A History of the Organs at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, 1900 to Present
Soon after the present church was completed in 1900 a three-manual pipe organ of 34 stops was built and installed by Hook & Hastings of Boston, Massachusetts. The organ was contained in an organ case situated on a shallow balcony that originally flanked the front of the church. In 1923 this instrument was nearly doubled in size by Casavant Frères of Ste. Hyacinthe, Quebec, as their Opus 1000, to the specifications of the organist Dr. Seth Bingham. The rebuilt organ was equipped with a large four-manual console and contained an amazingly wide array of “orchestral” color complete with a harp and celesta stop. Provision was also made for an Echo organ that was to be installed in the church tower, although the project was never completed. To accommodate the enlarged instrument, the existing organ case and façade were extended to include organ chambers at each end of the balcony at the front of the Sanctuary. These substantial alterations were designed by James Gamble Rogers, the architect of MAPC’s recently completed Church House next door. The organ, dedicated in memory of William Sloane, was featured in a series of Wednesday evening recitals given by prominent organists, including Harry Benjamin Jepson, Charles Henry Doersam, Lynwood Farnam, Walter C. Gale and Seth Bingham. This instrument served the church well, although by the late 1950s increasing problems with the organ’s mechanisms (some of which were over fifty years old) and emerging plans for altering the church’s Sanctuary made it clear that rebuilding the existing instrument would be unfeasible.
The New Casavant Organ, 1961
As part of an extensive Sanctuary renovation, an entirely new Casavant Frères organ was installed in 1961. The existing organ’s casework and side chambers were removed, the balcony’s pre-1923 extremities were restored, and a shallow centrally-located organ chamber was created by expanding into the choir room in the Phillips Building behind the Sanctuary. The pipes of the organ are arranged on three different levels – the highest being 45 feet from the Sanctuary floor – and concealed behind a screen. The instrument was designed by Casavant’s tonal director, Lawrence Phelps, in collaboration with prominent New York City organist Robert Baker and MAPC’s recently-appointed organist, George Markey. The dedication concert, which featured an orchestra of players from The Juilliard School and the Church’s Oratorio Choir (now the Saint Andrew Chorale), was held on March 4, 1962 with Dr. Markey at the console. Dr. Seth Bingham, who was then Organist Emeritus, conducted a recently composed anthem, Sing to the Lord a New Song (Op. 59, No. 1) for chorus, organ, brass and timpani. The organ, which cost $86,240, was given in memory of Mr. & Mrs. William Isaacs Walker by their daughter, Miriam Dwight Walker.
Writing in the MAPC Church News in February 1963, George Markey wrote about the recently completed instrument: “In contrast to the old organ, the tone is more direct and free and requires greater control … traditionally, the sound is new for this church – one which either takes some getting used to, or which engulfs the listener with its sense of liveliness and musicality. Tonally, it’s one of the most exciting organs in the country.” In the early 1960s, American organists and organ builders were in the throes of a Baroque organ revival. At that time many instruments were built to emulate purity and clarity of tone, eschewing the excesses of many romantic instruments that were common in the earlier part of the twentieth century. MAPC’s organ was among the first instruments in New York City to embody such directness in voicing, and was received with interest in the organ community. In Music magazine, the official journal of the American Guild of Organists, Herman Berlinski reviewed the dedicatory recital and discussed the bold, new instrument: “Its sound comes with absolute clarity and one has the feeling the pipes speak directly in front of the audience with no interference of acoustical materials whatsoever. The church itself has a low rate of reverberation, and this might be one reason why the sound of the organ seems at times to be rather brittle. Yet, if one were to consider each individual piperank, one could only admire the purity of the solo reeds, the brilliancy of the mixture voicing, and the particular charm of the chiffed flute.” While the organ does indeed favor brilliance, the organ’s overall design stands out among other instruments of the period as being unusually versatile for performing all types of repertoire, and it is particularly well suited for accompanying voices or instruments, possessing many soft and colorful flue and reed stops. Interest in the organ and the church’s choral program led to a series of public concerts, with the eventual creation of the Saint Andrew Music Society and Saint Andrew Chorale in 1965.
