Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the December 19,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New Tune for the Old Organ
Pity the stereotypical organist, a frequently forgotten
person hidden out of sight in a choir loft, whose imposing musical
contributions mark the prescribed order of a religious service.
with a highly demanding instrument, they may not necessarily emerge
until after playing the postlude to the service, when the congregation
has already dispersed. Uncelebrated and unnoticed, they may have to
battle inferior instruments. This old stereotype, however, is rapidly
Organists and their instruments are forming a high-profile presence
in central New Jersey. In February, Princeton Theological Seminary
(PTS) dedicated its new Joe R. Engle Organ. In March, Princeton’s
Trinity Church inaugurated a new instrument. Since September, New
Brunswick’s Christ Church has been using a new organ, which will
its finishing touches in January. In separate triumphs of musical
and architectural craftsmanship, each instrument has been specifically
designed for the space in which it has been installed.
In tandem with the new instruments, a column of organists has moved
across the central Jersey map. Organist George Stauffer arrived in
the summer of 2000 to become dean of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of
the Arts, and Rutgers’ Kirkpatrick Chapel has a new organist in
Bittman. At the Princeton University Chapel David Messineo has taken
over as principal organist, replacing Joan Lippincott, who, after
seven years in the post, turned to full-time performing and recording.
Messineo awaits the moment when the University Chapel’s prized Mander
Organ, safeguarded against the dust of a two-year chapel renovation,
will once again be available. Lippincott, meanwhile, has been active
at PTS, happily familiarizing herself with the Engle organ built by
Paul Fritts, on which she recorded her most recent CD, an exuberant
and lucid account of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, with
by the Princeton University Chapel Camerata. Entitled
and issued by Gothic Records of Seattle, the CD consists of organ
obbligato movements from Bach cantatas. Following Bach’s practice,
Lippincott has arranged the movements in fast-slow-fast sequences
to create three concerto-like entities.
The Engle organ at PTS, named after its donor, is prominent in a
of Lessons and Carols on Wednesday, December 19, a service that is
held twice, at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., at Miller Chapel on the Seminary
campus. The seminary’s Cantate Domino and Jubilate Deo choirs, led
by music director Martin Tel, sing both ancient and contemporary
Caroling on the Seminary grounds follows. The public is welcome.
Lippincott traverses a wide range of organ topics as
we sit in an empty Miller Chapel with the new instrument rising above
us. The chapel is named for Samuel Miller, the second professor at
the Presbyterian seminary. Recipient of a Historical Society of
restoration award in May 2001, the steepleless chapel is of modest
size and relatively low. Except for bare wood floors stained brown,
its walls and pews are ivory. Corinthian columns and a simple molding
at the ceiling emphasize the rectangular shape of the renovated space.
Large paned windows admit a great deal of light. John Knox himself
would have found the building’s simplicity appropriate.
The new organ dominates the front of the room. "Placing the organ
front and center was a decision reached after exploring the
of the rear balcony," says Paul Fritts in a conversation reported
in "Diapason," one of the two national journals for organists.
"A good deal of remodeling was done to provide more width to the
front of the chapel, so that the organ could stand on the floor at
the front, with its presence clearly `in the room.’"
Evolving from early Calvinist opposition to the use of instruments
in a worship service, up-to-date Presbyterian institutions have
a theological-musical compromise that assigns an important role to
the organ for worship. By this thinking, the organ is essential for
leading congregational singing. A secondary consideration is its use
to support choral singing. The capacity of the instrument to play
the literature for organ is a tertiary matter.
Viewed head on, the most prominent part of the instrument is an array
of shiny silver pipes partially masked by ivory-colored open swirls
of carved wood screening with vaguely botanical references. The
was done by Judy Fritts, sister of the organ builder. "The idea
was to integrate the shape of the organ’s case and pipes so it would
feel at home in this room," Lippincott says. "We wanted the
organ case to be related to the decoration in the room. But the
shapes also have to do with function. The wood affects how the sound
resonates. The depth and height of the case influence the quality
of the sound, the blend of the sound, and its projection. Both the
case and the room are important to the sound."
"There’s been a flurry of organ building recently," she notes.
"Some stunning instruments have been built, and there’s a backlog
among the best organ builders. Paul Fritts, who’s now 50, makes some
of the best modern instruments being built. He’s emerged as one of
the finest organ builders of the world."
Lippincott prizes the new instrument for its ability to communicate
the music of the baroque period as well as the music of the 20th
While it is not a copy of a baroque instrument, its design is
influenced. Like other instrumentalists, organists have discovered
that authentic performance calls for informed musical and instrumental
Using the Fritts instrument, Lippincott demonstrates the booming
sound of the modern organ as well as the clearly-articulated sound
of Bach. All-enveloping, the modern sound leaves no respite for the
ear. In contrast, the baroque sound gives each note its individual
space, sculpting melodic lines out of articulated sounds. Kindly,
she lets me try the instrument. It is responsive and supple, ready
to do whatever the player commands.
