Baltimore church organ revived for Christmas

Repairs bring new life to 150-year-old instrument

December 24, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

It was last Easter when the note, a particularly high one, got stuck on the organ at Baltimore's St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church.

Tim Murphy, the organist for the past 27 years, climbed inside the giant case and tinkered with it for several minutes to get it to stop. Hundreds of families could do little but stare at Murphy and each other.

That's when it became clear that Murphy's applications of duct tape and skill could no longer cover up the fact that the 150-year-old organ needed a major overhaul. After six months of work, the improved organ was ready for its debut during Christmas Masses at the church on North Calvert Street.

"It sounds ravishing," said Murphy, who has been rehearsing all week and was thrilled to play music as it was intended, and not an octave higher or lower to avoid missing notes. "I was helping it limp along. But largely what we're hearing now would have been heard during the Civil War, with a few extras."

About half an hour before the crowds were expected to arrive for the 6 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve, Murphy was tapping at the organ's keyboard in the balcony with a slight smile.

Along with four choir members, he filled the room with sounds that one singer said he'd not heard in his three decades there. The gold pipes visible to the congregation below had been little more than decoration.

The repairs, which cost $475,000, were handled by Patrick J. Murphy and Associates Pipe Organ Builders of Pennsylvania. The company took apart and rebuilt the organ in its factory, returning the thousands of pieces to be reassembled in Baltimore.

The pipes are virtually all original, as is the 25-by-17-foot ornate case, which matches the architecture of the church with Corinthian columns and other flourishes. It had been worked on before, including in 1999 when the church itself got a $2 million renovation. But not as extensively as this time.

The organ company touted the work, and the organ, on its Facebook page: "Complete rebuilding of the organ for The Catholic Community of St. Ignatius in Baltimore, Maryland. Contains most of the original pipework from the 1860 Simmons and Wilcox organ of Boston Mass. Includes PJM signature vertical drawknob console in Honduras mahogany; new Blackington electric slider chests, completely new winding, wiring and chassis."

The organ once required a staff pedaling in the basement to provide the necessary wind. The pedalers were told to get to work by a tug on a rope, and pedal they did — the church was the chapel for Loyola College, and students and families enjoyed regular concerts there.

On Sundays, the organist would make the most of the acoustics and amplification of the church and play Mozart, Schubert, Dvorak and Haydn, said the Rev. William J. Watters, S.J., the pastor. People came from throughout the city to hear Agnes von Rinteln, the church's organist for more than 40 years. She retired in the early 1980s, handing over the pipes to Murphy.

Watters and Murphy said Friday that they were thrilled to have the organ back for Christmas.

"They had a large team working on it," said Watters about the restoration company. "We're really grateful to have it and really cherish the gift we were given for only $4,000 back in 1860. And we're really grateful for our benefactors who have come out of nowhere to pay for this, including one person yesterday who gave $30,000."

Watters expected at least 600 people would hear the 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Masses Christmas Eve and even more Christmas Day. "The organ will be a nice highlight," he said.

Murphy said he's not missed many Sunday services during his time at St. Ignatius. But Murphy, a professor of music at the Peabody Institute and Towson University, said now that he knows the organ is so state of the art — and can record and play back music — he might be tempted to let the organ shine.

Or at least let some others, including his students, play some extra concerts.

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