Thursday, December 10, 2009

Organists as Musicians, Part II

Though it may seem like an artistic step backward, this notion of mass-producing pipe organs, I think the outcome would be the opposite.

In the 19th century, builders as diverse as E. & G. G. Hook and Cavaillé-Coll had catalogs that advertised "stock models." Model 1, Small Organ, X amount of stops, Y dollars. Model 2, Medium-Sized Organ, and so forth. And yet the quality was not lower than the organs of today but higher.

Why? There are many reasons, too numerous and complex to list here. However, a very significant reason is that they had the opportunity to build and rebuild and re-rebuild the same instrument. What if piano builders had to build a brand-new design for every single piano?! Think of how flawed these experimental pianos would be! Yet this is what pipe organ builders routinely do ... reinventing the wheel each time ... requiring formidable cost on the part of the consumer ... and the results are frankly variable.

If, instead, there were a stock-model organ, developed with the same type of trial and error that a Mason & Hamlin was developed, think of the instrument that would result! Movable organs, not tied to any church or building! Predictable tone colors that composers would know how to approach! Soon enough, there would be organ chamber ensembles, and composers providing repertoire for them! And did I mention that they would not be tied to the church?

If the highest quality tracker-action pipe organ costs $30,000-$40,000 per stop, it is inevitable that companies producing pipeless organs should be able to sway the public with instruments at a fraction of the cost. As the technology increases and these instruments sound "almost like pipe organs," the pipe organ companies are going to be in real doo-doo. As soon as someone figures out how to combine the Hauptwerk® set-up with those Bose® two-tower speakers, I doubt any church will buy a pipe organ. Why should they?

If, however, some pipe organ builder heeds my advice and starts building a 10-stop portable stock model organ, at a cost of say $100,000, and if fine composers started composing repertoire for it, I think this and only this would give the non-pipe companies a run for their money. If a concert hall can spend $100,000 on a 9-foot Steinway, they can just as easily do the same for this new type of pipe organ. It won't help for Saint-Saëns or Mahler, but it would be ideal for Bach, Handel, Haydn ... and all the wonderful chamber music and concertos yet to be written!