This is a close up view of the console of the historic 4 manual, 53 rank pipe organ of 144 stops, 3,859 pipes, built for the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Saint Louis, Missouri, by the W.W. Kimball Company of Chicago. This is a flexible musical instrument with electropneumatic action made fully enclosed and expressive from top to bottom. It has been recently renovated and made fully playable as it was when originally installed in 1924.
This organ was designed by Charles M. Courboin and voiced by Robert Pier Elliott to fill nearly 1-1/4 million cubic feet of auditorium space with sound. It incorporates everything that this builder could put into an American symphonic orchestral pipe organ from that time period. It is supplied with, among other things, antiphonal and echo stops placed at a distance from the console, some beautiful foundation stops, celestes, and colorful flutes, a separate 8-rank string chorus in the Swell division, some very fine imitative color reeds, a few theatre style stops, all the tuned percussions and traps typically found in theatre organs, and some big high pressure reeds voiced with high harmonic development and capable of a hair-raising crescendo.
The console is situated in an elevated second floor balcony on one end of the auditorium just to the right of an all-male choir of 10-12 voices. The Swell division is right above their heads behind an elevated grillwork, with the Choir division to their left. The Great division sits in the same chamber above the Choir, and the Solo sits above the Swell. The Antiphonal divisions are located above the second floor balcony on the opposite end behind another grillwork about 160 feet from the console, and the Echo division is midway in the ceiling, about 60 feet above the floor. In this instrument the Choir is subordinate to the Swell, and the Echo is the softest of the divisions. The Solo division, due to its more assertive voicing, is typically never used to accompany the choir.
It can be argued that Courboin recommended the inclusion of the Antiphonal and Echo stops in the scheme to better disperse the organ sound throughout the auditorium rather than simply to further enlarge the instrument. This helps to explain why it sounds a little differently from the floor and chute than it does from the bench. At the same time, this pipe organ was voiced with the power of an instrument twice its size and requires a ministering art of performance when selecting stops and couplers and operating the swell shutters to keep the volume subdued enough, yet sufficient for the purpose. With one hundred per cent of its tonal forces expressive the decibel gain when operating the master swell shoe is much greater than what is typically possible with most pipe organs. Gentle opening of this shoe from the closed position is usually all that's required to bring the sound a good bit closer.
When this instrument was built American organ building was going through a phase which deemphasized the insertion of mutation stops and mixtures in the scheme, thinking that the instrument's harmonic structure would not suffer provided that the remaining stops were voiced with very high harmonic development. This led to the creation of a limited number of organs like this one, instruments which had striking individual effects but a dark sounding ensemble. Not surprisingly, this type of organ was particularly well suited to rendering the organ parts of orchestral scores and for performing orchestral transcriptions [See menu bar, Photos 3, subpage Development & Design]. Courboin, its designer, made a career of performing such transcriptions, and therefore when performers sit at this instrument they will sense that they're not just perched on an organ bench; they're conducting a full symphony orchestra.
Save for the Pedal and Antiphonal Great, each division is supplied with its own separate tremolo. The Swell and Echo Voxes are supplied with their own separate vibratos, and the Swell is equipped with a separate Tibia Clausa tremolo and separate tremolos operating at 2 speeds (fast, slow) for its string-toned stops. With these controls in operation and its entire tonal forces engaged and subject to the powers of compound flexibility and expression which this truly musical instrument has to offer, there is endless possibility for the production of orchestral effects of light and shade, of kaleidoscopic tints and timbres which are particularly well suited to the execution of orchestral passages or to taking the entire score of an orchestral symphony upon its shoulders.
At the same time this an "8-foot organ," meaning that its suboctave voices and upperwork are derived by unification, i.e. by lengthening the wind chests to accommodate extensions of its 8-foot ranks and using this extended compass to derive more stops at other pitches all the same quality and strength of tone by means of electric coupling. With almost all of its Pedal stops borrowed from manual divisions this permits an awful lot of organ to be packaged behind a series of swell shutters. It's therefore very easy, when we sit down to an instrument this flexible and expressive with this much tonal spread and this much power, where the temptation to draw so many stops at once must be resisted at every turn, to overthink registrations and, if we're not careful, to end up blasting. This is particularly evident when several levels of piston memory are programmed to adds stops and couplers successively in the buildup to a full organ ensemble [See General Combos subpage, Full Organ combos].
