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Powerful set of pipes (Louisville, KY article on historic organs)

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  • Powerful set of pipes (Louisville, KY article on historic organs)

    Pulling out the stops
    Powerful set of pipes
    The thundering of church organs is a beloved Easter tradition
    By Chris Poynter
    [email protected]
    The Courier-Journal

    The thundering of church organs is a beloved Easter tradition, and area organists look forward to pulling out all the stops (literally) and giving 'the king of instruments' a joyful workout for the occasion

    When Tim Baker slides onto the organ bench at Harvey Browne Memorial Presbyterian Church next Sunday, he'll give the congregation an Easter to remember.

    With 2,600 pipes at his fingertips, he'll perform "Toccata in F Major," a postlude so grand and so loud that people may half expect the heavens themselves to part.

    "I consider Easter to be the most festive of all Sundays of the year," Baker said. "And the music should be glorious and praising and thankful and joyful."

    At St. Boniface Catholic Church in downtown Louisville, organist Bill Lincoln's improvisation on an Easter hymn will reverberate throughout the sanctuary's vaulted ceiling, perhaps rattling a stained-glass window or two.

    "It's the one time of the year that you don't hear any complaints from the parishioners that the organ is too loud," Lincoln said.

    And at West Chestnut Baptist Church in western Louisville, organist Rosalyn Scott will stir her congregation with a medley of traditional hymns, including "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

    "I love the old hymns," she said.

    Pipe organs are called "the king of instruments" for a reason -- they have the flexibility to imitate an orchestra full of musicians, and the power to blast them all into the Ohio. On Easter Sunday they get a workout, as organists traditionally pull out all the stops, bringing the instruments to their full power.

    Although some newer churches don't have one -- opting instead for bands or pianos -- the pipe organ remains the musical standard for most Catholic and Protestant congregations, said Jim Miller of Miller Pipe Organ.

    "A lot of churches are into praise-band-type music," said Miller, whose company builds and tunes organs in Kentucky and nine states. "The Catholics kind of went that way with what some refer to as 'hum and strum,' but they are coming back now.

    "It's kind of a cyclical thing."

    Invented in Egypt
    The pipe organ was invented around 200 B.C. in Egypt by a Greek engineer named Ktesibious. The organ used a water pump to create air pressure that blew through a series of pipes.

    The Romans later used the pipe organ in their amphitheaters for circuses and gladiator contests.

    The earliest organs had keys 6 inches wide and were played with fists, which lead to organists being termed "organ beaters," Miller said.

    It wasn't until about 1100 A.D. that the organ was refined into the instrument common today -- and European churches began using them in their services.

    For Baker, no instrument compares to the pipe organ, which he has been playing for 36 years, 19 of them at Harvey Browne in St. Matthews.

    His first church gig was at age 13 at St. James Episcopal in Shelbyville. Baker is now considered one of Louisville's best organists, who can play complicated toccatas and fast-moving fugues from memory.

    "I knew I wanted to play pipe organs when I was 5," he said. "I would come home from church services and pick out the hymn on the piano."

    He took piano lessons from age 6 to 12, then began studying organ under Margaret Dickinson at the University of Louisville.

    At Harvey Browne, he plays an organ built in 1966 in Lawrence, Kan. "It's beautifully suited for this room," Baker said, sitting at the console recently. "It will go from just a purr to quite a great shout."

    How organs rank
    Organs are measured by ranks -- the more ranks, the bigger the organ -- with each rank containing roughly 61 pipes. Harvey Browne, with 43 ranks, has one of the city's larger organs (the largest is at Alumni Hall at Southern Baptist Seminary, with 113 ranks.)

    At St. Boniface, the organ is also 43 ranks. Located at the back of the church in the choir loft. it dates from 1890, though it since has been rebuilt and enlarged.

    Lincoln -- who also has played organ since childhood -- has been at St. Boniface for 37 years.

    "I came to be a substitute here in 1968 for, of all things, patriotic holidays," he said. "The pastor at the time loved the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' and 'America the Beautiful.' "

    On Easter Sunday (and for Easter Vigil the previous night), the organ at St. Boniface plays a unique role. During the service, Lincoln will hit an extremely low, deep note -- and hold it. Then, he will slowly build the organ to its full power.

    Meanwhile, a statue of Jesus "rises" in the altar at the front of the church, via hand-cranked elevator. It's a moment the parish anticipates every year, Lincoln said.

    "This has been done now for 106 years," Lincoln said. "It's described in our parish history as 'religious realism much beloved by the people.' "

    At West Chestnut Street Baptist, the 1926 organ won't be quite as dramatic because it's only five ranks. However, Scott plans to treat the congregation to much-beloved hymns -- with chimes thrown in for effect.

    Scott began playing piano at age 4 in Florence, S.C. "When I turned 12, my mother decided to buy an organ, and I started playing then," she said.

    Scott will use the organ for Easter sunrise service and the later morning service.

    "I love the music it makes," she said.