What does Westminster Presbyterian Church have in common with the Washington National Cathedral and the Biltmore, America’s largest private residence? All are homes to an E.M. Skinner pipe organ, crafted by American’s pre-eminent organ builder of the 20th century.
Ernest Martin Skinner (1866-1960) was both an artistic and mechanical engineering genius. Using a new and innovative electro-pneumatic system to power the organ, Skinner strove to increase the instrument’s expressive tones and to simulate the sounds of an entire orchestra. His organs were the best money could buy, and they were installed in hundreds of churches, concert halls, universities, and private homes throughout the United States and beyond.
A pipe organ is very different in structure from the modern electronic organ that many faith congregations now rely upon. Praised by Mozart as the “king of instruments”, a pipe organ is powerful and complex, with thousands of metal or wooden pipes, each producing a single sound. Only some of these pipes are visible (often those being strictly ornamental), while the ones that create all the different pitches and timbres of sounds are arranged like trees in a forest, hidden in a chamber apart from the console where the organist plays. A wind-raising device, or bellows, often located in the basement, provides the air for what is essentially a gigantic wind instrument.
Westminster’s pipe organ, referred to as “Opus 579”, was built in 1926 at the peak of E.M. Skinner’s popularity and influence. The noun “opus” (from the Latin for “work”), followed by a chronological number, is often used to describe a work of art, such as a musical composition. But in this case, “opus plus number” refers to a particular organ, each one having been individually and uniquely crafted for the space in which it was installed.
Westminster’s Skinner organ has three keyboards (called manuals) and a pedal board controlling 2,069 pipes. (For comparison, the great organ of the National Cathedral has 10,647 pipes.) At the time of its installation, this organ cost approximately $15,000 and was paid for by donations from among Westminster’s [then] 800+ members. Today, a brand new pipe organ of comparable size and quality would cost over $1,000,000. The Skinner Opus 579 was dedicated on December 6, 1926, with a recital featuring a guest organist from New York City and a soloist from the Rochester Opera Company. The dedicatory hymn included this verse:
Then through the waking pipes there thrill,
As love shall touch the keys,
Now loud and grand, now soft and still,
The heavenly melodies.
Pipe organs and Christian churches share an extensive history. The introduction of church organs is traditionally attributed to Pope Vitalian in the 7th century, and an organ is the emblem of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. The pipe organ is ideally suited to accompany human voices, including cantors, choirs, and entire congregations. As Chicago-based organist John Scherer explains, the organ is “great to accompany 1,000 people singing their hearts out – because it can support them and make them sound better”.
Although Westminster’s sanctuary can seat nearly 500 worshippers or concertgoers, the sound the pipe organ produces can fill the vast space with a mighty resonance. Our adult children have fond but spine-tingling early memories of nearly jumping from their pews when, during the climactic portion of the Good Friday Tenebrae service (when Jesus dies), the organist would create a terrifying blast of noise by laying the upper part of her body across a good portion of the manuals.
Well-built and carefully maintained pipe organs usually last for about 100 years before extensive work or restoration is required. At 95 years of age, Westminster’s organ has begun to exhibit problems with ciphers, tonal issues, and sound quality. After nearly five years of study by a special committee and evaluations by organ builders and consultants, the Westminster congregation and its leaders have committed to an historical restoration of Auburn’s only Skinner organ to its original condition. Through donations, pledges, foundational grants, and loans in what we have enthusiastically christened our “Ode to Joy” campaign, the organ will be fully restored in 2021 by Kerner & Merchant Pipe Organ Builders of Syracuse.
Westminster’s members recognize and affirm the importance of music, and particularly organ music, to our worship experience. For nearly a century, our rare and valuable Skinner organ has been played for countless worship services, funerals, weddings, and community concerts, and we want it to continue to inspire and thrill listeners for many years to come.
For additional information about Westminster’s Skinner pipe organ and the “Ode to Joy” campaign, please visit the Ode to Joy Skinner Organ Restoration Campaign page of this website.