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A Cathedral of Commerce's Crowning Glory

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  • A Cathedral of Commerce's Crowning Glory

    Wall Street Journal article by Barrymore Laurence Scherer

    If you were asked to name the location of the world's largest pipe organ, dollars to diapasons your logical answer would be a great cathedral -- London's St. Paul's, perhaps, or Nôtre Dame de Paris -- or possibly even the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. But think again. The world's largest playable pipe organ isn't in a church at all. It's in a Philadelphia department store.


    Wanamaker Grand Court Organ

    The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ is the crowning glory of the "cathedral of commerce" that the early-20th-century American architect Daniel Burnham designed for the Philadelphia merchant prince John Wanamaker. Though the Wanamaker trademark is only a memory now -- the flagship store was successfully converted into a Macy's in 2006 -- the new owners have shown conspicuous sympathy for the building's palatial interior architecture and most notably for the Grand Court Organ.

    Apart from its immensity -- its 28,482 pipes are played from a magnificent six-manual console with 729 color-coded stop tablets, 168 piston buttons and 42 foot controls -- the Wanamaker organ enjoys status as a National Historic Landmark in its own right, and is admired internationally as the finest "Romantic symphonic organ" of its kind. The term Romantic refers to its capacity to play with the kind of color and broad tonal expression identified with the organ works of such Romantic and late-Romantic composers as Mendelssohn, Liszt, Franck and Marcel Dupré. "Symphonic" refers to its Orchestral Division: 38 ranks of pipes designed to represent the tone colors of an orchestra's woodwind and brass sections. These are complemented by a huge 7,000-pipe "String" section, whose rich and vibrant tone is regarded as the Wanamaker organ's greatest glory.

    After a period of relative neglect under a series of corporate owners, the organ has flourished again under Macy's aegis. In 2007 Macy's oversaw the opening of a workshop to restore this extraordinary instrument. And as part of Macy's continuing 150th anniversary celebrations, the Grand Court Organ -- playable in its entirety for the first time in 27 years -- held pride of place in a jubilee concert. Held on Sept. 27 and sponsored in part by the nonprofit Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, the concert also marked the first time the Philadelphia Orchestra played in the Grand Court since 1926.

    The program, led with distinction by the orchestra's associate conductor, Rossen Milanov, was appropriately festive, opening with Bach's familiar Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, in Leopold Stokowski's transcription for organ and orchestra. Stokowski, an organist himself, had put the Philadelphia Orchestra on the national map during his tenure as its music director, and he conducted the orchestra in its first Grand Court concerts with the organ.

    This night, apart from letting us revel in the sheer power of the instrument during the introduction to the Bach, soloist Peter Richard Conte, the Grand Court Organist since 1989, revealed the range of the instrument's colors in two works by composers who had strong ties with the organ and with the Wanamaker musical tradition. Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) originally wrote his dignified and melodius "Cortège et Litanie" as incidental music to a Parisian drama, before arranging and expanding it for organ and orchestra at the behest of Wanamaker's music director, who produced the first performance at the auditorium of Wanamaker's New York store in 1925.

    The program's major work, "Symphonie Concertante" by Joseph Jongen (1873-1953), was actually commissioned for the Grand Court organ in 1926. But because of the death of the organ's primary patron, Rodman Wanamaker, and other events, this concert represented the first time this widely performed work was played on its intended instrument. Opulently atmospheric in the French late-Romantic manner, the multimovement score gave Mr. Conte the opportunity to exercise not just the organ's immense variety of quiet, subtle colorations and seductive washes of sound, but also to display his own conspicuous gifts as a virtuoso, from the intricate fugue in the first movement through the incandescent finale.

    The next day I was treated to a tour of the organ by its curator, L. Curt Mangel III, who explained that the instrument was originally exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, where Rodman Wanamaker first heard it. When the store's Grand Court was under construction in 1909, Wanamaker had the instrument shipped to Philadelphia from St. Louis on a special train of 11 box cars, each emblazoned with signage advertising the musical cargo and its destination.

    The new department store and its organ were dedicated on Dec. 30, 1911, in a ceremony led by President William Howard Taft. Despite its size, the tone of the 10,000 original pipes was deemed inadequate for the immense court, so Wanamaker established a private organ factory in the store's attic, and between 1911 and 1930 roughly 18,000 additional pipes were added to the instrument, bringing it to its present size.

    Clambering through the pipe chambers, which, from the Lower Swell to the Ethereal and double set of Major Chimes, occupy seven stories, is an extraordinary experience, especially when guided by a craftsman so profoundly in love with his instrument. "These are the happiest years of my life," Mr. Mangel exclaims, as we stand among the serried ranks of pipes in the newly restored orchestral division, with the deep rushing sound of the organ's massive air blowers in our ears. "To be able to maintain the continued well-being of this instrument is a source of joy," he says, "equaled only by the pleasure of working with such an organist as Peter, who never stops exploring the musical possibilities of all this metal and wood."

    I have heard and read comments to the effect that "it is a pity that such an organ is in a department store." But when you consider the number of fine organs in churches and concert halls that are rarely played to their full potential, if (in the case of concert-hall instruments) they are regularly played at all, not to mention the number of fine organs languishing in disrepair, the comments seem unjust. The Wanamaker organ may not always be listened to with the attention or musical understanding of the seasoned concert-goer. But certainly few organs are so beloved by so many.

    Indeed it is the public accessibility of the Grand Court Organ and the sheer eccentricity of its location that contribute to its greatness as a musical instrument and as a symbol of great music's power to move and delight people of all walks of life. Who knows how many young people have heard classical music for the first time on this instrument and been inspired to learn more about it? Who knows how many have heard this organ and later bought their first classical record, or visited the Academy of Music or Verizon Hall for the first time? Therefore, long may Mr. Conte preside over the majesty of the Wanamaker organ, and long may it continue to delight and inspire Philadelphians and visitors alike with the ineffable joy of music in the marketplace.

    Mr. Scherer writes about music and the arts for the Journal. His "A History of American Classical Music" (Sourcebooks) recently won ForeWord Magazine's Music Book of the Year Gold award.

    me: I've not seen or heard this organ yet, but someday I do hope to hear it in person....I don't quite know what to expect!

  • #2
    Re: A Cathedral of Commerce's Crowning Glory

    I've seen pictures and heard recordings of the Wanamaker organ, but see it personally, that I have not done, but it is something I plan to do eventually.


    • #3
      Re: A Cathedral of Commerce's Crowning Glory

      My first visit there was rather recently - I was quite honored to be able to tour the installation, which took an entire day (with pauses for lunch and two extraordinary concerts). The organ is in the best of hands, by curator Curt Mangeland performer Peter Richard Conte.

      The interior of the organ looks very fine indeed, and the latest restorative work is impressive. The interior of the console is a marvel!

      It takes a very special skill to be able to play such an unusual instrumentto the best of its capabilities. I imagine it would take years todiscover some of the finer details.


      • #4
        Re: A Cathedral of Commerce's Crowning Glory

        Aloha NYCF,

        Hey, what an excellent find for an article - Thanx for sharing.