A Musical Time Machine

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The only instrument of its kind in North America, the full-sized Italian baroque organ at the Memorial Art Gallery is a musical time capsule. “This organ is like a living recording of the 18th century,” says David Higgs, chair of the organ department at the Eastman School of Music and one of the country’s leading concert organists.

Rescued in 1979 from an antique gallery in Florence, where it likely would have been sold as furniture, the restored organ was purchased by the Eastman School and installed at the gallery in 2005. A four-day interdisciplinary festival in October celebrated the 10th anniversary of its arrival with guest performers, lectures, and the first North American performance of a newly discovered mass by Italian baroque composer Domenico Zipoli.

NEW SEASON OF MONTHLY CONCERTS STARTS ON EASTMAN’S ITALIAN BAROQUE ORGAN

Thursday, Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m.Michael Unger, assistant professor of organ and harpsichord at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, kicks off the 2015-2016 season of Third Thursday Concerts with Eastman School of Music’s Italian Baroque Organ at the Memorial Art Gallery.Learn more about Third Thursday concert series

The organ is an ancient instrument whose “golden age” was the 17th and 18th centuries, when Italy was at the center of the musical world, says Honey Meconi, professor of musicology in the College Department of Music and an organizer of the festival. It’s part of a Humanities Project called “Performing History: The Italian Baroque Organ and Its Cultural Intersections,” a yearlong series of collaborative events exploring the organ, its repertoire, and its place in culture and society.

How Does It Work?

The wind bellows operator or calcant (1) depresses the pedals with his feet, forcing a column of compressed air through the wind trunk (2) to the wind chest (3), an airtight wooden box below the pipes in the organ case. Each row of pipes (4), or rank, representing a particular tone quality, is controlled by a stop knob (5). When the organist pulls the knob, a mechanical link moves a wooden slat or slider (6) beneath the pipes. Holes in the slider are lined up with the pipes, allowing them to be played. The organist presses a key (7) and a wooden panel or pallet (8) opens, allowing the pressurized air in the wind chest to flow into the key channel (9). Now the rank of pipes connected to that channel will sound or speak.

PLAY THE ORGAN

PLAY THE ORGAN: Listen to organist Brian Schoettler play middle C through each of the organ’s stops by “pulling” out a stop on the right, then playing the middle C note. Finish your online performance with a major chord by pulling out the principale stops then playing any one of the C, E, or G notes on the keyboard.  

Fountain Court

Now home to the organ, this room–designed in 1926–has architectural proportions similar to those of a small Italian Renaissance church, says Higgs, which adds to the preservation of authentic 18th-century sound. The organ is surrounded by more than 30 major baroque paintings and sculptures from the gallery’s permanent collection.

Bellows

An organ’s bellows are “the lungs of the instrument,” says Higgs. These bellows, located in a small room adjacent to the Fountain Court, probably predate the 18th century. They provide air through the wind trunk to the wind chest, which supplies the air to sound the pipes. An electric blower is used to operate the bellows for rehearsals, but for most public performances—which occur regularly, including every Sunday—a person, called a calcant, operates the bellows by foot. “It gives more liveliness to the sound,” Higgs says.

Console

The keyboard, pedals, and stop knobs—which open and close various sets of pipes—form the console. The combination of stops, pipes, keys, and pedals allow the organ to produce a wide range of sounds. “It’s like an orchestra in one instrument,” says Meconi. Performers’ fingers from over the centuries have worn indentations into the organ’s keys that manifest the tight connection between the player and the organ. “The instrument tells you what you have to do,” says Bellotti, likening it to a living thing.

Pipes

The organ has almost 600 pipes made of tin and lead alloy and wood, which range from the size of a pencil to more than six feet in height. Some of the pipes, like the wind chest, date from circa 1670. “Impurity in the metal pipes is one ofthe secrets” of each pre-modern organ’s unique sound, says Edoardo Bellotti, associate professor of organ, harpsichord, and improvisation.

Hand Crafted

The lavishly decorated, wooden organ case features carved ornamentation, classically inspired painted vases, and an elaborate gilded crown ornament depicting Saint Andrew, perhaps a reference to the patron saint of the unknown church or chapel where the organ was first located. The case probably dates from between 1730 and 1770, when the original instrument—from around 1670—was enlarged and reinstalled in the new case, likely built to match the ornamentation of its surroundings.

10 Years Ago

After being fully restored in Germany, it was installed in the Gallery’s Fountain Court in the fall of 2005, making Rochester the only place in North America to hear authentic performances of 18th-century organ music written for a large Italian instrument. In addition to enhancing organ study at the Eastman School, the organ benefits the singers and instrumentalists who perform with the instrument, visiting scholars, practitioners of organ restoration, and visitors to the Memorial Art Gallery.

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