Organ tuner Dave Ressler was at the Old Cathedral on the St. Louis riverfront getting the pipe organ ready for Christmas.
The organ is a grand instrument that stretches across the choir loft of the church – its magnificent gold pipes encased in an ornate wooden cabinet that was built by a Cincinnati organ builder in 1838.
Inside the cabinetry are the pipes that do the real work, and there’s nothing elegant about them. It’s a sound factory in here, with nearly 1,700 industrial-looking pipes crammed into every space. Metal pipes. Wood pipes. Short pipes. Long pipes. They’re made of metal or wood, ranging in length from 2 inches to 16 feet, and are arranged by sound in ranks.
“They all have a different voice,’’ Ressler said. “The different materials make them sound different. The wood pipes sound more like flutes. The metal pipes are either string-like -- like violins. And there’s a bunch of others that are just peculiar to the organ -- principals -- that sound like what pipe organs sound like.”
He had climbed up a narrow ladder to reach a shelf of shorter pipes -- the oboes -- and he was coaxing them into perfect pitch.
While his assistant sat at the organ’s console playing one note at a time, Ressler compared the pitch with an electronic tuner -- and listened with his experienced ear. Using a thin tool, called a tuning knife, he gently adjusted the misbehavers.
“The metal ones have a slide on them which allows you to change the length of the pipe just a little bit because that’s what changes the pitch,’’ he said. “There’s wood pipes that have little scrolls on them. And wood pipes with stoppers that you manipulate. These two sets here are both reeds, and they have an actual moving metal reed inside, and there’s a little wire that you adjust to get the reed to come to the right pitch. And you just try to move fast so that they all stay together because the temperature is shifting in the room and pitch can shift while you’re doing it.’’
It will take Ressler hours to tune the organ, but he likes the challenge of perfecting the sound.
“It’s hard to go to an organ concert because all I hear is what’s wrong,’’ he said.
Pipe organs and climate change
It’s the busy season for the organ tuners of the Wicks Organ Company of Highland, Illinois, where Ressler has worked for 30 years.
“Christmas time is a big time for all the liturgical services, so people want it to sound as good as it can,’’ he said.
Company president Scott Wick says his three service crews have been busy all month tuning organs at nearly 300 churches of all denominations in Missouri and Illinois.
The instruments are usually serviced twice a year -- at Christmas and again at Easter -- coinciding with major shifts in the weather.
“Most churches have a heating season and an air-conditioning season,” Wick said. “So the climate, the humidity, the temperature of the room is set differently at those two times of the year. And since the pipe organ is a windblown musical instrument, the temperature affects the density of the air going through the pipes. When that density changes, it changes the pitch. But not all pipes move the same amount so the job of the tuner is to get all of them back together at the same pitch.’’
Organ tuning is a tedious process that requires “a good ear,” he said.
“It takes concentration to listen and to observe what the instrument is doing and to try to balance everything together,’’ said Wick, whose grandfather and uncles started the company in 1908.
Despite a major downsizing in 2011, Wicks is one of only a handful of companies in the Midwest that still build and service pipe organs.
Wick said the company weathered the recession and responded to slowing demand by rethinking how it did business. Instead of 80 employees, the company now employs 13. And it outsources some of its work to former employees.
“A man who was working in our pipe shop building pipes for the last 35 years, he bought our pipe-making facility -- all our equipment and tools -- and moved it to his shop,’’ Wick said. “And so if we need pipes he’s just down the road from us, and he can make pipes for us. We’ve got two console builders who are not too far from us.’’
Wick can tell you how many instruments his company has built during its century in business -- 6,478 -- and many of them are still in use. Wicks also builds digital organs now.
“We’re seeing that most of our work today comes from the rebuilding of existing instruments,’’ he said. “People are holding on to them more and more. I see that trend is going to continue. We are focused in that area, more than building brand new ones.”
"It's an orchestra"
Wick says his family has a special connection to the Old Cathedral -- they’ve rebuilt the organ twice -- in 1924 and again in 1992 -- and he considers it a Wicks organ, though it retains its original exterior and still has some of its original pipes.
“Some of the pipes date back almost 200 years old that are in this instrument,’’ he said. "There’s a sense of pride and responsibility that we maintain those pipes and that they continue to sound well.’’
Dan Vizer, who’s been the organist at the Old Cathedral for 26 years, expects a packed house for Christmas services. St. Louisans have been celebrating Christmas at this location on the riverfront since the parish was founded in 1770 and settlers built a log cabin church. The recently renovated cathedral was dedicated in 1834 and is the fourth church to be built on the site,
“It’s a home place for many Catholics here in the area, and many people come to visit because it’s the first cathedral west of the Mississippi,’’ Vizer said.
Christmas Mass will feature traditional hymns, Vizer said. At the service’s end, he will pull out the stops on his newly-tuned organ for an arrangement of “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” which showcases the organ’s range of sounds, including its hooded trumpets.
“It’s an orchestra, with two hands and two feet controlling it,’’ Vizer said.