“Simply stated, the pipe organ is a big box of whistles.”
Any student or visitor to the Mount’s chapel can likely recall the masterpiece of an instrument where it sat opposite the altar. If the altar was a tribute to God’s presence and glory, then the Opus 411 was a reflection of humankind’s utmost expression of worship. Even if you knew nothing about pipe organs, you could easily see that this one was special.
Like the chapel itself, the organ may be gone from Wheeling, but thankfully, everything you’d want to know about its life at the Mount is stored within the Mount de Chantal Archives. Here’s why I was so fascinated to learn about it:
Number 411 was One of a Kind
The organ was built in or around 1867 by brothers Elias and George G. Hook at their company headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. The Hooks were the sons of a cabinet maker from Salem, Massachusetts, and given the exquisite construction of the “box” all those whistles were contained within, you can see their father’s influence. In 1867, the Hooks were at the top of their game – the best-known organ builders in New England and set the highest standard for organ builders throughout the early United States.
The exact date of 1867 is an estimate because of the type of wood used in the organ’s construction. Before 1860, all organ cabinets made by the Hook brothers were pine painted to resemble hardwoods. But, just before 1870, the Hooks began using oak, walnut, and other hardwoods in construction. The “Opus” was the model of organ the Hook Company produced for Mount de Chantal and 411 means it was the four hundred and eleventh model of Opus that was produced by the Hook brothers.
As for its technical specifications, the organ contains a total of 424 pipes ranging from tiny, four-inch flute pipes to 16-inch sub bass pedals capable of producing the deepest notes on the scale. When it comes to playing the organ, the manual compass – that’s a keyboard to us non-organ players – contains 56 notes and 25 foot pedal notes.
Have you ever wondered what it looks like inside a pipe organ? Here’s a panoramic peek inside a Hook organ: http://organweb.com/specs/mechanics-hall-hook/014_7071-PanoramaA.htm
Before electricity illuminated the Mount’s hallways, the forced air necessary to create sound through the individual pipes was provided by a manual pump blower. At some point in the mid-20th century, an electric motor and blower were installed from the Organ Power Company of Hartford, Connecticut, under the label “Spencer Steel Orgoblo”. The pump handle, however, was never removed, meaning the organ could still have been played with the use of the manual air pump.
Famous, 19th-Century Style
An accomplished signer and pianist, Sister Gubert had once been the accompanist for the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind during her 1850-1852 tour of America. (If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Greatest Showman”, you’ll recall a fictional Jenny Lind being one of the most famous people in the world at that time period) Before coming to the Mount, Sister Gubert’s talents caught the attention of composer Maurice Strakosch and Sigisbord Thalberg, who was regarded as one of the most distinguished piano virtuosos of the 19th century.
In notes written by the Wheeling chapter of the American Guild of Organists in 1976, it’s said of Sister Gubert, “her talents and energies were fully devoted to her apostolate of teaching and establishing the music curriculum”. Many who read this will recall Sister Gubert’s music library living on after her at the Mount. In 1976, it was documented that the music library contained more than 900 scores, 700 books, and 1,100 recordings.
Given the Mount’s lasting focus on the importance of the arts, I think we all have Sister Gubert to thank for her influence.
A Temperamental Legacy
From the time of its installation, most of the Opus 411’s parts remained virtually unchanged. This presented both prestige and problems for the Mount’s use and maintenance of it.
In 1982, a small concert was given by W. Thomas Smith, executive director of the Hymn Society of America as part of a national Historic Organ Recital Series. The hope then was to draw attention to the age and significance of the Opus 411 as a means of its preservation. The following year, the Organ Historical Society awarded the Mount with a citation recognizing the organ as “an instrument of exceptional historic merit worthy of preservation”. Sister Joanne Gonter was presented with the certificate by Historic Organs Committee Chairman Timothy E. Smith and Organ Historical Society President Roy A. Redman.
Ten years later during a meeting of the Mount de Chantal Board of Trustees, it was noted that keeping the organ in its original condition sometimes came at a cost. The Opus 411 was tuned very high in keeping with the fact that international Concert Pitch A 440 (440 vibrations per second) was not established until 1939. This meant that any modern instruments played with the organ had to be tuned very high, which would be a feat for a professional musician, let alone students. Removable tuning collars were suggested as the solution at a cost of $2,000.
Then, in 2005, the original Orgoblo motor finally gave out, costing the school a further $3,200 to replace the motor and blower. Like a classic car that constantly requires work and maintenance, the organ was showing the costly price of its age but remained a fixture in the chapel until the school’s closing.
New Life for the old Box of Whistles
In 2011, Mount de Chantal accepted an offer from Randall Newman to purchase the organ in hopes of moving it to the Musconetcong Valley Presbyterian Church in Hampton, NJ. Newman and his associates carefully disassembled the Opus 411 and moved it to its new home. And since we live in an era where everything is documented, you can watch video of the organ being removed here: Dismantling a Pipe Organ Time-Lapse - YouTube
According to Newman, as of this month, the Opus 411 is still in storage as plans to place it in its new church home did not fully materialize. As Sister Joanne explained to me in an email, the challenge that follows a pipe organ of this size is that not only must a space large enough to house it be found, but someone must also be nearby or on staff who can tune it.
Sister and Newman both hope this blog post and social media surrounding it will create a renewed interest in finding a proper home for the Opus 411. I hope you all were as fascinated by this story as I am and comforted to know the organ is one more way Mount de Chantal’s legacy can live on. Please share to help it continue!