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Talk about a tune-up! The Longwood Organ is nearing the end of a multi-year project to return it to its 1930 splendor. Artisans repaired, rewired, reglued, repainted, and restored virtually every element of this magnificent instrument. Longwood’s founder, Pierre du Pont, would be thrilled with the results.
“Pierre wanted an organ right from the beginning, when he built the Conservatory in 1921,” says Longwood Historian and Pierre S. du Pont Fellow Colvin Randall. “The first one was in the Exhibition Hall and suffered from temperature and humidity changes. In 1930 he installed a bigger and better one, and built the Ballroom around it to protect it.”
It was the golden age of the grand organ, with the Aeolian Company considered the Rolls-Royce of manufacturers. “The Tiffanys, Astors, Rockefellers, all of the `who’s who’ of American society had Aeolian residence organs,” Randall says. “They were considered the ultimate music-making machine for industrialists of the early twentieth century.”
Longwood staff organist Firmin Swinnen drew up the specifications for the 1930 instrument. Here are some impressive numbers: It has 10,010 pipes divided into 146 ranks, or sets, making it the largest Aeolian organ ever built. This permits a huge tonal variety. There are several hundred percussion tones, including chimes, drums, cymbals, and even a concert grand piano within the organ. The instrument weighs 55 tons and is installed in nine chambers that are 63 feet wide, 23 feet deep, and 40 feet tall. Wind comes from electric blowers totaling 70 horsepower.
Swinnen gave about 1,500 concerts at Longwood from 1924 to 1956, playing everything from orchestral transcriptions to Gilbert & Sullivan overtures to the patriotic music duPont loved.
In 1957-59, a new console by M. P. Möller of Hagerstown was constructed and installed. Eleven ranks of pipes were replaced and the reeds were revoiced. By 2003, when it was time to replace that console, Longwood took the opportunity to reverse the 1950s changes and return the organ to the disposition and sound of the 1930s.
“We built an organ shop on the property,” Randall says. “Some of the work was done there, some in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Connecticut. “We also bought a spare Aeolian organ from the same period to provide clues to the original voicing and to supply missing pipes."
Outwardly, the new console looks very much like the old Aeolian one, but inside it’s a completely different story. The latest computer technology permits unparalleled musical versatility. The organ has a device that can record new concerts and can also play back the old Aeolian Duo-Art performances recorded in the 1920s on paper rolls. To facilitate different configurations in the Ballroom, the 2,800-pound console can be floated on a cushion of air to any of the four data connectors spaced around the room.
Restoration efforts extended far beyond the organ itself. “Fire protection required a tremendous amount of time-consuming research,” explains Randall. “The amount of water from typical sprinklers would ruin an organ. We looked at gas systems, but they wouldn’t work because one side of the room is cloth-covered, not solid. Finally we found a Scandinavian system that uses super high-pressure mist. The vapor would extinguish a fire without drenching the organ.”
Visitors will appreciate the windows in the organ museum behind the ballroom. These permit viewing of five of the pipe chambers, but it wasn’t easy to install the glass. “Because the organ was in place, we had to build an enormous, airtight plywood wall to seal it off from its great enemy: dust,” Randall says. “Then we could knock down the plaster and hollow tiles and install the windows.” The exhibit also explains the history of Longwood’s organ and shows how the instrument works.
When the Longwood Organ is officially rededicated in February, music with infinite nuance and thrilling power will fill the Conservatory. Almost ninety years after Pierre du Pont installed the first organ in this horticultural showplace, the idea still seems like a sound one.
The Longwood Organ will be rededicated on February 4, 2011, with a concert by Peter Richard Conte; other concerts and events will take place throughout the weekend. For information, visit http://www.longwoodgardens.org/organdedication.html
Visit http://www.longwoodgardens.org/OrganHistory_1_3_2_1_5.html to read about the history of the Longwood Organ.
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Meet the arborists and gardeners that care for our trees and flowers throughout Spring Blooms, and see demonstrations throughout our Conservatory and outdoor gardens.
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Get ready for an evening of oohs and ahhs, as Longwood presents spectacular Fireworks & Fountains shows guaranteed to make your summer memorable.
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Registration is now open for our 2013 Continuing Education courses!
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