All musical instruments are wonders. They thrill us in their function and are often admirable for their beauty as well. But there’s probably only one instrument that can also elicit a sense of grandeur: the pipe organ, one of the instruments with which J.S. Bach is most closely associated.
The pipe organ combines craft, science, and art – woodworking, metallurgy, pneumatics, architecture, mechanical engineering, acoustics and aesthetics, often on a grand scale. And it’s all in the service of music. Some of the pipe organs that were around in Bach’s time are still in service today, albeit with renovations. For Bach 360, our celebration of J.S. Bach’s music, we sat down with Juilliard organ department chairman Paul Jacobs to talk about the instrument.
Well, actually, he sat down at the console of the Johannes Klais organ in the sanctuary of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, in the ground floor of the Citicorp Building in Manhattan. The Klais organ is a mechanical-action instrument, also called a tracker-action organ. Trackers are the thin slats of wood that directly connect the keys played by the organist to the valves beneath each pipe that open when the keys are depressed. (You’ll see the trackers in this video, inside a door in the organ that’s normally kept closed.)
In this digital age, tracker-action organs are quite old-fashioned, but preferred by some organists. Trackers were state-of-the-art technology in Bach’s time, and remain a wonder even in ours. There are really only two differences between the mechanical-action pipe organs of Bach’s day and ours: The sound combinations chosen by the organist are now stored and can be controlled electronically, and today you no longer need two people to play a pipe organ.
Two? Of course – one person to play it, and the other to pump the bellows that filled the instrument with air. That job is now done by electricity, which means the whole experience inspires a lot less perspiration than it used to. But the pipe organ is just as grand, just as majestic, and just as wondrous as it was when Bach was on the bench.