The Charlottenburg Organ Reborn

This concludes the profile of Munetaka Yakota. Part One can be found here.

The shining apogee of technological advance in the pre-industrial world, the organ, was more often likened to the human form than to a “Wondrous Machine,” as it is styled in Henry Purcell’s Ode for St. Cecila’s Day. In such anthropomorphized descriptions, the organ’s keys were teeth and the openings in the pipes where the sound was generated were mouths. Continuing the analogy, the bellows were lungs to be filled by the bellows treader, and made to sing by the movements of the organist’s body. The trackers, and rollers (the mechanisms connecting the console to the wind chests on which the pipes were arrayed) were like nerves, tendons and muscles of the organ’s body. The basic organ sound?the Principal stop?strove to match the quality of the human voice, a sonority mimicked more explicitly by the reedy Vox humana.

The sheer size of the instrument and the timbral range of the thousands of pipes housed within its case promised infinite variety. Hoping to impress readers with a glimpse of the sublime, many writers calculated the sonic permutations that the organ offered: an instrument with 40 registers could generate 1,201,911,627,775 combinations, outnumbering even the fixed stars [but only 25 per cent of Obama’s scheduled giveaway to the rich, Editors]. Even though not all of these combinations were usable according to the dictates of either tradition or common sense, the possibilities were in effect endless.

The organ builder must form a persuasive whole from the disparate parts of this being. For Munetaka Yokota this means that the organ will necessarily reflect, often in mysterious ways, the aspirations and attitudes?in a word, the personalities?of those who make it.  The analogy of the parent is one he sometimes uses in a mode of thought that reflects the humanizing spirit of so many descriptions of the organ: “Organs are like children. You conceive of them, and nurture them, guide them, and struggle with them, love them and then let them go and be in the world.” Yokota has four human children; the youngest is one year old and was born in Sweden. She is named Jula after a lovely wooden stop on his replica for the Eastman School of Music of a 1776 organ in Vilnius. As a name for his cosmopolitan one-year-old daughter, Yokota says, “It sounds beautiful in Japanese, English, and Swedish.”

Jula will still be a one-year-old when Yokota’s organ for Cornell University, an instrument on which her father has been working at least six days a week, often from early morning far into the evening, is finished and dedicated this coming March. The Cornell organ project was hatched about ten years ago, but has long been a twinkle in its father’s ear, since Yokota first heard the model for it on a recording he bought in Tokyo more than four decades ago.

The concept for Yokota’s latest project was brought to life soon after he had finished a chamber organ for the small concert hall at Cornell. The university had then allocated money for a much larger instrument to be placed in a neo-Gothic chapel from the 1950s. This was a space of modest, courtly proportions and ample acoustics.  My wife, Annette Richards, the Cornell University organist and professor of music, and I were sitting with Yokota in our kitchen discussing this project over sushi that our guest had ordered at an Ithaca, New York restaurant, having tested out the place a few days earlier. His eyes twinkling once again, Yokota suggested as a model the Charlottenburg Palace organ by the celebrated builder Arp Schnitger that had been finished in 1708 and bombed in 1944. We didn’t take much convincing to agree that this was an ideal instrument for the music of J. S. Bach and that of his predecessors and successors. Skilled at discovering resources both human and material wherever he sets himself to making an organ, Yokota eyes lit on a glass-fronted cabinet finished by local woodworker, Chris Lowe. After getting up from the kitchen table and examining  the piece more closely Yokota pronounced that, “This man can make the organ case,” clearly not doubting that the unsuspecting craftsman would accept the chance to play a crucial role in such project. Never mind that the towering cabinet would dwarf the one that had convinced Yokota he had found his main collaborator.

Yokota insists that each part of the organ be made by hand, maintaining this is not a hollow ideological position, but necessarily produces a more human, and therefore a more beautiful result, both visually and aurally. Wood could be roughly milled, but the final carpentry on the case, including that on the ornate moldings, was done all with handsaws and planes. No sandpaper was used, and the joinery followed classic methods.

