This is a close up view of the console of the historic 4 manual, 51-rank pipe organ of 144 stops, 3,907 pipes, built for the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Saint Louis, Missouri, by the W.W. Kimball Company of Chicago. This is a fully expressive machine equipped with electro-pneumatic action in which the Choir division is subordinate to the Swell, and the Echo is a floating division playable from any manual singly or any 2 manuals at a time.
Dr. Charles Courboin, the famous Belgian organ virtuoso, served as tonal consultant for this organ. Built during the Roaring Twenties before the development of amplified sound, it was supplied with Antiphonal and Echo voices placed far from the main pipe chamber to provide a "surround-sound experience." Along with some very imitative orchestral voices this organ was provided with some beautiful foundation stops and celestes, colorful flutes, a separate 8-rank string chorus with soft Dulce Mixture, 18 ranks of theatre-style voices, tuned percussions, traps, effects, and 5 very big reeds.
The building is constructed on several levels numbered with respect to floors above the underground Dining Room (the Auditorium being 2 floors above the Dining Room, it is thus on the 2nd floor level). The console is situated in the northeast of the Auditorium on an elevated 3rd floor choir balcony, House Left (Stage Right). High to the left of the console and behind tone grilles situated on the west wall at the 4th, 5th, and 6th floor levels are situated the majority of the instrument's 128 swell shades. The Main pipe chamber is located directly behind these shades. This chamber is 28 feet high, rectangular in layout, and houses most of the organ's tonal forces (41 of the instrument's 51 ranks are situated there).
The Main chamber is entered through a 4th floor door situated at the north end, and it is home to 3,161 pipes representing 81 per cent of the total pipe count. The swell shades and tone grilles are positioned on the extreme left as the chamber is entered with a solid concrete wall on the extreme right. Windchests for the Great/Choir, Swell, Solo, and Pedal Bombarde are found here along with a variety of tuned percussions, traps, and effects. A full-sized Kimball upright piano electrically connected to the console is situated just inside this entrance door to the left of the walking path. On the the right side of the walking path and situated on a waist-high platform will be found the largest pipes of the Waldhorn, and, behind these, the English Diapason and then the Bombarde which is up against the wall. The 25-inch air reservoir for the Bombarde is just past that, on the right at floor level, and directly opposite that, on the left side, many of the instrument's traps, percussions, and special effects are situated, with the swell shades and tone grille directly behind them. The pipes and passageboards of the Great and Choir divisions are located on the 5th floor level above these percussions and traps and are reached through a narrow aperture by means of an equally narrow, nearly vertical wooden ladder. The Choir chest is in front and furthest north, behind which is an offset chest for the Pedal Bourdon (Great Concert Flute). Just south of these 2 chests are the Great front and rear chests. The wooden feet and mouths of the largest pipes of the Great Principal Diapason may be seen by looking upward on the right side at 4th floor level. Further back on the right one finds the stupendous pipes of the bottom octave of the Bombarde all lined up against the far right concrete wall. The ladder to the Swell access door, passageboards, and pipes at 6th floor level are located further back on the right side.
Further back still at 4th floor level one finds the new solid state Uniflex relay. The Solo pipes, percussions, and passageboards occupy the deepest parts of this chamber at floor level on the left and sit about 3 feet off the floor. The access door to the Solo was constructed after the organ was installed. Here one will find the largest pipes of the bottom octave of the Cello stacked horizontally along the right side inner wall, with the glockenspiel situated in front of them. To the left of the Solo access door the bars of the Solo Chimes will be found hanging among the pipes of the Melophone, French Horn, and Tuba Sonora. Further back and to the left of an elevated passageboard will be found the diminutive pipes of the "buzzy" Kinura, English Horn, Diapason Stentor, and Cello, with the Tuba Mirabilis situated opposite these on the right and the bottom octave of the Diapason Stentor lined up against the back wall in the south. The blower is situated in a small wooden walk-in room at the deepest part of this chamber on the right side, at 4th floor level. This room has an access door which is typically kept closed to suppress noise. The original Kimball relay, which was removed in the 2011-2014 renovation, used to be situated just to the left and in front of this blower room.