"Organists have learned that there’s more than one kind of
Lippincott says. "A generation ago a very smooth legato was
desirable. Now it’s widely understood that baroque legato is not so
connected. Organists are learning how to play with more flexibility
of sound. They’re beginning to realize that there are many degrees
of touch. In a razzle-dazzle 19th-century organ piece you have to
use many varieties of staccato." She compares the legato touch
required for baroque organ to a string of pearls where each unit
the adjacent ones, but is independent.
Lippincott offers praise for the method book "Organ
and Early," first published in 1992 by George Ritchie and George
Stauffer, now of Rutgers. The volume is a comprehensive guide to organ
playing and styles, to the construction of the instrument, and to
practical matters such as what sort of shoes to wear, and how to
The material helps even a beginner understand the workings of the
sophisticated Fritts instrument.
The sound of the PTS organ is set in motion by three keyboards. Two,
called manuals, which look like the white and black keys of a piano
keyboard, are played with the hands. One, consisting of pedals
to the white and black keys of a piano keyboard, is played with the
Lippincott stresses that the organ is a wind instrument in which sound
is produced by forcing air through pipes of various sizes and shapes,
whereas the piano is a percussion instrument in which sound is
by a hammer. "When we depress a key on an organ," she says,
"we’re opening a valve that allows air to go into a pipe. It
less physical force than a piano." Martin Tel of PTS makes another
distinction: "The wonderful thing that organists get to work with
is release," he says. "If you don’t release, the sound doesn’t
stop. Organ is unlike piano, where the sound decays."
The Fritts organ at PTS uses a mechanical action to connect the key
to the pipe; the connector is a wooden strip called a tracker. With
the alternative action, called an electro-pneumatic action, the key
is connected to the pipe by a system of pneumatic pouches and
contacts. In an organ with a tracker action the keyboards must be
near the pipes; in an organ with electro-pneumatic action keyboards
and pipes may be widely separated.
"Tracker organs are now regaining favor after being eclipsed for
a while by electronically-driven organs," says Mark Trautman,
director of music at New Brunswick’s Christ Church. "The advantage
is that the player has an intimate relation to the way the organ
Playing a tracker organ is like playing a piano or a flute. With an
electro-pneumatic action you’re manipulating switches; the manuals
can be far away from the pipes. The wide separation is difficult to
coordinate musically, and it’s visually confusing."
Lippincott joins Trautman in advocating tracker action, a position
she has reached after long and extensive experience with the
Born in Kearny, New Jersey, on Christmas Day, 1935, the daughter of
an import-export broker father and a homemaker mother, she came into
a family with a strong paternal musical tradition. "My father’s
family was Swedish," she says, "and they all played keyboard
instruments. They could all improvise on the piano."
"I wanted to play organ since an early age," Lippincott says.
"My initial connection had to do with wanting to play the organ
in church. I was brought up in a northern Baptist church, where my
family were members, and in a Presbyterian church, where my organ
Lippincott started with piano and switched to organ at 13. Kearny
High School was unique in possessing a three-manual pipe organ. "I
was the high school organist," she says. "It was a big deal.
I was excused from study hall to practice organ. I went to Westminster
Choir College as an undergraduate because of Westminster’s strength
Immediately after graduate work in organ at Philadelphia’s Curtis
Institute, Lippincott was invited to teach at Westminster. She was
principal organist for Princeton University Chapel organist from 1993
to 2000. With performances in the United States, Canada and Europe,
her discography includes music of Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Widor,
Alain, and Pinkham. She lives with her husband Curt, a retired
counselor, in Skillman.
"The two biggest challenges for learning organ," says
"are learning how to touch the instrument and learning how to
play the pedals. The pedals are really just another keyboard.
the feet with the hands is the greatest difficulty. Organ music has
three lines, and beginners tend to play the pedal part with their
left hand." Ritchie and Stauffer’s method book instructs beginners
on pedal notation, which indicates the foot to be used and whether
to employ heel or toe.
Lippincott emphasizes the precise engagement of fingers on the keys.
"Organists must first be in touch with the key and then depress
it," she says. "The pipes, when they speak, have an initial
consonant, which can be influenced by the finger. After the initial
depression of the key comes the ‘bloom’ of the sound, which can not
be controlled by the player. It depends on the material, diameter,
and voicing of the pipe. ‘Bloom’ suggests beauty and movement in
I like the term. The bloom is followed by an ending consonant, which
is very much controlled by the player; it depends on how the player
"For me," Lippincott says, "the organ is the best
in the world. I feel privileged and blessed that I’m able to do this.
My passion is Bach. Playing in `Bach in the Big Apple’ [a current
New York concert series], I think I died and went to heaven. But I
love all the repertoire. There are so many giants."
— Elaine Strauss
Festival service of Lessons and Carols marking the end of the Advent
season is led by Seminary president Thomas Gillespie, the Cantate
Domino and Jubilate Deo choirs directed by Martin Tel. Caroling on
the Seminary grounds led by seminary choirs follows. Free.
December 19, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.
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