In the event Lowe was brave and foolish enough to accept the challenge of building this instrument, hand-planing every surface and assembling the huge number of elements in a barn on the outskirts of Ithaca. When Yokota arrived at the celebration for the case on a wintry day in late March of 2008, he looked up at the frame rising to the rafters of the barn, and said with a laugh, “Oh. It’s big.” Even before the German white oak case was fumed with ammonia, painted with linseed oil, then another coat of linseed oil and pigment, and finally with a layer of caput mortuum (beeswax and linseed oil), Yokota judged Lowe’s work to be the most beautiful modern organ case he had ever seen.

The Cornell organ would be placed in the campus’s Anabel Taylor Chapel, which matched the volume of Charlottenburg, but was rectangular in shape and had a conventional choir loft. Given this very different physical context for the organ, the rebuilding the unique Charlottenbug case seemed arbitrary. Exact replication gave way to “fantasy reconstruction.” One of the most beautiful of Schnitger’s cases in the central German town of Clausthal-Zellerfeld, visited by Lowe and I in 2006, would be used as the model for the Cornell organ. The stops of the Charlottenburg instrument would be fitted into this scheme, one more typical of Schnitger’s work.

The pipes and opulent console would be made in Sweden in the Organ Arts Center at the University of Gothenburg where Yokota is a guest professor. The bellows (to be powered by human treaders for all concerts) and key action would be constructed by the Parsons Organ Company near Canandaigua in central New York some sixty miles from Ithaca. Parsons had never been involved in an organ project devoted to such historic accuracy and involving the level of intense handwork demanded by Yokota. But the visionary’s gentle charisma and profound skill convinced the company president, Rick Parsons and his workersx, as well.

In late 2009, Lowe and his assistant Peter de Boer assembled the case in Anabel Taylor Chapel, and in January the pipes from Sweden and the bellows and windchests from Canandaigua arrived, along with Yokota’s tools, from mandrels to Japanese saws, as well as his personal items for his year-long stay in Ithaca.

If the organ is its maker’s child, the responsibilities of parentage are daunting. It is not just that the sprawling construction must work: the bellows must supply sufficient wind to the pipes; the key action relaying the motion of the organist’s finger or foot to a valve allowing air into a pipe far away must not be too hard to depress or too noisy; the instrument must hold up against the vagaries of harsh seasons; the tallest pipes must be made so that they withstand the inexorable pull of their own weight over centuries. The technological breadth of the organ, and therefore the technical knowledge its maker, surpasses that of any other instrument.

But most important is how the instrument sounds, and these musical qualities are much more difficult to define. The Cornell organ has thirty stops, a mid-sized instrument by the standards of the 18th-century. Said to be the largest in the world, the organ in the Wanamaker store in Philadelphia has some 460 stops, but not a single one of these has the character nor demanded the skill to make as any in Charlottenburg or Cornell.

Yokota not only designed the Cornell organ, laying out the arrangement of the pipes and the internal workings of the instrument’s construction and its external structure. He also directed the casting of the pipes. Having been the driving force in the rediscovery of many of the pipe-making techniques used for old organs such as those by Schnitger, Yokota’s pipes typically sound beautiful when you pick them up from the shop table where they have been finished and blow into them. On their arrival in Ithaca, the Cornell organ’s eighteen hundred pipes, ranging in size from sixteen feet long to a few inches, were sorted and arrayed in an orderly fashion in the long low boxes they came in. Now Yokota had to make these pipes sound beautiful in their acoustic environment. He had to give the instrument musical life.

The level of skill and patience required to parent these parts towards unity is astounding. Each pipe must be made to sing beautifully ? “to find its own character,” as Yokota puts it. It must blend with its neighbors in the same stop, while asserting different attributes according to range from bass through tenor and alto and up into the soprano. On a larger level, each stop must both complement the others, balancing while retaining distinctive qualities reflected in the elegant names embossed on the labels beneath the stop knobs. The distinct sound must blend across the organ but also have texture, nuance, while retaining enough of the expected and individual. Finally the organ must be made to fit the room. Fuller combinations must impress the listener but never overpower. All pipes are like a giant jigsaw puzzle to be fitted together by the ear.