On the 6th floor level in the Main chamber above the blower and Solo pipes will be found the pipes of the Swell, the largest division in the organ, and are reached by means of another narrow vertical wooden ladder situated just in front of the stupendous bottom C pipe of the 32' Contra Bombarde. This ladder takes one from the 4th to the 6th level in this chamber.
Yet another narrow, nearly vertical wooden ladder is provided at the Swell access door for reaching the tops of the largest Bombarde pipes for tuning. Here the smaller Bombarde pipes of metal on the 6th floor level may be seen very high up on the right side. Since this chamber is only 28 feet high and the resonators of the bottom (32') octave of the Bombarde are all full length, the 4 lowest wooden pipes (C, C#, D, D#) are mitred at their feet to accommodate their size. The longest metal pipes of the bottom (16') octaves of the Swell Horn Diapason and Viole also are mounted vertically but mitred at their tops near the ceiling for the same reason. The longest pipes of the 32' octave of the Swell Tibia Clausa (Pedal Contra Bourdon) are mounted horizontally and stacked along the back wall in this chamber with their mouths closest to the door. The largest pipes of the bottom (16') octave of the Solo Cello situated on 4th floor level are stacked horizontally along the rear wall of the Solo chamber with their tops facing the Solo access door for the same reason.
The Antiphonal chamber is located on the opposite side of the stage at 5th floor level high above the 3rd floor orchestra balcony, House Right (Stage Left) and behind another tone grille situated in the east wall about 50 yards from the console. This chamber is accessed through a door on the 5th floor of the building which is part of a music storage room. These pipes sit on their chests about 2 feet in the air with the reservoir underneath. Access to this chamber is difficult, as there is only about a foot of space on the right and even less than that on the left to squeeze through, a task that only a slender technician can manage. Here will be found 389 pipes representing another 10 per cent of the total pipe count. Some of the longest metal pipes of the Viola in this chamber are mitred at their tops.
The rarely seen Echo pipes are situated in a small chamber at 8th floor attic level midway over the chute entrance to the Auditorium. These voices speak through a smaller tone grille which is part of the ceiling situated 58 feet above the floor and may only be accessed by unlocking a 5th floor padlocked door in the extreme southwest corner of the Auditorium, exiting to the outside roof of the building, walking a short distance, then reentering the building through an outside door, descending 4 steep wooden steps, then walking about 80 feet on a narrow wooden catwalk to a very high, nearly vertical wooden ladder on the left side having 15 steps, and ascending that ladder to the Echo access door. A few stops up that ladder one must duck the head in dim light and very carefully step around a large steam pipe and steel cable stretched across the rungs of the ladder without tripping. One then opens a door on the right side at the top of the ladder to enter the Echo chamber. Here will be found 353 pipes representing the remaining 9 per cent of the total pipe count. The Echo swell shades are on the right of this chamber, facing south. When they open, sound from the pipes travels south and downward through a large air shaft on a 45 degree angle; the sound is then funneled through another air shaft on a 45 degree angle vertically downward to a tone grille situated in the ceiling of the Auditorium. The sound thus has to reflect around 2 angles of 45 degrees, which has the effect of greatly softening and refining all the voices of this division.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The term "organ crawl" as organ enthusiasts often use the term refers to a visit by a group of tourists to an important instrument. It is understood in a figurative rather than a literal sense and is very different from what a trained technician must do to gain access to each and every functioning part of the instrument. Pipe organ technicians often find themselves closed in, squeezing through small, tightly constricted spaces to conduct routine trouble shooting, maintenance, repairs, regulating, or tuning. They often work high in the air in poor light, holding on to a wooden framework with one hand and a flashlight with the other, standing off balance with all their weight on one leg, climbing up and down steep ladder rungs or steps and watching carefully before they move their feet to avoid walking off a passageboard. Certain parts of older wooden pipework frames, from repetitive use over the years for climbing and moving around, may also wiggle slightly and be unstable.