Generally, with this or any other pipe organ, it's best to be economical when drawing the stops and couplers so that the resulting ensemble is as transparent as possible. In an organ like this, where the performer is able to bring on stops and couplers in large clumps with the single push of a piston button [See subpage, General Combos], each time another stop is added to another at the same pitch the sound becomes a little more opaque and a little less transparent. This explains why so many organists seem to prefer a lean full organ composed of principal tone, mixtures, and chorus reeds, leaving out the biggest reeds, color stops, and all large scale, tubby sounding flutes and diapasons. They know that mixing too many stops together can cause the tone of some of them to get absorbed by the others, and, if they have poor blending qualities to start with, the result will be something that sounds more like a chance meeting of color specialists who are not on speaking terms with each other.
Playing on the real McCoy like this can teach organists things that electronic organs cannot. With all of its manuals electrified the keys, for the time being, have very little spring tension due to there being only one set of brushes per key instead of two, a situation which came about during renovation and has yet to be restored to original condition; thus very little pressure is required for electrical contact to be made with the manual keys to pull pallets, which makes it easier for unwanted strange notes to sound. This has been a frequent lament among guest organists who are used to playing on mechanical action organs with more heavily weighted keyboards. The concave pedalboard also deviates from AGO standards and radiates very little, if at all. The pedal keys thus are just about parallel. The pedal key spring tension is also on the heavy side with a relatively deep key fall.
To minimize any distracting, unwanted accidents with wrong notes it's important to remember, when using this instrument and those like it, to 1) be proud of what an incredible and eager-to-respond "lady" she is and for the privilege of being able to work with her, and 2) keep all of her stops retired (with the General Cancel piston engaged) until the moment it's time to play the keys and to be very "sure fingered" and "sure footed" when we do. Such concerns notwithstanding, it's quite obvious that this one-of-a-kind creation is a far cry from the crude, uncontrollable, noisy affair found in the medieval cathedrals and abbeys of Europe of a thousand years ago. We are dealing here with a marvel of art and science of a type and quality we are not likely to ever see again in electropneumatic organ building -- an instrument with the orchestral ability to express the entire range of human emotion and sensitivity at the touch of a key ... from the barest whisper to the clobbering power sufficient to crack a diamond and everything in between.
This instrument speaks into an auditorium having well over a million cubic feet of space, but that space is bounded on two sides by plaster walls, a huge stage curtain on a third side, three thousand upholstered seats on a fourth side, plus wall to wall carpeting, all of which are sound-absorbing materials. The acoustics are thus very dry with virtually no reverberation or "bounce" at all. Since the organist must also play the building this means that the touch needs to be a little less detached and the written values of rests between notes and chords in the score shortened more than what is written on the page, holding those notes and chords a bit longer than written. Failure to do this may cause repeated chords written with a reverberant space in mind to sound clipped, even comic. The performer may also want to add an acoustical release to any closing chord for both hands and pedal to provide some "bloom" to the sound at the finish.
A certain world class organist who is no longer with us who also happened to be a builder, and in reference to this instrument, once made this remark to this author at a lesson: "There are organists out there who would kill, literally, for the chance to play [regularly] on a Kimball." Meant in a metaphorical sense only, this profound observation is indicative of the quality of Kimball workmanship. Back in the 1920's this company employed some of the finest craftsmen, technicians, and pipe voicers in the world. In spite of this we organists, poor souls, never know on any given day or evening what will be in tune with our pipe organ, what may not be working, or what kind of ambient air conditions may await us (such as a hot day with high humidity), all of which changes the response of the instrument. But we also know this: After we experiment with it enough to develop an awareness for the balance needed between providing enough organ to support the singing without going overboard and at the same time to combine the stops with dynamic control in a way that displays their true beauty, the major challenge in working with this wonderful "old girl," as she's affectionately known, will have been met and overcome.
And that's all the wonder of music.