organ—though with the crucial addition, somewhere amongst the branches and thorns of the Latin syntax, of chalicitis (ore) or perhaps metallum used to make the pipes that actually produce the sound. These gleaming columns are the first to catch the attention of the eye. Most organs have wooden pipes, too, though they are out of side behind the shining façade; the pipes of a few celebrated organs—most famously that from the early seventeenth century in Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark—are made exclusively of wood.
Yet aside from the pipes themselves, wood elsewhere in the instrument is arguably just as crucial to the instrument’s sound production. The case, on which mottos are indeed sometimes written in guilded letters, is the outwardly most elaborate of the wooden elements of an organ and it is often ornamented with moldings, florettes, spires, and statues.
For the sound, be it sweet or fierce, the interior wood is more important. The pipes sit on what are called windchests, historically made of oak. These windchests have interior channels that keep the air that is intended for one set of pipes from activating another adjacent set. Running perpendicular to these grooves are sliding boards with holes in them connected by wooden shafts to a stop knob at the console. When pulled out, this knob causes the holes to line up with those drilled in the top of the chest on which the pipes rest. Pull out all the stops, as they say, and all the holes line up. When J. S. Bach tested organs he did just this and then played music that demanded massive amounts of wind. In this way Bach made sure that “lungs of the organ” were robust.
Feeding the all-important windchests were wooden ducts that conveyed the wind produced by humans pumping several large bellows, themselves made out of wood and leather. Finally, there is the key action, essentially a form of remote control already perfected in the 14th century, and one that allowed the movements of the organist’s fingers and feet at the keyboards and pedal to be conveyed to a valve at the bottom of the windchests. When depressed these keys would instantaneously send air racing into a given channel, up into the pipe and to sounding life. Indeed, the organ has often been described by music theorists as if it were a living organism: its wind systems are lungs; the pipes themselves are given the human attributes of toes, feet, and mouth.
While the wood may have appeared dead to the motto makers of seventeenth-century Antwerp, the substance continues to breathe: it has cells and capillaries that are constantly reacting to changes in the air. The health of the wood and therefore the lungs of the organ depends on humidity. Like humans, the wood becomes parched if it is dry and saturated if it is wet, often quite quickly finding what experts call its equilibrium moisture content. In arid climes the wood can crack, in tropical ones become swollen and damp.
Even before the age of superstorms, Upstate New York was a region of climatic extremes. Summers were sultry and Winters arctic, the air either thick with moisture (towards 90%) or almost completely depleted of it (down to 20%). Human skin cracks, and the lines of age add decades to the human face in winter, only partially to be shed by the natural Botox of Summer. Imagine the ravages done by such variation to the mighty organ, unable to burst its shackle to its framing architecture of church, chapel, or concert hall and take the next flight to La Jolla for a regenerative week at the spa.
The first published book about organ design, construction, and maintenance, Arnolt Schlick’s Spiegel der Orglmacher und Organisten (Mirror of Organ Builders and Organists), 1511, registered the threat of rats, leaking roofs, and direct sunlight streaming through windows to the condition of an organ. But from the banks of the Rhine to the shores of the North Sea, the humidity in the heartland of the organ was temperate and welcoming. The thick stone walls of churches and castles further moderated changes in the weather: these chapels were—and still are—bracingly cold in winter, cool in summer, and never too dry. This in turns encourages the most environmentally conscientious and economically efficient approach to climate control: wear a sweater.
The same buffering effect is not to be enjoyed in many of the wooden churches put up by the colonists to New England and New York, nor for the later Americans who often favored the cheap and cheerful over the earnest and costly. As for sealing buildings from the ravages of humidity—the current rage for “green” building rarely extends to cash-strapped churches, nor to many a heavily debt-ridden institution of higher learning.
Smack-dab in the middle of New York State, Cornell University is a good example of the climatic travails faced by organs. There are four organs on the campus, ranging from the small to the grand. Consider first one of the former: a Neapolitan instrument acquired at auction a dozen years ago in San Francisco. The organ was built in 1746 in Italy and lingered in a state of benign neglect in the soothing Mediterranean air for more than two centuries, before it was acquired by a collector in Berkeley California in the 1980s. It enjoyed the moist Bay Area climate for some twenty years before being rudely displaced to Cornell’s leaking nineteenth-century chapel. The arctic blasts ripping through the place in winter were combatted by cranking the ancient radiators up so high that I once cooked a baked potato in aluminum foil on one of them during a long mid-winter practice session. These radiators suck what little moisture there is out of the air, sending humidity levels to dangerously low, wood-cracking levels. The poor Italian yearned for his homeland, clearly missing his native stone church and gentle breezes off the Bay of Naples. The windchest complained with errant squeaks and pipes sounding out of turn—a phenomenon that organ builders call ciphering. This emigrant’s life was a hard one. Eventually we installed an interior system of humidifying bars like those used to protect piano soundboards; these add moisture or extract it depending on the demands of season. The Italian’s lungs were assuaged, but the rest of the case continues to register its displeasure by occasionally shedding bits of paint and allowing its seams to widen slightly here and there.
The big swings in humidity inherent in seasonal shifts are increasingly aggravated by the extreme shifts from one day to the next. Here in New York, last week’s subzero temperatures and searing dryness were overwhelmed this week by sixty degree weather and torrential rains.
Another, smaller chapel on campus built in the 1950s is more porous. By then the style had moved on from Victorian brick to Campus Gothic. From the outside this building looks as solid as the European churches that inspired it. But the stones are not more than merely a thin layer of facing attached to a steel frame. Wind whistles through the window casings, and the uninsulated walls—a bit of stone on the outside and plaster on the inside welcome the elements inside like polite hosts. One of the great organs of the world, the instrument that occupies that chapel’s balcony is a synthesis of two of the greatest examples of the north European organ art from around 1700. The organ was dedicated in 2011, and no more beautiful an oaken case has been made in our time, nor has such a case framed a more lovely array of pipes, both metal and wooden. The wind generated by four large bellows in the chapel’s tower is conducted along the back wall of the gallery through wooden trunks and into the windchests. The instrument’s exterior beauty is paralleled by superb interior workings.
Today it’s 61 degrees with 80% humidity; by the day-after-tomorrow the forecast calls for a high of 25 degrees and humidity in the twenties. Through this winter of wild weather swings and into the tropical summer ahead, the organ will continue to sing sweetly if played well. But there are many more years to come …