There are also electrical issues to consider. What looks to the uninitiated public like simply another pleasant trip to the science museum is a tricky place to move through in which the potential for serious harm is there. Most pipe organs are on 2 circuits -- one for the blower and one for the low voltage power supply. One or both may be 3-phase, 220v. We organists DO NOT poke around in the high voltage system beyond the breakers. It can kill us. We should always get a technician or electrician.
It therefore goes without saying that making a literal crawl through the pipe chambers of this or any other large instrument requires specialized knowledge and skill, a special awareness of the environment, physical fitness, strength, good balance and eyesight, loose clothes, rubber-soled shoes, and sometimes acrobatic skill to keep from getting shocked or slipping and taking a nasty tumble. This is no touring ground for someone with 1) a fear of being in confined places (claustrophobia), 2) a fear of heights (acrophobia), 3) poor balance or eyesight, 4) bad knees, 5) no leg strength, or 6) can't stand getting pot-black dirty.
The general rule is: the average organist should NOT expect to climb around inside a large pipe organ; danger lurks there. We can fall and easily hit our head, break ribs, break an arm or leg, or suffer other serious injuries and have to be carried out (provided that someone finds us). In addition, most of the pipes are made of a tin/lead alloy like solder and they're very soft and easily damaged. We are not insured for this. We can cause damage without even being aware of it by bumping into a pneumatic stem and bending it (or, in the case of a mechanical action, by dislodging a piece of it). There are occasions when some of an organist's training will allow them to fix a problem, or at least get the organ playable, but crawling through the crowded, dimly lit bowels of a large instrument carries a risk even for professional organ technicians, thus, for safety reasons, the chamber should be secured behind a locked door when unattended.
Bottom line: THIS IS NO PLACE TO KEEP UNSECURED -- NO PLACE FOR AN UNSUPERVISED PUBLIC TO TOUR FOR A FEE -- NO PLACE FOR YOUNG CHILDREN TO BE LED THROUGH -- NO PLACE FOR EVEN INFORMED, CAUTIOUS ADULTS TO EXPLORE AND PHOTOGRAPH WITHOUT a) KNOWING EXACTLY WHAT THEY'RE DOING, b) BRINGING ALONG A FLASHLIGHT AND CELL PHONE, AND c) INFORMING SOMEONE ELSE THAT THEY'RE GOING TO BE IN THERE.
Wind pressures in this organ are high. Most of the instrument save for 10 special ranks speaks on 10 inches of wind; the Swell Vox Humana and all 5 of the Echo ranks are on 7-1/2 inches, the Great Harmonic Trumpet is on 15 inches, both Solo Tubas are on 20 inches, and the stupendous Pedal Bombarde is on 25 inches. With all swell shades wide open and all reeds drawn the sound is as big as it gets. A ministering art of performance is required therefore when drawing the stops and operating the swell shoes, much more so than one might expect. With 100 per cent of its tonal forces expressive from top to bottom the decibel gain possible when operating the Master Swell Lock is in fact many times greater than one can expect to find in the typical, partly expressive church organ, regardless of its size. Gentle opening of this shoe from the closed position is all it takes to bring the sound a good bit closer.
When this vast machine was being constructed American organ building was going through a phase which downplayed the inclusion of independent upperwork in the scheme with the idea that the instrument's tonal structure would not suffer provided that the remaining stops were voiced on higher pressure and generated a greater number of harmonic upper partial tones. Concert organs in those days were designed to blend with a symphony orchestra without swamping the instrumentalists. This led to the creation of a limited number of organs like this one, instruments which had striking individual effects and a dark sounding ensemble. Not surprisingly, this type of organ was particularly well suited to rendering the organ parts of orchestral scores, performing solo transcriptions of orchestral works, and taking an entire symphonic score upon its shoulders when necessary [See menu bar, Photos 3, subpage Development & Design]. Organists seated at this instrument therefore get the sense that they're not just playing an organ -- they're conducting a full symphony orchestra.