Designing the organ and overseeing the making of its parts is one thing, but shaping its personality must be the hardest task of all. This is the most elusive and prized skill in organ maker, and is called “voicing.” The crucial aspect of this process is determining what organ builders call “speech” of the pipe, metaphorical language that draws on the uniquely human ability for language. Each pipe must sing promptly, beginning with a consonant and then proceeding at just the right pace to a well-formed vowel. The voicer is a kind of elocution master, and he moulds the speech of his charges by blowing, often very hard, into each pipe to judge the quality of its diction. Adjustments are made by filing and scraping and lightly hammering at the mouth of the pipe and its “tongue” or languid. The pipes are placed on a “voicing machine” which is a kind of temporary organ with a keyboard. On this apparatus a stop can played and painstakingly brought into sonic balance with itself. Wearing a very non-18th-century headlight with a small, bright beam, Yokota looks over the top of his glasses at the mouth of the pipe like a dentist examining a patient. The voicing tool in his quick and careful hands tool works the mouth again and then the pipe gets blown on several times and more adjustments are made. Eventually, he can then play through the stop on the voicing machine to get a broader sense of the sound across the range from low to high. This kind of labor must be lavished on each of the Cornell organ’s nearly two thousand pipes.

With this phase of voicing completed the pipes are put onto the windchests up in the organ, and the organ builder must listen to them down below in the chapel, noting individuals that sing too loudly or speak inelegantly, or somehow do not consort well with those around them. A seemingly endless series of refinements are required. After listening, often drinking tea or Swedish coffee, Yokota will make notes than clamber again up into the organ to find the errant pipes that need still more attention.

When the pipes become too big to take in hand and put them to the lips, highly trained guesswork is required. The largest 16’ pipes in the fa?ade of the Cornell organ belong to the pedal and are arranged in two towers to either side of the main case. Like all the other pipes visible to the eye they are of gleaming tin, their stature and elegance a marvel to behold even from a great distance. Tall but with thin walls, they are difficult to lift because they weigh a couple of hundred pounds but can easily squashed or dented if pushed on too hard from the sides. Six strong people are required to move them.  After listening to these large pipes over several weeks, Yokota determined that the size of the mouth?the so-called “cut up”?had to be changed.  With helpers aloft, on scaffolds and down below on the chapel floor, the pipes were safely removed. After undergoing solder surgery conducted in the ad hoc workshop set out in the chapel, the giant pipes were gingerly returned to place, having found their proper voice.

Yokota arrived in Ithaca in the snows of last January knowing he could rely on some help in installation from the employees of the Parsons Company, many of whom he had trained in his style of organ-building. The leading American organ firms of Paul Fritts in Tacoma, Washington and the Charles Fisk Company of Gloucester, Massachusetts loaned out expert employees when their experience was required by Yokota. Chris Lowe continues to be a vital resource. But for so many of the myriad other tasks, the most unrelenting of which is the voicing and the tuning of the organ (again with each pipe required exacting individual attention), he needed assistants and he had none when he arrived. Magically they appeared from the surroundings as they had at his even riskier California projects. Cornell students and staff, citizens of Ithaca heard, visitors, heard about the organ or happened by the chapel, and would soon volunteer countless hours of help. As always for Yokota, the organ became a way to talk about physics, chemistry, politics, literature, the nature of sound and the meaning of life. The Cornell project would not have succeeded without the enthusiastic amateurs inspired by Yokota and his art.

The first public concert for the Cornell organ took place a few weeks ago, and in his toast to the instrument and his amateur collaborators, Yokota thanked “all of the organ builders who helped me this project. Many of you were new to organ building, but you each brought your personality to the instrument, and this is unmistakable in its sound and beauty.” Over the next few weeks Yokota will voice the  last pipes  and before the organ’s dedication in March.

Yokota views his craft as an exercise in discovering the potential of himself and of the people who help him. I asked him if he felt pressure about begetting a new version of Charlottenburg organ, the organ that begat him as an instrument maker. He smiled and laughed, as he does when faced with complicated questions. “That organ was documented exactly before being dissembled, and then destroyed in the war. The dimensions of the pipes and the size of the cut-ups and all that were exactly measured.  My job is to connect all those dots, all those numbers, to the present situation in this chapel at Cornell. But the poetic quality of the original organ was unmistakable to me on that old LP and still is. The spirit of that sound is what I am after and numbers alone cannot give you that.”  He looks up at the organ’s gleaming fa?ade. What registers in his face is not so much pride in his work, but continual astonishment that such a thing is possible.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at