Mighty Wind: Church Organ Gets a Tuneup Every 150 Years

By JESSIE ROYCE HILL

LAWRENCE - On a flat gray morning, 1,000 pewter and wooden pipes and ivory keys are spread over three floors of workshop space in the Andover Organ Company.

They are here to be examined, patched and reassembled again into the organ that has served Edgartown's Old Whaling Church for 150 years.

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A vestige of an old world, the organ shop breathes with secrets of apprentices and masters.

In the first floor woodshop, a couple of men in toolbelts sand a long board full of holes that give it the appearance of a giant game of cribbage. This is the windchest, the board into which the organ pipes will be fitted. In a working organ, when a key is pressed, a valve opens and air produced by a blower creates the sound. If the holes on the windchest aren't sanded smooth, the sound, too, will be jagged.

A winding staircase to the third floor opens onto the metal department, a tin and leaden world of pipes. Two artisans bang out dents with hard wood sticks, pausing to test each pipe's tenor with a blow of air, a grimace and another blow.

The oldest and largest of six pipe organs on the Vineyard, the one scattered around this workshop was built to accompany weddings and church services. It arrived on the Vineyard sometime in the late 1860s.

Installed by the Methodist congregation of the Main street church, the organ served whaling captains, their families and descendants. Over the generations, climate and wear and tear took a collective toll. By the 1980s the organ was wheezy, leaky and tonally unreliable.

Now, for a bill of $84,400, the 18-stop, 19-rank pipe organ is being restored.

A History of Music

Robert Newton, part owner of the Andover company, has been tuning the instrument on visits to the Vineyard for years, and is now charged with its resurrection. "The organ was the most important thing the church ever bought, after the building," he says.

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And while there are more expensive organs on the Vineyard, such as those at the Federated Church in Edgartown and at the West Tisbury Congregational Church, the Whaling Church's is the oldest and rarest; it is one of only two still extant from a rare collaboration between prominent New England organmakers, Fisher and Simmons of Boston.

"People know the Whaling Church, this stately, elegant scale model of the Parthenon," says Chris Scott, director of Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, which has owned the building since 1980, "but they don't necessarily know the story of the creaky organ inside it."

Years of minor repairs on the intricate moving parts of the Fisher Simmons, as it is known to organ enthusiasts, left a wish list of restorations that would befit an entire building: Install new pull-down wires, rebush swell shades, renut pedal key action, provide new windtrunk from blower. But the pièce de resistance: Tune the entire organ to original pitch.

Has it really been that badly out of tune? Mr. Newton, a bearded 64-year-old whose voice has the folksy resonance of Garrison Keillor's, shudders at the mention. Lately the Fisher Simmons has lived a lonely musical life, as few instruments could blend with its sharp tone.

Now, "we want to return the organ to its original pitch so trumpets and other instruments can tune to it again," says Mr. Newton.

An Organ Master

With a title of "director of old organs and tonality," Mr. Newton is a man who takes his business seriously. He has spent the last 42 years tinkering with organs ravaged by time; he estimates he has restored 100 of them.

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He came by his interest in organs in the same way most of Andover Organ's longtime employees did: attending church as a child and becoming taken with the multi-branched musical instrument that climbed the walls like ivy. Today, Mr. Newton's home in Methuen is a renovated church where he keeps a collection of musical instruments and antiques.

The Andover Organ Company occupies three stories in the corner of the old Malden Mills, nestled along the Merrimack River in this northeastern Massachusetts town. An industrial landscape dotted with mills, the town is perhaps best known for this one because of the 1995 fire that burnt most of this mill to the ground. Malden Mills, the makers of Polartec fleece, rebuilt its headquarters next door. The organ company still sits in the corner it has owned for nearly three decades, unscathed by the fire.

Andover builds new organs as well as repairs them, but the market for new organs is small - New England's many churches generally prefer to salvage the ones they've got.

As Mr. Newton directs a small core of assistants reshaping pewter pipes, he acknowledges that "we're bending history to make the pedals more versatile. In a restoration, the tone moves inevitably in the direction of what I like. But at the same time I keep very close to what Simmons did."

In restoration, Mr. Newton balances his historical sensibility with the needs of church organists who will be using these instruments in the future - chiefly the need to play the music written for their instrument.

Back in the mid-19th century, American church organists mimicked England's. Hymns and wedding marches were in; Romantic and Baroque repertoire, often more complex and requiring more keys, was shunned.

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"Bach just wasn't played in America at the time," Mr. Newton says. "You try to play the Little Fugue in G and you run out of pedals on these organs. English pieces were written for hands alone." He notes that the Fisher Simmons organ had 18 pedal keys, and will soon be outfitted with 27. "Organists at the Whaling Church will now be able to play almost all the works of Bach," he says.

Raising the Money

Raising funds for the organ restoration was not an easy task.

For all of the weddings and services the organ had dutifully accompanied over the last century and half, few people actually took notice of its steep decline.

Mr. Scott of the Preservation Trust was one. But the needs of the building that housed the organ cried out louder for his attention: peeling paint on its trademark Greek Revival columns, a leak in the roof.

So the organists who knew the church's prized possession firsthand formed a restoration committee.

In the late 1990s, Gary Zwicky and Philip Dietterich banded together with the Organ Historical Society in Boston and began a series of noontime fundraiser concerts. With a $5 ticket price, the net result of the concerts was really to raise consciousness, more than dollars. It worked.

The music series stirred the imagination of an opera singer named Lia Kahler. Ms. Kahler's mother, Peg Littlefield, had died in 2000 and the singer and sometime philanthropist was searching for a way to pay her tribute.

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"I heard from Phil Dietterich that the organ committee, along with Gary Zwicky, had raised enough money to maintain the organ but not enough to restore it," says Ms. Kahler, who divides her time between New York city and the Vineyard. "I've always felt a need to give back as an artist, and my mother was interested in historical preservation. So this would have tied in with her interests."

Ms. Kahler ultimately set up a $20,000 endowment for the pipe organ and cut the Preservation Trust a check to get the instrument on Andover's three-year waiting list.

During the same time, Owen Larkin, president of the Vineyard Golf Club, heard from a choir singer about the withering organ. "I heard they were keeping it together with paper clips, chewing gum and string. What a treasure for the Island!" Through his foundation, Mr. Larkin set up a $30,000 matching grant with the Preservation Trust, which, over two years, successfully met it.

A Bright Future

Just as Fisher and Simmons designed the organ to be played at weddings, it is the start of the nuptial season that calls it back to the Vineyard.

"We've got a woman whose daughter is getting married in the Whaling Church May 1 and she wants that organ," Mr. Newton grumbles. "But we'll have it there."

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It will arrive, in fact, on April 12, which happens to coincide with Edgartown's annual town meeting the next day, held in the Whaling Church. Mr. Scott hopes the audience won't mind sharing some of the pews with the organ's bits and pieces as the team hurries to reassemble it.

To the schedule of 30 weddings held at the Whaling Church this season, the Preservation Trust has added an unusual ceremony to mark a new marriage between the organ and its church. "In July, we're inviting all of the brides and grooms who've been married in the church to come back again and hear the new organ," says Mr. Scott. "They can even wear their gowns."