Cathedral Organ & Specifications
The 1962 Rudolf von Beckerath Organ
St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The first mechanical action organ to be installed in a North American Cathedral in the 20th century, this instrument was built through the efforts of Paul Koch, Music Director and Organist at that time. The cathedral was under contract with Aeolian-Skinner for a G. Donald Harrison-voiced organ, a possibility which ended upon Harrison’s death in 1956. Having learned of the death, Koch visited mechanical action organs by prominent builders in Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, and, encouraged by Robert Neohren, the cathedral began dialogue with Beckerath to build the new organ. Noehren, Koch and Beckerath remained in regular consultation through the instrument’s completion. The dedication week was filled with musical events including concerts by Paul Koch, Robert Noehren, E Power Biggs, and Fernando Germani. The instrument’s impact since its installation is shown in the following commentary:
“the von Beckerath organ was deemed a prophetic voice from the very beginning – its installation was a bold stroke for excellence at a time when American organbuilding was mired in mediocrity. This organ opened the door for other great instruments to follow, including the von Beckerath at St. Joseph’s Oratory and the Flentrop Organs at Harvard, Oberlin, Duke, Seattle and Chicago. The Pittsburgh organ led the way by representing a restoration of ancient organ building principles as espoused by Albert Schweitzer and others. For over forty years this prominent instrument has stood in your cathedral as a symbol of the noblest ideals of Roman Catholic tradition, architectural integrity and truth. -Richard Proulx, Chicago
“I consider this organ to be one of the monument organs of the continent. Certainly it can be said that this organ is one of the most important organs to be installed anywhere on this continent in the post World War II era. It is a masterpiece, not only in sound, but in its architectural concept as well. It follows majestically and proudly the basic tenets of the great antique European models, and as such it represents all that is good about the organ as an instrument”. – Craig Cramer, University of Notre Dame
“…the Pittsburgh organ was a milestone in North American music. It showed the way for many instruments to follow. In particular, the mid-century tradition of large, mechanical action organs emulated both historical tradition and innovation without resorting to any extremes. It shows a deliberate attempt at melding convention and custom – a sort of musical globalism well in advance of the current trends. Like the Church itself, this is an instrument drawing upon diverse traditions for the sake of oneness. Regarding oneness, I cannot escape the observation that this instrument, the building, and the acoustic form a perfect trinity of sorts. Its very location and layout are the perfect compliment to the unseen, but deeply felt, acoustical resource of the place. Overarching all is something of the authentic nature of high art. Just as the cathedral itself represents the highest standards of architectural design and visual decoration, so its music ought to reflect the timelessness and mystery of that which has grown in deliberate and measured fashion thus challenging us to contemplate our place and our time as measured against eternity itself”. – Haig Mardirosian, The American University
“In 1962, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh became home to a monumental four-manual organ built by Rudolf von Beckerath of Hamburg, Germany. It was not the first Beckerath organ installed in the United States….but the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral remains the largest of his American projects, and in the minds of many who know his work, the finest as well. The success of the Pittsburgh organ inspired a number of later instruments which were also to have a marked influence upon organ playing and organ building in America in the years that followed. His instruments, like the antiques that inspired him, are known for the rich warmness of their tone and the balanced and blending quality of their sound. Because of this, he is now often regarded as the greatest German organ builder of the mid-twentieth century. As such, his instruments are of immense value as they represent the highest quality in organ building of that time. When the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral was new, it brought the most renowned artists of Europe and America to St. Paul’s, and sounds which had scarcely been heard in America were shaped by expert fingers to produce music of extraordinary beauty. As one who was present at many of these events, I can attest to the excitement these concerts generated, and to the extent to which the Cathedral was perceived by many as a place where the great music of the Church was supported and nurtured as part of the Cathedral’s outreach”. – William Porter, Rochester
Since Its Dedication…
In September of 1984, cathedral organist Paul Koch sought an organ overhaul and cleaning proposals from the Beckerath firm. The organ was covered and sealed during construction work on the interior of the cathedral which included a new floor, much plaster repair and painting, among other things. Koch’s request for the organ included attention to the ‘sagging pipes’, the sluggish slider motors, the combination action, stop-knob mechanism. Months later, after much correspondence, a proposal was received from the Beckerath firm including an explanation of the cleaning process, as well as additional details concerning the renewal of the manual keyboards, pedal-keyboard, and eventual adjustment of the tracker-mechanism.
