Wild Air

A Tale of Two Holtkamps

March 22nd, 2010

Long experience has shown me that the pipe organ is not just one instrument – it is a richly varied group of instruments.   We have renovated and serviced organs by a whole gamut of builders from Aeolian-Skinner to Zimmer.   Some, like the Estey  I cut my teeth on, are nothing but tone color: one shimmering effect after another.   Others, such as organs by Walter Holtkamp, have an absolutlely transparent sound, all ensemble, with almost no color, except in a few antique reed stops.

I hope to write about many of these builders as time goes on.   Each built many worthy instruments, although some are better suited than others to their environment and the worship style they are called upon to support.

The Holtkamp organ at All S

The Holtkamp Pipe Organ at All Souls Unitarian Church, Indianpolis, restored by Reynolds Associates in 2007.

A few years back, we renovated a late Walter Holtkamp  organ.   The instrument, at All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, is perfect.   It is installed in an appropriate location in an appropriate room.   The organ and the musical sytle  it embraces are appreciated by the church members.   When we were called upon to prepare a proposal for this instrument, I felt that changing it would be like adding a Victorian wing to Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, “Falling Water.”   We did not change a thing tonally, although we did replace the antiquated relay system and combination action with new solid state equipment.   (If I were a purist, I would have lovingly rebuilt the old electromechanical system, but I’M NOT THAT MUCH A PURIST!)   The organ came out beautifully, and will serve All Souls for many more decades.

On the other hand, we recently prepared a report for a congregation with an almost identical Holtkamp.   Same scales, same voicing, almost the same stoplist.   This organ doesn’t work well at all.   In fact, it has been so unsatisfactory that the church resorted to installing a number of electronic voices several years ago.   These additions, if anything, detracted from the utility (to say nothing of the purity) of this instrument, and are almost never used.

Why did one organ serve its church well and the other not?

The second church building is more than twice as big.   It has a lot of soft surfaces that All Souls does not.   The organ pipes at the second church are in an organ chamber (which is contrary to everything Walter Holtkamp stood for), instead of unenclosed in the room.   Most importantly, the style of musical worship in the second church was different.

Church number 2 has a large choral program that frequently involves multiple choirs, instrumentalists, and soloists.   The location of the pipes is acoustically divorced from these singers, making any attempt at accompaniment frustrating.  Church number 2 also has a worship service that requires soft improvisations,  “walking music,” and warm sounds from the organ.   These sounds should not be had at the expense of ensemble, but rather in concert with a well-developed  and structured chorus of principal stops.

As organ builders, our task is to be sensitive to the needs of our customers.   Each pipe organ is an individual design, right down to the very last pipe.   It should never be a “Model 850.”

These two organs demonstrate the importance of building an organ that is at home in its environment.   It is not a disparagement of Walter Holtkamp’s work to suggest that one organ was more successful than the other.   This is why we believe in carefully designing (or redesigning) instruments with highly individual consideration for each situation.

After all, a pipe organ is in many ways a living breathing thing.   Even the etymology of the word, “organ,” is shared with another common word, “organism,” a system of life.

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