Although M. P. Möller Inc. was engaged to replace three of the Swell reed stops in 1968, few substantive changes were made to the sound of the organ until the Fund for Renewal campaign raised funds for an extensive Sanctuary renovation between 1998 and 2000. During this time the acoustics of the Sanctuary were greatly improved, with carpeting, a raked floor, and porous surfaces being replaced with marble and other materials that reflect, rather than absorb, sound. These acoustical changes had a remarkably positive effect on the organ’s sound, increasing the instrument’s overall cohesiveness and allowing sounds to “bloom” in the livelier space. At this time various alterations to the organ were made by the Schantz Organ Company of Orville, Ohio, including a new, moveable console (complete with an elevator lift in the center of the chancel); the addition of three digital (electronic) stops by Walker Technical Co. of Zionsville, PA; MIDI/playback capability; and three new ranks of pipes that were mounted in front of the oak screen.
The 2011 Organ Restoration Project
MAPC’s organ has actually been subject to two prior mechanical restoration projects. The organ’s original leather components (necessary in keeping the electro-pneumatic action airtight) began to fail by 1972, partly due to the organ blower’s location next to the building’s steam plant, but also due to the elevated urban pollutants that hastened the demise of many organ mechanisms in New York City during the 1960s and 70s. At this time the organ blower was relocated to a space on the third floor of the Phillips Building. The releathering was undertaken by the Ronald C. Bishop firm of Westfield, NJ, and a new synthetic substance, perflex, was used. When this substance began to fail within only a few years of use, the Bishop firm releathered the organ in 1977 with traditional sheepskin leather at no cost to the church.
By the fall of 2010, it was evident that the instrument was on the verge of mechanical failure. The organ’s leather “pouches” were over thirty years old and had come to the end of their useful life. For a number of years, mechanical problems had been repaired where possible and, for the most part, those problems were only noticed by organists who played the instrument, requiring judicious use of stops that had “dead” notes or were in danger of ciphering (continuing to sound after the organist releases the note)! In addition, the organ’s 700 reed pipes were in need of refurbishment, and all of the pipes and surfaces in the organ chamber were in need of cleaning. Although parts of the instrument were removed or protected during the Fund for Renewal renovations, plaster and other dust made their way into the organ. Compounded with typical urban pollutants, the organ had become very dirty, exacerbating mechanical and tuning problems. A video to describe the problems was created and is available on YouTube, with Andrew Henderson providing a tour of the organ chamber.
An Organ Task Force was formed in January 2011, formal bids were soon received, and the church’s Session approved signing a contract with Casavant Frères to undertake an extensive restoration project in April 2011. From the end of June until mid-October, scaffolding was erected in the chancel and three sections of the organ screen were removed to allow greater access to the organ chamber. All mechanisms in need of releathering were removed and sent to the Casavant factory in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, where new sheepskin leather pouches replaced the aging materials. All 700 reed pipes in the organ were also sent to the reed voicers’ shop in Quebec in order that tuning scrolls could be repaired, new reed tongues installed, and the pipes were thoroughly revoiced. All of the remaining pipes in the organ were carefully lowered to the Sanctuary floor where they were cleaned and then replaced, with all of the wood and hard plaster surfaces in the organ chamber being cleaned during the process. See our photo gallery, outlining the work that took place during the summer of 2011.
As a part of this restoration project, two new stops were installed in the organ. A new Clarinette stop was built to replace a less useful reed stop on the Choir division (the pipes of this original stop, the Chalumeau à Cheminée, have been carefully packed and stored on the premises), and a new Cymbelstern of tiny bells, or Clochettes, has been installed in the Choir division expression chamber. For nearly three weeks, two specialty pipe voicers from Casavant Frères completed a thorough tuning of the 4,200 pipes in the organ. Many ranks of pipes were given extra attention: many ranks of diapason pipes were revoiced to reduce excessive initial “chiff” and promote evenness in their speech. Numerous ranks pipes were revoiced in consultation with the Director of Music in order to make useful changes of volume or character. The entire project was overseen by the local Casavant representative, Donald DuLaney, and Simon Couture, Vice-President at Casavant Frères.
