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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.