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The Organs of Tobacco Road

The Princes of Capital and the King of Instruments

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, for an organ concert last Sunday.

The organ is a wind instrument whose bellows are its lungs. There is something ironic, therefore, in the fact that Duke University, a place that flourished thanks to tobacco money, is one the great organ centers in the world. Had not all those pouches of tobacco been stuffed and all those gaspers rolled in nearby Durham and then been sold around the world, Washington Duke and his sons would not have gotten rich enough to endow the university now named in their honor. The Princes of Capital have faithfully served the King of Instruments, whose representatives breathe deeply here, unafflicted by emphysema or cancer, the byproducts of the Duke wealth.

Sprawled over a vast campus of gentle hills and pine forests, the university is full of organs, three of them in the cavernous Duke Chapel, one of the largest collegiate gothic structures on the continent, seating nearly 2,000 people. When the monumental tower based on that of Canterbury Cathedral was completed in 1932 it stood guard above a seemingly endless evergreen canopy broken only by the lower slung academic buildings below, which, like the chapel, were built from the variegated stone of the Duke Quarry in nearby Hillsborough.

Now, instead of pristine forest to the chapel’s west, this part of the huge campus is cut through by wide roads like Science Drive, a name that speaks to the river of money that flows in from federal grants like the one announced this week of nearly fifty million dollars from the National Institute of Health to Duke’s Translational Medical Institute. According to the press release the money is “aimed at transforming clinical research into things that directly help patients.”  One might have assumed that was the point of all medical research in the first place, but the money to be made from advances can sometimes be a distraction from such noble ends.

The irony that the breath of the organ reeks of tobacco is doubly strong in the case of the medical mecca that is Duke: the place was given life by merchants of death.  That so many of America’s universities exist thanks to the capitalist crimes and corruptions of their founders is an abiding paradox, from Duke in the East to Stanford and the West.

The newest of the three organs in the Duke chapel was finished in 1997 and is loosely modeled on Italian renaissance instruments. Irrepressible American eclecticism gave the Italian a German accent. Italian organs almost always had only one manual, but the Duke instrument has two: the first manual is Italian in conception, the second has a handful of northern stops more typical of the heyday of the Hanseatic League. The organ sits a swallow’s nest balcony in a side chapel that serves as a memorial to the patriarch Washington Duke and his two sons Benjamin and James. Daddy Duke and his boys are interred there in three hulking sarcophagi of Carrera marble by the American sculptor and renowned monument-maker of the first half of the century Charles Keck. Keck also did the bronze of Benjamin Duke that stands outside of the chapel; his stone effigies give the austere capitalists a final posture of weighty repose. They are laid out in their suits and granted a bit of eternal luxury each with a couple of fluffy marble pillows propping up their heads. There’s not a nicotine spot anywhere to be seen on the brilliant white stone.

In contrast to the cold stolidity of these mortuary statues, the organ itself has a flexible sound that is gentle and clear. It speaks down on the dead Dukes from its berth in the memorial chapel with a clarity not to be found in the echoing vastness of the nave beyond. In death the great trio of founders are hymned by understatement, rather than triumph.

Already in the late nineteenth century Washington Duke had been committed to co-education. He made several crucial donations to ensure the presence of women at what was then called Trinity College and would later be renamed in honor of him and his sons—the trio of benefactors laid to rest in the memorial chapel. Yet no great stone boxes are anywhere to be seen that might the remains of the Duke family matriarchs. Only a small plaque on the wall of the memorial chapels mentions Doris Duke, the eccentric daughter of Benjamin who dedicated herself to globetrotting, and such diverse activities as surfing and collecting of Asian art. The plaque calls her simply a philanthropist, and after her death in 1992 her estate was initially tapped to fund the organ that now accompanies her forbears in eternity. But then the executor, Doris’s ex-butler turned millionaire, Bernard Lafferty was removed by a New York court for incompetence in 1995 only to be reinstated the next year. Lafferty provided the quickest way out of the legal morass by conveniently dying a few months later at his Bel Air mansion. With him went the organ money. So the Doris Duke foundation never ponied up the funds, which had to be conjured from elsewhere.

Around the corner from this memorial organ, modest in size but rich in musical possibility, is the chapel’s original instrument, installed the year the building was finished in 1932.  Unlike the self-consciously renaissance-style organ above the Dukes’ earthly remains, this larger instrument has electric action that allows its 6,600 pipes, housed in several elaborately carved neo-gothic cases that mirror the architecture of the chapel itself, to sprawl throughout the chancel.

Down at the far end of the long nave is the third of the three organs, finished in 1976. This monumental instrument rising three stories above its own balcony was inspired at least in part by the famous organ of 1738 in St. Bavo’s church in Haarlem The Netherlands. This musical wonder was renovated by the important Flentrop organ company in the 1950s, an experience drawn on for their Duke commission. Concurrently with their towering Duke instrument, Flentrop was rebuilding the magnificent, but badly dilapidated, organs of the Mexico City Cathedral. It is no coincidence that the builders added the most characteristic and extravagant aspects of the Spanish colonial tradition to the Duke organ—horizontal trumpets called the Trompeta Batalla and the Trompeta Magna. These are the perfect stops to blast down the length of the nave for the cavalry charge that concludes the William Tell Overture with which Annette Richards and I closed our duet program in the chapel last Sunday.

That sonority struck me as an apposite one for our William Tell finale because it seemed also to bring us back to the Dukes and the source of their money. With those trumpets blaring one could just see Cortez’s steeds charging the Aztecs and toppling Montezuma, an inveterate tobacco pipe smoker like the Dukes themselves. Every time the Flentrop’s Mexican trumpets pierce the ear they exact a little bit of Montezuma’s revenge even on the dead Dukes slumbering on their marble pillows down at the other end of their cavernous chapel.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com