In order to create a permanent fund to assist in needed future restoration or maintenance work, an Organ Fund has been created from the proceeds of our 2011 fundraising efforts. Gifts may be made to this fund at any time, including donations made online, by check, or transfer of securities. Please contact the business office of the church to make arrangements. – Andrew Henderson
Organists of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church,
New York City, 1900 to Present
Miss Harriette B. Judd (later Mrs. Syms), Organist & Choir Director, c.1900-1909
Charles K. Safford, Organist & Choir Director, 1909-1913
Dr. Seth Bingham, Organist & Choirmaster, 1913-1951
Horace M. Hollister, Associate Organist & Director of Youth Choirs, 1930-1947
Robert McGill, Associate Organist & Director of Youth Choirs, 1948-1951
Rev. Robert B. Lee, Minister of Music, 1951-1960
Dr. Dorothy K. Lee, Organist, 1951-1960
Dr. George B. Markey, Organist & Choirmaster, 1961-1970
Margaret McClellan, Assistant Organist & Director of Youth Choirs, 1962-1966
Philip Manwell, Assistant Organist & Director of Youth Choirs, 1966-1968
Richard Alexander, Assistant Organist & Director of Youth Choirs, 1968-1970
Dr. John B. Weaver, Director of Music & Organist, 1970-2005
Dr. Andrew E. Henderson, Director of Music & Organist, 2005-present
Mary Wannamaker Huff, Associate Director of Music, 2006-present
Casavant Frères, Opus 2660 (1961)
Schantz Organ Company, console & additions (2000)
Casavant Frères, mechanical & tonal restoration (2012)
|GREAT (17 ranks, 1,094 pipes)||Feet||Pipes|
|Cor de Chamois||8||61|
|Flûte a Cheminée||4||61|
|Flûte à Bec||2||61|
|Fourniture IV||1 1/3||244|
|SWELL (18 ranks, 1,175 pipes)||Feet||Pipes|
|Flûte a Cheminée||8||68|
|Plein Jeu V||2||305|
|CHOIR (21 ranks, 1,433 pipes)||Feet||Pipes|
|Flûte des Bois||2||61|
|Choir 4', 16'||-||-|
|PEDAL (15 ranks, 492 pipes)||Feet||Pipes|
|Open Wood (Digital)*||32||-|
|Open Wood (Digital)*||16||-|
|Cor de Nuit||4||32|
|Fourniture IV||2 2/3||128|
|Petite Bombarde (Sw)||16||-|
|Great to Pedal 8'||Swell to Great 16' 8' 4'|
|Swell to Pedal 8' 4'||Choir to Great 16' 8' 4'|
|Choir to Pedal 8' 4'||Swell to Choir 16' 8' 4'|
|Choir to Swell 8'||Pedal to Great 8'|
|Great to Choir 8'|
MIDI BALANCED PEDALS
(3) Choir, Swell, Crescendo
8 local thumb pistons for Swell, Great and Choir
8 toe stud pistons for Pedal.
10 general pistons (thumb and toe)
4 General Pistons (thumb only)
(Thumb and Toe) Sw.>Ped. Gt.>Ped. Ch.>Ped. Full Organ
(Thumb) Sw.>Gt. Ch.>Gt. Sw.>Ch
(Toe) 32' Bombardon 32' Soubasse 32' Open Wood
TOTAL NUMBER OF PIPES
4194 + 3 Digital Voices
*Installed in August 2000 by Schantz Organ Co.
New Console by Schantz, May 2000
+Installed in October 2011 by Casavant Frères