The cathedral was able to invest $75k with the Beckerath Firm for repairs which took place beginning in 1986. The scope of that work included cleaning, regulating, tuning, and replacement of some reed tongues. During this process iron rods were installed behind each of the pedal facade pipes as well as other large pipes within the pedal towers with the intention of arresting the ‘sagging’ pipes. David Richards of Allegheny Pipe Organ was introduced to the Beckerath firm at this time and would be named as the local curator of the instrument since the routine care by members of the Beckerath firm was not possible due to distance and expense.
Late in 2001 the cathedral commissioned a thorough Pipe Organ Condition Report from S.L. Huntington & Co. Subsequently, proposals were solicited and received from Beckerath Orgelbau, Allegheny Pipe Organs, S.L. Huntington & Co., Hans Ulrich Erbsloh, and Taylor & Boody Organbuilders. In July of 2004, Christoph Linde (who voiced the organ with Rudolf von Beckerath) was hired to assess the condition of the organ.
In the requested proposals, the builders were asked to include the replacement of stop motors, stop-knob mechanisms, combination system, and replacement of those pipes considered to have ‘sagged’. Each builder included additional suggestions and considerations along with their proposals.
On October 24, 2005, St. Paul Cathedral began the centennial of its dedication. At that time the parish announced a multi-million dollar capital campaign which made possible projects including exterior masonry restoration, improved handicap accessibility, new electrical wiring, new illumination, undercroft renovation/modernization, replacement of heating/cooling system, and, finally the organ restoration which would be the third and final phase of the Capital Campaign.
Meanwhile, in the organ, old problems persisted requiring adjustment to stop motors, cleaning of stop knobs, calming guest recitalists over the lack of an adequate combination action, and hoping for pitch and tone from sagging/collapsing pipes. The reservoirs could no longer wait for a future rehab and thus received a complete renewal during the summer of 2005. The cathedral music department announced the final public concert in May of 2006 due to the unreliable nature of the organ’s mechanisms. While the instrument remained in use for the 700+ average annual cathedral liturgies/events, it “limped along”, eagerly anticipating the start of its renewal. By the time the organ restoration work began on site in March of 2008, two-thirds of the organ was “uncontrollable” with many stops working sporadically, or not at all. Within many stops pipes were no longer speaking.
The scope of restoration of an instrument this size is vast, and a debt of gratitude is owed to the Taylor and Boody firm for their expertise, diligence, and especially for their ability to work around, during, and throughout the constancy of life in the cathedral. T & B’s commitment to ‘getting it right’, rather than rushing through the work allowed them to properly care for the many ‘surprises’ which were exposed along the way. Only in the process of dismantling the countless moving parts and sealed chests can an organ builder see the full extent of the work which is required. It is their, and the cathedral’s expectation that this monument of organ building will remain, for generations to come, the work of art for which it justly known!
-Don Fellows, St. Paul Cathedral
From the Restorers…
Organs, like all artistic objects, reflect the cultural perspectives of the time and place in which they are made. The St. Paul organ by virtue of its sheer size and tonal grandeur offers a particularly bold statement by its builder, Rudolf von Beckerath (1907–1976) about what he believed the ideal organ should be. The design of the instrument is rooted in the ideas of the Twentieth Century German Organ Reform Movement or “Orgelbewegung”, which was formed in the 1920’s by friends of the Beckerath family in Hamburg, who were captivated by the beauty of the antique organs of their city, particularly the long neglected organ of the St. Jakobi Church, built in 1693 by the famous Hamburg builder, Arp Schnitger. On hearing the music of J.S. Bach played on this authentic instrument, the group pressed for a return in new organs to the essential elements of design and construction, that had inspired the organbuilders and great composers of the Eighteenth Century and earlier. These principles would inform every facet of the organ’s design, creating a unity of musical concept, architectural expression, technical simplicity, and artistic control, which had been overshadowed by the excesses of the Romantic period.
