The World’s Greatest Organ

   Posted by: rring   in Classes, Students

[Posted by Dylan Mosenthal for AMST 851: The World of Rare Books (Instructor: Richard Ring)]

mosenthal2When I was first presented with the opportunity to explore the stacks of the Watkinson, my first inclination was to find something that had to do with organ music. During my four years as a student at Trinity, I studied the organ with John Rose and naturally became increasingly interested in not only organ music, but the history of the instrument as well.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to focus my search on actual sheet music or books regarding the constructions of organs. After all, The Watkinson contained a large collection of both! I decided to first do a broad search in the database to see what I could find. Immediately, I was attracted to the second book listed on the screen. It was a series of musical compositions from 1880 entitled, Arrangements from the Scores of the Great Masters for the Organ”.  Because of the long organ history at Trinity College, I hoped that these compositions would have annotations from organists of years past. To my disappointment, they were in mint condition and seemingly untouched by any organists, and though I found the variety of arrangements compelling, (Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, Lizt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schumann), I wasn’t overly intrigued by what I had found. (This was unfortunate, considering the collection consisted of five large and heavy books that Rick had to transport from the stacks on his own!)

After returning to the database, a book entitled, “The World’s Greatest Organ”, caught my eye. Written in 1917, the book described the infamous Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia. The book was small, a pamphlet of only twenty or so pages. It was in very good condition, and certainly had a modest aesthetic appeal compared to some of the other books we had seen in class. The book had a large number of illustrations integrated within the text as well. I was curious as to the reason why the book had been written. At first glance, it seemed to be a marketing tool for the Wanamaker Organ company. But as John Wanamaker himself explains on the second page, the point of the book was to pay homage to one of the greatest organs in the world:

mosenthal1“The Great Organ in the Grand Court of The Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia is heard every year by thousands of people from all over the world. And from many lands, from many lovers of music, have come requests for information regarding it. To give to the public a brief history of this noble instrument, to guide visitors to its many points of interest, and to recall to them at some later time the joy of its melody, this little book is made.”

mosenthal3The first page of the book made an immediate impression on me. It contains a quote from Honoré de Balzac entitled, “The Organ”. The quotation is surrounded by a beautiful border that resembles a picture frame. Not only was I drawn to the beautiful aesthetics of the first page, I also was also infatuated with the first line of de Balzac’s quotation which describes exactly the reason I decided to play the organ in the first place: “The organ is in truth the grandest, the most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human genius. It is a whole orchestra in itself”. For the past five years, I have tried to explain to those unfamiliar with the instrument the reasons why the organ is, in my opinion, the most “magnificent of all instruments”. De Balzac effectively explains in one sentence the way I feel about the organ.

 mosenthal4The book then goes on to describe a brief history of the “Evolution of the Organ”, citing the legend of “Syrinx” or “Pipe of Pan” to explain the formation of the reed pipes. It explains how organs evolved from a single hollow-reed pip “blown by the breath of man” to the formation of large reed pips and the ultimate birth of the hydraulic organ. The following sections of the book focus on the Philadelphia Wanamaker organ itself. In the section entitled, “The Story of the Great Organ”, Wanamaker clearly doesn’t try to be modest when describing the instrument’s beauty and sound, describing the story of the organ as “one of romance” and explaining that, “So constant is the care given it that there is no moment of the day when it cannot pour out its music untrammeled…It is theoretically and practically a masterpiece, not only the largest but probably the finest musical instrument in the world”. Reading these descriptions validated my original thoughts about this book being primarily used as a marketing tool, for the descriptions were written by the owner of the Wanamaker Company.

On the other hand, the following section was written by someone unaffiliated with the Wanamaker company. In a short essay entitled, “The Thrill of Playing the World’s Largest Organ”, Alexander Russell writes about his experience playing the instrument as a guest performer. He sat at the organ for two weeks, ultimately playing a recital on Bach’s Chorales. He only has words of praise for the organ, and ends the essay by powerfully writing, “This great organ creates music lovers, not once in a while, but every working day in the year”.

Although I enjoyed reading about the beauty of the Wanamaker organ, I found the last section of the book, “A Little Journey through the Interior of the Organ”, to be the most interesting. For the sake of this blog, I won’t bore you with the details about the specific pipes and stops within the four levels of the organ, but I can sum up the section in Wanamaker’s own words:  “This is a veritable forest of pipes”. This section had the most illustrations in the book, and I was infatuated with the descriptions of all of the different levels within the organ. All in all, this book was extremely captivating and well written. The combination of illustrations and text made for a comprehensive look into not only the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia, but organ history as a whole.

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