Cavaillé-Coll, builder of organs for the great churches of
Europe, was an ingenious innovator grounded in tradition. The sound
of the late-19th-century master craftsman's majestic instruments
and his ability to balance respect for the past and technological
trailblazing are coming to life in Finney Memorial Chapel.
Voicers from C.B. Fisk have worked through the winter and spring to
ready the Conservatory's new 3,951-pipe Cavaillé-Coll-inspired
symphonic organ for a September debut.
is building to a crescendo.
Professor of Organ Haskell Thomson, who directs Oberlin's keyboard
studies division, is absolutely smitten with the new organ
the Opus 116. He is excited personally, of course, because he'll
be able to play the great literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries
he so loves. He also is excited for a larger and, he allows,
more important reason: Conservatory students will get a chance
to learn and play that great music in its original form.
"It is very specifically a romantic organ in symphonic style
and very specifically based on Cavaillé-Coll's work,"
he says. "It is absolutely awesome that something of this quality
is being recreated here."
The son and grandson of organ builders, Cavaillé-Coll was a
trendsetter who never let enthusiasm for the new overwhelm his classically
honed standards of tonal excellence. Oberlin's Opus 116 in turn
balances emulation of the romantic-era builder's instruments
with a judicious concern for the demands of 20th-century composition.
A close examination of the organ shows 19th-century techniques and
20th-century technology in intimate association.
Cavaillé-Coll's influence is evident in the layout of
the pipe chests, employing a double chest design that allows a musician
using devices called ventil pedals to deny wind to a
portion of a chest until it is needed. Pressing the ventil pedal,
then, has the same effect as a conductor pointing to the brasses,
or, on the organ, calling into play the reed stops. Rich and brilliant
sonorities can be built in this way.
The ventil pedal option exists in French Mode, says Thomson. But the
organ also features an updated American Mode, a thoroughly high-tech
mechanism that allows a player to add and subtract stops in any configuration
desired using computer technology. Tucked in the face of the console
are the lighted red numbers of a digital display part of the
computerized system for shifting among stop combinations.
The German firm Laukuff cast each of the new organ's towering,
glowing front pipes with about 70 percent tin. Most of the interior
pipes, made by Fisk, are cast of 95 percent tin. David C. Pike, Fisk's
executive vice president and tonal director, says this is "the
closest Fisk has come to replicating Cavaillé-Coll's characteristic
97 percent tin pipes."
"It's the sound of Cavaillé-Coll's organs that
we're really trying to recreate," he says. "And we're
trying to create an instrument that will give students a chance to
experience what it might have been like 120 years ago to play one
of his instruments in France."
The instruments in question were inseparably intertwined with romantic
composition. Franck, Saint-Saëns, Widor, and Vierne wrote for
Cavaillé-Coll's powerful and versatile organs. In turn,
says Thomson, Cavaillé-Coll sought to build instruments that
provided the means for creating music with a wide dynamic range, from
the most ethereal pianissimo to a thundering fortissimo. Swell shades
made dynamic nuances possible, and the symphonic orchestra inspired
sonorities, but Cavaillé-Coll achieved these effects with techniques
derived from his adherence to the long tradition of European organ
In Paris, Cavaillé-Coll built organs at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame,
Saint Sulpice, and Saint Denis, among many others. Unfortunately,
as Paris fashion changed, some, although not all, of his creations
were rebuilt sometimes beyond recognition. The organ at Saint
Sulpice is one that remains intact. Also, in out-of-the-way places
at Caen, Rouen, and Toulouse some instruments survive
Haskell Thomson went to France in spring 1980 to study Cavaillé-Coll
organs that were in original condition. A McCandless grant funded
the journey, which assisted Thomson's creation of a course in
romantic and contemporary organ literature that focuses on the music
of the Cavaillé-Coll tradition, on Cavaillé-Coll's
influence on the musicians of the time and on future organ building.
This Conservatory course has been offered regularly since 1981.
Professor of Organ David Boe has twice taken contingents of Oberlin
organ students to France so that they might study and play from this
great tradition. The builders at C.B. Fisk have also scrutinized Cavaillé-Coll's
instruments, examining their pipes and photographing their internal
Fisk's designers had incorporated their insights in eclectic
instruments, combining French romantic elements with components reflecting
other eras. But Oberlin's Opus 116 has given the company its
first chance "to unabashedly make an organ in the French symphonic
style," says Fisk's president, Steven Dieck.
The organ world's appreciation for Cavaillé-Coll has been heightened
by the scholarly work of Fenner Douglass, a pioneer in the historical
performance movement who graduated from Oberlin in 1942 and taught
in the Conservatory from 1946 to 1974. Douglass' two-volume work,
Cavaillé-Coll and the Musicians, is an extremely valuable
resource for information on contracts the organ builder had made with
churches during his lifetime, and for details on his interaction with
the great musicians of the time. Douglass, in fact, was an original
architect of Oberlin's collection of period instruments.
A Touch of the 20th Century
In a manner that Cavaillé-Coll himself surely would have endorsed,
Opus 116's builders have judiciously applied 20th-century technology
in creating their hand-built instrument. AutoCAD (computer-assisted
design) mapped the organ's dimensions. The builders brought their
computer and their AutoCAD files with them to Finney to help guide
the assembly of each of the instrument's miniature-to-massive
pipes. (The smallest is smaller than a child's finger. The largest
measures 32 feet.)
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