ROCHESTER — The ceremonial pipe organ of the 18th century was the Formula One racer of its time, a masterpiece of human ingenuity so elegant in its outward appearance that a casual observer could only guess at the complexity that lay within.
Stephen Kennedy, of the Eastman School of Music, pumps the bellows for the organ at Christ Church, Episcopal, in Rochester.
Each organ was designed to fit its intended space, ranging in size from local churches where townspeople could worship to vast cathedrals fit for royalty. The builders were precision craftsmen celebrated for their skill in hand-making thousands of moving parts and in shaping and tuning metal and wooden pipes to mimic the sounds of each instrument in an orchestra.
The effect was breathtaking. “Each instrument speaks to you in a different way,” said Hans Davidsson, a concert organist, sitting before the console of the organ at the cavernous Christ Church, Episcopal, in Rochester. Dr. Davidsson began to play the Bach hymn “Gottes Sohn Ist Kommen” (“The Son of God Is Coming”), and an enormous, bell-clear sound exploded from the gleaming pipes that soared above him.
The organ, the Craighead-Saunders, is a unique instrument, not only because of its lovely sound, but also because it is a nearly exact copy of a late Baroque organ built by Adam Gottlob Casparini of East Prussia in 1776. The original stands in the Holy Ghost Church in Vilnius, Lithuania.
There is no other contemporary organ quite like the one at Christ Church.
Modern instruments take advantage of technologies that have given organ-makers generations of new tools and materials, like air compressors, composites and the electric circuit.
But before all that, the builders did it another way. Air for the pipes of the Christ Church organ comes from huge leather bellows pumped by an assistant on a wooden treadle behind the keyboard. Stops, keys and foot pedals use an ingenious system of rigid oak and limewood strips, called “trackers,” connected at right angles to hand-forged iron joints. The organ has neither wire nor pulleys.
The metal pipes are made of lead and tin, hand-rolled around wooden templates and soldered. Most of the wooden pipes are made of pine. High-register pipes are small and narrow, some the size of a pencil. Low-register pipes approach the diameter of storm drains. The congregation sees perhaps 100 pipes from its vantage point in the pews. The rest — the Christ Church organ has more than 2,200 in all — are tucked out of sight behind the console.
The project to build a replica of the Vilnius organ began in 2000 at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, but Eastman had long wanted a new instrument for Christ Church. David Higgs, a concert organist and head of the Eastman organ department, had been seeking one for years.
In 1998, Mr. Higgs met Dr. Davidsson, the founder of the Goteborg Organ Art Center in Sweden. The center specializes in reconstructing historic organs and in making sure that restored instruments sounded the way the builders intended and that they properly played the music that was written for them.
Reconstruction is not easy. The technique for building large Baroque pipe organs had matured by the 17th century, but progress since then has put new tools in builders’ hands. Entirely new schools of organ-building, performance, composition and taste evolved. These days, organs are tuned differently. Many are bigger, more robust and designed to play different kinds of music. Older organs needed to keep up with the times, so they were modified, sometimes so radically that their original tone could no longer be discerned.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a movement arose to recover a technology that was fast disappearing. Builders began to make new “old” instruments that could play Baroque music as it had originally sounded, “but they didn’t do it very successfully,” said Craig R. Whitney, the author of “All the Stops,” a history of pipe organs in the United States and an amateur organist. Mr. Whitney was the standards editor for The New York Times when he retired this fall.
“They had some of the sounds” Mr. Whitney said, “but they weren’t exact replicas.”
The old instruments did not fare well in this environment, either. “Most of the preserved organs in Western Europe have been ‘restored,’ ” said Munetaka Yokota, an organ builder for Goteborg. “But frequently the restoration is not faithful. You make choices: wood, iron or plastic; plywood or solid wood. You change the design and the construction process. It looks old, but it’s not, and the sound is much different.” A SECOND PART FOLLOWS