April 20, 2010

C.U. Unveils Organ Based on Historical Masterpieces

Print More

After seven years of planning and building, the University unveiled the new hand-built Cornell Baroque Organ in Anabel Taylor Chapel on Tuesday morning. Munetaka Tokata, an organ designer from Gothenburg Organ Art Center, is currently perfecting the sound of the instrument and expects to complete the organ by the fall.

The organ belongs to an international research project, begun in 2003, that involves Cornell, Sweden’s University of Gothenburg and the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Scientists and artists from Sweden, Japan, The Netherlands, Germany and New York State worked to reconstruct the tonal and visual design of historic German organs built in the 18th century.

“While this instrument complements the other organs on campus, which range from mid-20th century America to a real antique from mid-18th century Naples, it really does crown the Cornell collection,” Prof. David Yearsley, music, said.

“The Cornell Baroque Organ brings the sound of an early 18th century German organ to our campus, and with it the possibility of realizing the masterworks of the German Baroque repertoire in a way that hasn’t been possible before on our campus — or even, to a large extent, on our continent,” Michael Clarkson Ph.D. ’09 said. Clarkson studied the organ in several classes while pursuing his graduate degree. “I’m tremendously excited as this organ comes to fruition over the next few months. It’s a beautiful and important instrument for music and for historical research. I look forward to getting my hands — and feet — on it.”

With original documentation from the 18th century, modern studies and recordings of the instrument, the research team replicated the construction techniques used for 18th century organs and built the new instrument entirely by hand.

“The pipes are built by hand and the woodwork is done by hand. Because it is made completely by hand, the organ is full of irregularities. It is different from organs made in factories,” Prof. Annette Richards, music, said. “The organ has its individuality and revives that fundamental beauty and the notion of the organ as a work of art lost in the industrial process.”

“The industrial revolution brought the technology of factory-building to organs. The result was increased production, not increased quality,” Clarkson said. “If historical organs are like the artisanal bread made by our local bakery, these factory organs are like pre-sliced white sandwich bread shipped in to the supermarket. The techniques of organ building were — to some extent — lost, and organs became homogeneous: passable for playing any repertoire, perfect for playing none.”

Building the Cornell Baroque Organ involved extensive research in the art of woodworking, metallurgy, organ construction and tonal perfection of organ pipes in the 18th century. The project reached beyond music to include interests in other disciplines.

“It is a great opportunity for research in physics, chemistry, visual arts and history. For example, Prof. Peter Lepage from the physics department [and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences] is involved in this project and is very interested in the way the air moves inside the pipes,” Richards said. “Organ is the most collaborative work of art, a collective cultural endeavor. It is an important part of the cultural heritage of Cornell.”

The addition of the Cornell Baroque Organ also has the potential to increase the community’s exposure to organ music and render the presence of this genre of classical music more prominent on campus, according to Richards.

“A lot of people think that organ music is somber and serious. But in fact, the organ can be fun and beautiful just like any other instruments,” Richards said. “I think people at Cornell just don’t realize that the organ is here for them. I hope that the new organ will be able to show that there are opportunities here for them to listen to and learn to play organ music.”

Tracing the route to the Cornell Baroque Organ’s creation, Richards said that the conception of the approximately $2-million research project took root when she started teaching at the University in 1994.

“When I was hired, there wasn’t an instrument to play [18th century organ music],” Richards said. “I knew that I would need a basic tool to teach and perform. I spoke to the administration and they listened. The music department was ready to look for a new organ.”

“It’s just like setting up a physicist or a chemist in a whole lab. The instrument is essential for doing the teaching,” Richards said. “It will last as long as this building does, for several hundred years. Unlike technology, the organ will never go out of date.”

Richards said instruments play an important role in the study and performance of music — especially in organ music.

“Organs are very specific to time and geographical areas, just like food, language and culture. In order to play with all the liveliness of the moment that the music is made, we need an instrument built in that era,” she said. “With this instrument, we get much closer to how the composer heard the music in 18th century.”

An open house for the public to view the organ will take place at Anabel Taylor Chapel on Saturday, Apr. 24. The first concert is scheduled on Nov. 21, and an inaugural celebration with the researchers in Sweden will be held Mar. 10-13, 2011.

Original Author: Jackie Lam