Pipe Organs: Part 2

Pipe organs put past and future at our fingertips.

When the Exhibition Building in Melbourne opened to host the 1880 World’s Fair, over a million people passed through the doors and under its cathedral-inspired dome. Thirty-three countries with 32,000 exhibits filled what was then Australia’s largest building. Exhibits included ironwork from Germany, agricultural machinery from the United States, and our own eucalyptus oil.

Despite the competition for visitors’ attention, one thing everybody would have seen and heard was the grand pipe organ. Designed for the Great Hall, it was the inspired work of master organ builder, George Fincham. Nearly 15 metres high, just over 18 metres wide, and with 4,726 pipes, it occupied the entire western gallery.

Pipe Organs TN4

So, where is it now? Sadly, what was once hailed as the ‘king of instruments,’ and the magnum opus of one of our greatest organ builders, no longer exists.

Steven Kaesler is Secretary of the Organ Historical Trust of Australia, a life member of the Adelaide Organ Music Society, and a recipient of an Order of Australia Medal for service to community music. He says there have been a number of wonderful instruments lost over the years.

“The grandfather of them all was in the Exhibition Building in Melbourne. It was one of the more remarkable instruments of its type, the biggest ever to be built in Australia. It sustained damage over a number of generations through neglect and now there’s not a single part of the instrument in the building. It’s totally gone.”

Mr Kaesler and other members of the Organ Historical Trust of Australia are working to preserve Australia’s rich organ heritage and “to assure there’s a capacity for people to appreciate these instruments in the years to come, through education, advice and encouragement.”

The Trust also arranges consultants for organ restorations. Mr Kaesler himself was project coordinator for the complex restoration of the 1877 Hill & Son Grand Organ—a 20-year project that relocated the instrument from Adelaide Town Hall to Barossa Regional Gallery, at a cost of $1.2 million.

“Most organs can be used for all types of music,” he says, “from Bach to the Beatles and beyond. They can replicate the sounds of an orchestra. They have nuances that can’t be reproduced by electronics. They can also lead large singing groups. No other instrument is as versatile,” he says.

Nothing changes quickly in this world. Organs are still built the way they were hundreds of years ago. “They’re all handmade,” according to Mr Kaesler, “from the case to the pipes, to the action. All parts start out as raw materials such as timber, lead and tin. Even the pipes are handmade. There’s no automation with any of that.”

That may be why he says, “They’re all excitingly different, just like people. None of them are the same for the listener. None of them are the same for the player. Sometimes you can trace the accents to particular styles that emanated from particular countries. We talk about organs in terms of Germanic style, French style, American style, or even nowadays, the Australian style.”

There’s a good chance there’s an organ near you. Mr Kaesler says, “Each capital city has literally hundreds and hundreds of organs hidden away in pockets and places only the imagination could fathom.

“Regular servicing and regular tuning will keep the instrument in tiptop shape for a very long time, and also have it sounding its best. Like a car needs to be tuned so, too, does an organ.” But not by just anyone. “It needs to be maintained by a professional organ builder to get the best results. It’s not something for the amateur to fiddle with,” he says, “otherwise the damage will occur in exponential form.”

According to Mr Kaesler, a properly maintained organ is as cheap as an electronic organ over its life span. That’s because pipe organs will last longer than most of the buildings they’re in—around two to three hundred years—whereas electronic organs need replacing every 20 years or so, “because they just clunk out and can’t be repaired.”

Prices vary but you could buy a redundant organ for between $10,000 and $20,000. Though you’ll need to factor in installation costs, which could be double that. “If you were to build a new organ, you would have to times that by about 10,” says Mr Kaesler. “But there’s still value in that, if you look at the overall long term.”

“You want to make sure you have a proper evaluation to assure it’s covered for what it’s worth. You wouldn’t insure it for its purchase value because that is much less than its replacement value. If you were to replace an organ it could be 10 to 20 times its purchase value.”

Given the remarkable longevity of these instruments, Mr Kaesler hopes those responsible for them will create a long-term care policy. “In many ways, because the instrument will outlast us, we’re just stewards of the instrument while we’re here on earth. Make sure you have a plan, not only for you, but for the people who’ll come after you,” he says. “Someone else will be the steward after you.”

You can contact the Organ Historical Trust of Australia for information and maintenance advice, or to find consultants for restorations and new organ projects.

Steven Kaesler is Secretary of the Organ Historical Trust of Australia, a life member of the Adelaide Organ Music Society, and a recipient of an Order of Australia Medal for service to community music.

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