Beckerath knew from an early age that he wanted to build organs as fine as Schnitger’s and thus became a pioneer in the rebirth of principles of classical organbuilding. Because the necessary skills for building such instruments were no longer found in Germany, he served an apprenticeship in Paris, where the traditional construction of slider windchests was still practiced. He soon rose to a position of leadership there as a master craftsman in the French school and gained broad experience in directing a large firm. However, his love for the German instruments called him back to Germany during the1930’s, where he gained the position of national authority over organs and bells. This gave him access to a wide variety of historic instruments in the country, many of which he was able to document. He also used his position to insure their protection against pillage by the government during the war, a practice which had taken a heavy toll on organs during the WWI. The war years, during which his research was destroyed, were spent as a translator in France. After being released from an American prison in 1945 he made his way back to Hamburg to start over with a fierce determination to realize his vocation as an independent builder. At the age of 42 he established a shop in Hamburg and there built from meager resources a daring and impressive 3 manual mechanical organ for the Hamburg Musikhalle. That project, coupled with the outstanding restoration of several antiques nearby, assured his success as a master thereafter.
Only thirteen years later the St. Paul organ was built. In it we find the influence of the many experiences of Beckerath’s formative years. The basic clarity of early German organbuilding style is immediately obvious to the eye in the rational design of the this organ’s case. All the tenets espoused by the “Orgelbewegung” are present here, from a responsive mechanical key action and slider windchests, to the classical scaling of the pipes. The brilliant stoplist is highly refined yet economical. Nothing is wasted. The years in France are more subtly reflected in the grand gesture of the organ’s design, which makes possible the performance of an unusually wide variety of literature crossing national stylistic boundaries. While Beckerath was not the only European builder of his time to undertake large projects, what separates his work from others was his uncompromising attention to the sound of his organs. His happiest days were spent voicing pipes on site. In Pittsburgh he took five months working with his assistants, bringing each pipe to sing with a vocal quality of the antique organs he knew so well. It is the compelling beauty of the sound, the precision of the pipes’ speech combined, and the warmth of tone, most noticeably in the Principal stops, which have endeared his work to so many.
The restoration of the St. Paul organ raised interesting questions for the restorer. One may well ask why restoration should be necessary after only fifty years. To this there are several answers. In returning to building practices of a long forgotten craft, Beckerath risked not knowing many secrets which made the old organs so durable. Only time would sort out problems there. When one adds to this the difficulty of obtaining high quality materials in postwar Germany it is easy to understand, for example, the structural failure of the huge zinc pipes, that have now been replaced with tin according to historical models. Also Beckerath’s stated intention not to build mere copies of antiques led him in some cases to reject traditional methods of construction such as mechanical stop action in favor of more convenient but faulty modern substitutes, and to replace materials such as wood with plastics which have not proven of lasting value. The forthright correction of these matters posed little difficulty here, for they did not threaten the nature of the organ as a musical instrument. A more serious question arose in treatment the pipes which needed repair or correction of voicing problems. Here every effort was made to retain the character of the original sound, with all its spontaneity and life. Beckerath voiced with a broad stroke. Much of the charm of his instruments comes from the skilled hand of master who wasted no time in achieving the fresh sound he sought. A restorer must resist the temptation to judge the original voicing by his own standards and taste. This is not easy as it might sound, for mechanical action organbuilding has not been a static craft since Beckerath’s time. Much has been discovered about historical organbuilding practices, which was not known in 1962. Here the question was raised as to whether the tuning system of this organ should be changed from the romantic equal temperament to an unequal temperament which has gained currency today and was more appropriate to a classical organ. After careful thought it was decided that equal temperament should be retained as part of the character intended by the builder. Also it was decided that the current pitch of a 445 should not be lowered five cyles to present standards.
The restoration of the St. Paul organ is significant for many reasons. It has long been recognized as one of Beckerath’s finest instruments. It is also represents the last large organ built before subtle changes appeared in his voicing style, which became increasingly bolder and less intimate with time. Also, while many of his other instruments have been changed to suit more current fashions among organists, this organ is, musically speaking, in completely original condition. As such it preserves the opportunity for future generations to hear the music as Beckerath wished, and to glimpse easily forgotten musical perspectives from our own recent but quickly receding past.
George Taylor – Taylor and Boody Organbuilders – Staunton, Virginia
Click Organ Specifications to open a pdf of the organ specifications.
Click 2015 – Poster – full season to open a pdf of the list of past performers.