There are 12 separate trumulants in this organ, and, save for the Pedal, Antiphonal Pedal, and Antiphonal Great, each division is supplied with its own tremolo. The only 3 ranks in the organ which cannot be tremmed are the Antiphonal Diapason and Gemshorn and the Pedal Bombarde. The Swell and Echo Voxes are each on their own separate Vibratos, and the Swell is equipped with, besides its own divisional tremolo, a separate Tibia Clausa tremolo and separate tremolos operating at 2 speeds (fast, slow) for its string-toned stops -- thus 5 different tremolos all beating at different depths and speeds. The Solo also, besides its own divisional Tremolo, has a separate Tremolo for the Tubas. This allows this organ to produce an incredible and nearly endless variety of shimmering tone color which can be infinitely nuanced by means of coupling and adjusting the positions and movements of the swell shades.
This is an "8-foot organ," meaning that all of its upperwork (with one exception -- the Swell Dulce Mixture) is 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 speaking stops, all of the same quality and strength of tone, at other pitches. With all of its Pedal stops, save for the Bombarde, wired to play manual extensions this permits an awful lot of organ to be packaged behind a system of swell shades. It's therefore very easy when we sit down to an instrument with this much tonal and dynamic spread and this much power, where the tendency to "play out" must be resisted at every turn, to overthink registrations and, if we're not very careful, to end up blasting. The temptation to overdo it this way needs to be guarded against continually.
Dr. Courboin also was selected to play the first pair of dedication recitals for this organ, and he chose a major Bach work to open each program. This is significant because no independent principal chorus with mixture can be found anywhere in the instrument, and, since the entire effect of a major Bach work depends upon its chorus (plenum) sound and the clarity of its moving lines, he had to draw the stops and couplers in such a way as to arrive at the most transparent (least opaque) "synthetic chorus" this instrument can produce to best imitate the plenum sound which Bach knew. To do this one would consider a combination of 8' Diapasons along with the 4' extensions of the English and Horn Diapasons, the instrument's 4', 2-2/3', and 2' flutes, and the Swell Mixture; the Echo Corno D'Amour, which is a capped Oboe and the tamest reed in the organ, might also be included for its gentle voicing and good blending qualities. In an organ supplied with an independent principal chorus on the main manual, reeds would not take part in the Bach plenum, but in this organ this Echo reed provides much needed harmonic upper partial tones, adding luster and definition for this type of music. Any stops with poor blending qualities, tubby-sounding tibias, large-scale, flutey sounding diapasons, big tubas, and 64' noisemakers like the Gravissima would, of course, remain retired. The result might then be further brightened with octave coupling, according to taste. On this organ, this same registration, or something close to it, would be used for the performance of all fugues -- Baroque, Romantic, Modern, or Contemporary. For passages where this organ is called upon to produce its fullest sound the Oboe Horn and Posaune along with the Cello might be added next [See menu bar, Photos III, Combinations]. Here the tone of the Cello is not absorbed by the Posaune, as it is voiced so brightly that it almost sounds like another reed. Beyond this the Great Tromba and/or Harmonic Trumpet might be drawn along with the Pedal 16' Trombone, with the possible addition of the 32' Bombarde for final climactic chords.
