Three Concerts

The story behind the Battell Chapel organ
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Photo by Katie Crandall.

Nov. 11, 1951

On an unseasonably warm evening in the late fall, Battell Chapel filled with people waiting to hear the new Holtkamp organ. Its inaugural concert promised perennial favorites: a meditative chorale by Bach, some lively church sonatas by Mozart, an eerie melody by Couperin. As Yale’s organist, Luther Noss, struck the first chord, the notes originated from nowhere and everywhere, rolled down the nave and rose to the coffered ceiling.

The organ was, in a word, magnificent. From where Walter Holtkamp sat in the pews, its pipes, arrayed in the chapel’s apse and north transept, looked like small silver skyscrapers that glinted in the soft light. They were organized by length— larger, then smaller, then larger again. In theory, organs are simple: a collection of cylinders through which air is pushed to make sound. But you need hundreds of them to play all the notes in written music; in Battell, that’s 3,691 pipes on an organ weighing more than four and half tons. From the same instrument spring the shrill birdlike whistle of the half-inch metal pipe and the throaty muted harmonies of the 9-foot wooden ones. Noss was playing the final movement of Couperin’s “Organ Mass.” The notes, low and plaintive, spilled one into the next like an ocean whose waves overlap as they hit the shore. There was a crescendo into a higher register, and the melody resonated across the chapel, blanketing the space.

A few blocks away, across the street and past Cross Campus, another organ sat in the basement of Woolsey Hall. Built in 1928, the Newberry Memorial Organ was once believed to be the best organ in the world, with 12,617 pipes crafted from knot-free sugar pine and tin-and-lead alloy. But this evening, no one was there; dust gathered on its keys. In the past decade or so, it had all but been forgotten.

Sept. 2, 2012

One organ is built as another recedes from view. So it was with the Holtkamp organ, commissioned when the great Newberry fell out of favor.

By 1939, musicians no longer sought the Newberry’s lush romantic tones or its aesthetic grandeur. They yearned for the neobaroque, for the brighter and simpler instruments of Bach and his contemporaries. There was even talk of remodeling the Woolsey organ, though there were never enough funds to follow through. It was the perfect time for Holtkamp, a relatively obscure designer, to take center stage. His ideas were novel: let the pipes stand free and in the open, he said, and let us celebrate asymmetry in organ design. Above all, his motto: “Let nothing impede the music.”

For a time, the Holtkamp model enjoyed the same popularity the Newberry once had. In 1985, when a Harvard musicologist uncovered 33 previously unknown Bach chorales in Yale’s libraries, it was Battell and not Woolsey that was selected to host the premiere. But the Holtkamp’s fame was short- lived. Now the instrument sits mostly alone at the top of a rickety staircase, untouched except by the occasional Sunday visitor. Woolsey is back in favor, and newer instruments in Dwight Chapel and the Divinity School are considered more authentically baroque. Such is the way of things with organs.

On one recent Sunday morning, about 20 people straggled into Battell Chapel for morning service. The organ looked the same as it had 60 years ago, though it had changed too, almost imperceptibly. By late 1983, leaks from the roof had damaged the leather membranes that opened the valves beneath the pipes. The organ was taken apart, scrubbed, refitted, refinished. Now Andrew Schaeffer, the Battell University Church organist, was playing a solemn prelude as the churchgoers found their seats and greeted one another. The piece was multilayered, as though a whole symphony orchestra were hidden beneath the grey labyrinth of pipes: the elegiac bassoon, the ethereal flute, the rumbling horn.

There was, simultaneously, a party beginning on Old Campus, blasting dance music that sometimes overpowered the organ. When it was time for the congregation to sing, the pastor requested that everyone turn inward and project their voices as far as they could. The organ accompanied them, but the music felt strained, as though fighting for dominance with Ke$ha and Taylor Swift was too much for the instrument to bear. When the hymn ended, the thump- thump, thump-thump of the party remained.

Nov. 11, 2051

Ask a Holtkamp loyalist, and he’ll tell you to be patient. In a few decades, musicians and historians will once again flock to the chapel, just as they did to Woolsey and just as they will to the countless other organs that have been worshipped and then forgotten.

This is the strong belief of Joseph Dzeda, one of two organ curators who visit the instrument regularly, checking that it is in tune and that all the pipes are in working order. Dzeda is one of a curious and dying breed, the type of man who revels in old history books, collects antique grandfather clocks and doesn’t like to throw things away. He refuses to acknowledge the cruel paradox of history: that it preserves some things and discards others. Things always come back, he says.

And so they shall. I would like to believe that the Holtkamp organ will once again draw a crowd large enough to fill the chapel. The day will be warm and clear, the sky a brilliant blue and the sun an exuberant gold. People will crowd into the pews. As light streams through the stained glass, the University organist might warm up by playing the notes of a scale — ascending, descending, then ascending again. Then he will begin for real, music swelling through the chapel before a chorus of voices joins in, singing a hymn from that Sunday service in 2012: “Behold, behold, I make all things new, beginning with you and starting from today.”

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