'Happy thing' coming soon to Peabody Organ: After 7,000 hours of work by 21 people, and at a cost of $668,000, a three-story instrument will bring its 'soaring' sounds to Baltimore in January.

October 31, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- It takes 21 people 7,000 hours to build a pipe organ that will stand three stories tall -- a work of musical architecture. And in the Holtkamp workshop on the west side of Cleveland, practiced hands are drawing, shaping, cutting and soldering pieces of a monumental organ destined for the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

The high and wide Peabody organ exists only as a craftsman's vision of a glorious instrument. It is a picture on a piece of paper until the parts are put together in December to ensure that the pipes -- nearly 3,000 of them -- sound the way they should.

Workers will then take it apart and pack the parts into a truck for the 400-mile trip to Baltimore. They will assemble the whole thing again in January in Peabody's North Hall, where it should last a long time, a few centuries at least. With the prospect of such a long run, it might be said, $668,000 is a small price to pay.

Organs are "a very happy thing to build," Charles Litherland says with a hint of a brogue. The 59-year-old Irish-born foreman followed his father and grandfather into the trade. He spends his days in the drafting room poring over every detail of the size and shape of each piece of wood.

Accuracy counts. "If it's inches off, it doesn't work," he says. So craftsmen such as Litherland spurn rulers in favor of the shop's only "story stick," a measuring tool used in medieval times. Before standard measures were developed, the story stick -- an ancestor of the yardstick -- was the arbiter of width and length.

In the twilight of the 20th century, organs -- first built in Byzantium in the Middle Ages -- remain stubbornly resistant to technology. They are still best made by hand and tuned by ear. And the sound of organ music boils down to three elements: wood, metal and wind.

The quiet, 1920s-vintage workshop reflects this pre-industrial character. "It's a communal art form," says Rich Nelson, a woodworker, in which he and others make one organ at a time, usually five a year.

Christian Holtkamp is pleased that "nobody can cheapen the process or the result through mechanization or mass production."

As with Litherland, organs are deep in his blood. At 42, he is in the fourth generation of Holtkamps to run the company, taking over from his father in 1994. The stern faces of his great-grandfather Henry and grandfather Walter stare from pictures on the wood-paneled walls as if to remind him that there is still a place in the world for their ancient profession.

The Peabody job is, in a way, Chris Holtkamp's moment, his chance to step out and announce to the music world that the formidable Holtkamp heritage lives on in him.

Growing up listening to the family's organs in grand venues such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, he says, he "flip-flopped between playing organs and building them." After earning a master's degree in music, he decided that some people are born to be organ builders and that he was one of them.

'Pipes speak'

Walking from the wood shop, where the Peabody organ's mahogany console is taking shape, Holtkamp goes to his favorite place, the "voicing room." Here, he says, "pipes speak to you." He is not joking. In the language of organ building, pipes have voices. The most creative part of the process, he says, is the technique by which every pipe is given its voice when it vibrates.

The room is the province of Michael Shofar, the master voicer. "When I started [41 years ago], I worked with Chris' grandfather," he says. Walter Holtkamp noticed that Shofar's keen ear could detect what others couldn't, the high notes produced by the tiniest pipes and the low tones made by the largest ones.

"I could hear every one," he says, from the deep rumble of the 32-foot ubbass pipes to the "dog whistle" pitch of the tiniest pipes. No two are exactly alike, he said.

That simple statement is the first key to understanding how an organ works. Every pipe is, in effect, a voice singing in a huge chorus, and none is like any other. And, although the organ looks like a keyboard instrument, it is really a wind instrument. All the fingers do, in essence, is play the pipes by forcing air through them.

Mechanical action

The Peabody organ will have mechanical action, just as in the days of J. S. Bach. Although air is no longer pumped by hand, the basic workings of the organ remain the same. A musician presses a key, triggering rods and long, narrow wooden valves that open wind chambers, which, when open, allow air to go through the base and rise up the pipe, causing it to make its sound.

In voicing, Shofar uses handmade tools to craft the body of the pipes, which are made of lead and tin. He carves small openings commonly called the mouth, ears and toe. The length of the pipe, from the mouth to the top, determines its pitch. The ears -- small flaps on the sides -- direct the passage of air. The toe is the slit at the base, or "foot," that allows air to come in.

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