Playing on the real McCoy like this also can teach things that electronic substitutes cannot. The manual keys of this organ, for the time being, have lighter 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, at the present time, less finger pressure is needed to make electrical contact. When that contact is made, it closes a circuit which sends an electrical signal to a small electromagnet, one of thousands in the instrument, to open. This allows pressurized air to enter a wind chest through a very small opening, and the pressure differential causes a leather pneumatic within the wind chest to collapse, thus pulling open the pallets below the pipes one at a time and permitting pressurized air to enter them. When the manual keys are so easy to depress like this the slightest touch or unwanted bump of a key will cause a strange blip of a sound to appear on the listener's radar. This has been a frequent lament among organists especially when intervals of time are separating when the organ must play and the hands are free for fairly long stretches to accidentally bump the manual keys. During such intervals it's been found advantageous with this organ to keep all stops and couplers retired with the Universal (General) Cancel piston and then, right before playing, set the desired combination.
The contract to build this organ, which was agreed upon in December, 1923, was signed 10 years before AGO console standards were codified. It called for "Pedals, A.G.O. pattern, corrected scale, concave and radiating." The 1924 Kimball pedalboard of this organ, like those of many other builders of the day including Wurlitzer, is built on a slightly different radius of curvature than the maximum permissible according to 1933 Guild standards (the Guild standard radiation specifies an 8-foot 6-inch radius minimum with 9-foot 6-inches maximum). This slight difference is noticeable to the performer particularly when playing pedal keys at the extreme ends. Today's organist used to practicing on a Guild standard pedalboard will find a need to stretch the feet further apart to reach the keys on both extreme ends. In addition, pipe organ pedal keys are typically equipped with 2 springs, one at each end, but electronic organ pedals generally have only one spring usually located underneath the heelboard. Organists used to practicing heavily at home on an electronic organ are apt to notice a little greater resistance and perhaps a deeper key fall on this pipe organ's pedals than that to which they've become accustomed.
Because of the shadow thrown by the overhead lighting of the console rack, most organists find the row of 8 general pistons ("typewriter" pistons) centered above the Solo manual better for setting their general combos; these are easier to see than the others which lie at a greater distance from the rack and are situated in the shadows of the overhangs of the manual keys. To minimize the creation of accidental, unwanted, strange notes it helps to remember, when using this instrument and those like it, to be very "sure-fingered" and "sure-footed" when we play it.
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 electro-pneumatic organ building -- an instrument with the capacity to barely whisper one moment with a sound that' almost inaudible and roar the next with a clobbering power sufficient to crack a diamond. Between these 2 extremes there is an ocean of dynamic possibility and an endless mix of timbres. These complex tones speak into an Auditorium of over a million cubic feet of listening space bounded by wall-to-wall carpeting, 3 thousand upholstered seats, and a ceiling and east and west walls covered with brown, sound-absorbing asbestos tile, all of which is non-original with the building. These renovations have reduced the original reverberation field of 3.5 seconds down to about 0.9 seconds with the full organ, a reduction of about 75 per cent. This can make it a little tough on the organist who has to adapt to such dry acoustics -- changes with involve touch, tempos, changing a written score mentally in terms of chord durations and rests, release of big final chords, etc. -- to get the music to come across in this space. Additionally, the type, number, and placement of microphones needed to record the direct field and reverberant field with equal gain can be tricky and require some experimentation and listening.
An acoustical release, for example, could be considered for any big final chord in spread harmony for both hands and pedal, a technique which could provide the illusion of doubling this extremely dry reverberant field and provide a nice "bloom" to the sound when big chords are released. Such decisions however, as always, have to do with artistic interpretation and depend upon prior training and the personal taste of the performer. Organists are all wired differently. What's undeniably true is, if there ever was an organ installed in a space where an acoustical release stands to benefit the music, it's this one.
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, and they were paid the highest salaries in the industry, at the time, for their craftsmanship.
In spite of this, we organists -- poor souls -- we never know on any given day or evening what could be out of tune with our pipe organ, what could be malfunctioning, or what kind of ambient air conditions may await us (such as a hot day with high humidity), all of which affects 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 machine will have been met and overcome.
And that's all the wonder of music.