The George and Laura Pierce Memorial Organ
Built by Lemieux & Associates Pipe Organ Co., LLC
“He did a fantastic job. The sound is powerful. There’s a variety of colors. They even hand-picked pipes originally form the 1920s... They have a warm, mellow sound, and the sound compliments the beauty of this church”
- David Hyde Pierce
Actor and Musician
Two thousand nineteen will mark the ten year anniversary of the Bethesda Episcopal Church Gallery Organ which was donated by David Hyde Pierce and his siblings; Tom, Nancy, and Barbara, in memory of their parents. The Pierces grew up attending Bethesda. Mr. David Hyde Pierce was kind enough to play a few pieces at the dedication recital on October 11th, 2009 (Adagio from Widor’s Fifth Symphony and Campra’s Rigaudon). The dedication, most of which was played by the Church’s stellar organist, Farrell Goehring, was a huge success and the following is excerpts from the builder, Daniel Lemieux's dedication program notes:
The Pierce Memorial Organ was conceived in that special place in the mind where artistic idealism reigns. It is a unique instrument for a unique situation. It was designed to enhance the worship music with three purposes in mind: accompany the choir with soft registers, support congregational singing with a strong principal foundation, and provide distinctive solo voices as a Solo/Antiphonal division.
Stylistically, its inspiration derives from the 1920 Skinner organ that was removed in 1967 to make way for the cutting-edge sound of the bright neo-baroque Casavant organ in the Chancel. Organ design aesthetics is a very interesting subject. Unlike other instruments, such as the violin, the organ is constantly metamorphosing along with the culture, both tonally and technologically. In this way it is a mirror of our culture, and the best examples are able to withstand the test of time. The Skinner organ was huge; twice the size of the Casavant and resided behind a magnificent Gothic revival case from an 1847 Henry Crabb organ originally at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, NY. This was an anathema to the both the visual and tonal aesthetics of the 1960s. Everything had to be bright and articulate and able to play Bach clearly, even thought they had yet to make the leap of actually copying historical instruments (a practice which had become common by the 1980s). Luckily, the 1967 Casavant organ is a great example of its style. But as fate, or irony would have it, the Skinner style has come back with a vengeance and is now today widely regarded as a high watermark in American organ building.
Bethesda Church was looking to recapture some of the more English inspired sound of the Skinner. To this end, pipework from the teens and twenties was acquired to create the gallery instrument you hear today. Two of the ranks were fabricated by the Samuel Pierce Organ Pipe Co., of Reading, MA. These pipes were from the 1913 Harvard Club organ in Boston, MA. Though Pierce (no relation?) was not a high-profile company like Skinner, their work is considered to be among the finest available in its day and the construction and voicing of these pipes is of exceptional quality. The principal facade pipes you see are from a rare Mason & Hamlin pipe organ, and are made of zinc and have impressive thick Gothic mouths. The Open Diapason was made by Kimball in 1920. Like Mason and Hamlin, Kimball, out of Chicago, is primarily known for piano making, but made beautiful pipe organs as well in the early twentieth century. The rest of the pipework consists of an Erzähler and Erzähler Celeste (a Skinner invention and his favorite string stops), a big fluty Bourdon, a breathy Harmonic Flute (that sounds like a real traverse flute), an Oboe, and a Cornopean (a loud trumpet-like reed stop). With the exception of the pianissimo strings, each rank is as large scaled (sized) and opulent sounding as the space permitted.
The casework takes its design from the Arts and Crafts style paneling that was part of the Skinner organ facade (a small part of which is still utilized in the chancel organ). The refurbished 1925 organ console came from a church near Philadelphia has been stripped and refinished to match the dark Bethesda woodwork. Some other innovative and radical design features include: a ¼” birch soundboard ceiling to create resonance; very thick swell shades for a better dynamic range (these are incorporated in the molding design, joining function and form seamlessly); electro-pneumatic unit chests to handle higher pressure responsively; a state-of-the-art digital control system with record-playback, multiple memory levels, transposer, and many other features. We utilized every rank to its fullest, so that a savvy organist can have the ability to make exponentially more combination variations.
To give one illustration of the differences between the two organs, the 48 rank chancel Casavant organ runs off a 1.5 horsepower blower motor with a wind pressure of 2.5”. The Pierce memorial organ utilizes a 5 horsepower blower motor to provide 8 unified ranks with 6” of wind pressure. Unification refers to playing the same eight ranks at several different pitches and over the organ’s three divisions (Great, Swell, and Pedal). This is why the gallery organ has forty stops on the console but contains only eight ranks. The gallery organ is able to be played from the chancel organ as well (which was no easy feat considering the Chancel Organ switching was not updated as part of this project).
It takes many people to bring a complex project like this into reality. To everyone who had a hand in it, I am eternally grateful. I am also grateful to the staff and congregation of Bethesda, especially organist Farrell Goehring, who has given generously of his time. And, of course, the Pierce family for donating the funds that make it all possible. As with any organ project, in the design phase it is impossible to know how well it will sound in the space and complement the front organ. It is always a leap of faith informed by intuition. But thankfully, it really did work. The two organs, being diametrically opposed stylistic extremes, somehow blend marvelously. This dichotomy, very much represents our time and our ability to accept a collage of aesthetics simultaneously. Even though inspired by the 1920 organ, and utilizing all pipework from this era, this organ represents this day and age. Its technology is cutting edge and gives the organist complete control over its resources. Its sound is opulent and powerful; designed to get the attention of an amplified world and ear budded population. But moreover, all this aside, it is designed to blend harmoniously with, and seamlessly augment the comforting and steadfast traditional worship service that Bethesda has been torchbearer of for a century and a half. May the souls of this century and those to come, through word and song, find the same peace at Bethesda that so many families and forbears of the past have cherished deep in their hearts. – D. Lemieux.