A French Masterpiece in Finney Chapel



"Un Morgue á la Micheal-ange" (a Michelangelo of an organ). That's what Charles-Marie Widor, the great French organist, composer, and teacher called the magnificent 1890 organ of the church of St. Ouen in Rouen, France.

One wonders which artist M. Widor would invoke to praise Oberlin College's new Kay Africa Memorial Organ, inaugurated over the weekend of September 28-30, 2001. It has, you might say, the logic and ingenuity of Leonardo da Vinci and the voluptuousness of Peter Paul Rubens. By any standards, it's a masterpiece and one of the most important organs built anywhere in at least a generation.

If not quite a clone of St. Ouen, Finney Chapel's new instrument is a composite of organs built during the 1880s by the great French artisan Aristide Cavaille-Coll. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, Cavaille-Coll's revolutionary instruments inspired a rich "school" of French organ music, beginning with Cesar Franck and including M.Widor, Alexandre Guilmant, Camille Saint-Saens, Charles Tournemire, Louis Vierne, Marcel Dupre, Jehan Alain, Olivier Messiaen, and Maurice Durufle. Even present-day organist/composers as eclectic and controversial as Jean Guillou and Naji Hakim clearly grow out of this tradition.

Conrad The Gloucester, Massachusetts, firm of C.B. Fisk, widely considered the most distinguished American organ-building organization of the last quarter century, built the new organ. With Finney Chapel packed to the doors, it was put through its inaugural paces in a pair of concerts featuring Oberlin organ professors Haskell Thomson and David Boe with music written for organs of this type. Paul Polivnick and the Oberlin Orchestra joined in the September 28 concert, in which Boe was the soloist in Oberlin alumnus Robert Sirota's '71 "In the Fullness of Time" (2000) and Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony. Thomson took the spotlight in Joseph Jongen's Symphonie concertante. The instrument was heard by itself on September 29, with Boe playing music of Franck, Vierne, and Ermend Bonnal, and Thomson opting for Louis Lefebure-Wely, Franck, Widor, Durufle, and Messiaen. On September 30 other organists, including quite a pleiade of Oberlin alumni, were invited to sign up for individual times to play the instrument.

German composers have rarely specified registrations in their music, but since the 17th-century French composers have told interpreters pretty precisely what stops to draw and when to change them. From Franck onward, the sounds they've had in their heads have been predominantly those of Cavaille-Coll. Sure enough, the Cavaille-Coll sonorities are recreated in Finney Chapel in all their sumptuous colors: the plush fonds d'orgue purring like a huge cat, the "crash" of the reeds, the penetrating intensity of the flutes harmoniques, the tang of the cornet, the thunder of the 32-foot pedal Contre Bombarde. These are sounds you'll hear approximated only here and there, in isolation, outside of France. But they
animate the "symphonic" organ music of France in a compelling, visceral way. There's a sense of rightness, of inevitability, that can't be duplicated on a more "eclectic" instrument. And they're unashamedly gorgeous.

Conrad "I'm just so pleased that it has turned out so well as it has. The flue stops particularly come together," Thomson says. "I have to admit that my favorite stop is the flute harmonique it's a wonderful example of that very important stop. A French romantic organ more or less stands or falls on the way this stop interacts with the other 8-foot flues the montre, the gamba, and the bourdon as it gives power to the upper register, richness throughout the compass, and makes way for the gamba to give point to the low register. In this way it contributes greatly to the blending of sonorities that results in a beautiful symphonic sound."

Acoustics can make or break an organ, and Oberlin wisely put money into improving the position and sonic environment for the new Fisk instrument. The magnificent new case, expanding upon woodwork from Finney Chapel architect Cass Gilbert's original design, now projects just in front of the proscenium. The stage has been extended out into the room, with new sound-projecting panels angled at the sides.

At the direction of acoustical consultant Dana Kirkegaard, bass frequencies, in particular, are now reinforced by a new 12-inch-thick masonry wall directly behind the organ and one-inch-thick glass coverings on windows in the apse and first bay of the auditorium. Sound absorptive panels have been removed from the back bays of the ceiling, and the front three bays have been covered with convex panels of a hard, sonically reflective material. New finned deflectors on the back wall of the main floor break up echoes that long plagued performers. Although a full audience still deadens and dulls the sound noticeably, everyone who knew Finney Chapel before the changes was thrilled at the richer, fuller, more "present" sound heard at the inaugural festivities.

"Dana Kirkegaard did a wonderful job of enhancing the bass and increasing the reverberation to at least what would be desirable in a concert hall," Boe says. "Even the sound of the orchestra was considerably improved by these changes."

Conrad With its relatively low and busily beamed ceiling, Finney Chapel will never have the long "roll" of reverberation all but inseparable from the sounds of the great Cavaille-Coll organs in Paris, Lyon, Caen, Toulouse, and Rouen. Kirkegaard thinks the effect could still be improved by further reinforcement of the ceiling and windows without overly muddying the sound of piano or orchestra. But that would cost more money and require air-conditioning the chapel.

"There's this incredible fear among orchestral musicians that reverberation is going to make things too muddy," Kirkegaard says. "The problem is more likely to be echo structure, but if you have echoes well diffused you can tolerate a lot of reverberation.
"I had alumni coming up to me on the street after the dedication saying, 'I can't believe how much better it is for the orchestra.' The biggest difference people have noticed has been in the strength and attack of the cellos and double basses. And there's now a glowing quality to the winds that wasn't there before."

Even if Finney Chapel doesn't supply the French cathedral acoustics of an organist's dream, the new Kay Africa Memorial Organ fills the room with gorgeous sounds. And it gives students telling insights into a large and popular chunk of organ repertory.

"The literature with which you associate this period of organbuilding just works out so naturally and so wonderfully," Boe says, "and we're certainly finding that to be pleasant. It's an organ that in its mechanics is very natural and approachable from the first time you sit down to play."

Scott Cantrell, classical music critic of The Dallas Morning News, traveled to Oberlin for Opus 116's dedication and writes about the instrument for the January 2002 issue of Choir and Organ. Active as an organist for 20 years, he has written extensively about the organ, its music, and performers for a variety of publications.