The king of instruments: Pipe organs offer connection, celebration

By Ian McKechnie

Among the many cancellations wrought by the coronavirus on the arts and culture scene this year are the annual Christmas concerts, meaning that many of the magnificent pipe organs which lead festive carol sings in our area will be silent for the remainder of 2020.

One needn’t be a churchgoer to be captivated by the pipe organ. Over the centuries, it has serenaded bridal parties, accompanied silent films and warmed the hearts of concert-goers the world over. In lieu of hearing them in person this Christmas, I invite you to join me in this story as we embark on an “organ crawl” across Kawartha Lakes — discovering the history and character of these marvellous musical instruments, which in many cases have been operating for more than a century.

While they vary in size and age, the pipe organs installed throughout Kawartha Lakes all operate on the same principle. Pressurized air is forced into groupings, or ranks, of pipes made from wood or metal. Each rank is turned on and off by stops, giving the organist an incredible palette of sound, from delicate woodwinds to blazing trumpets. The ranks are spread over divisions, each controlled from a different keyboard (also called a key deck or manual). When a key is depressed, a valve opens and air is directed into a particular rank of pipes, producing a sound.

An impressive feat of engineering? You bet. “The organ has been called the king of instruments,” wrote Henry Cooke Hamilton, organist at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lindsay from 1901 through 1912. “While there may be a divergence of opinion here,” he continued, “no one can deny that it is the most comprehensive output of man’s genius in making a musical instrument.”

Somewhat ironically, Presbyterians eschewed organs until about 150 years ago. The human voice, they claimed, was sufficient. Times had changed by 1899, when the Karn-Warren company of Woodstock, Ont., installed a two-manual, 1,127-pipe organ in St. Andrew’s. With its rich tones and beautiful oak case, this organ attracted recitalists from as far away as England. Feeling ambitious in 1927, the church had this instrument completely rebuilt and enlarged by the Toronto firm of Franklin Legge. Sadly, by 1966, the organ had deteriorated to the point of being almost inoperable. Familiar with the new electronic organs, then-organist William Perry recommended that St. Andrew’s invest in a three-manual Rodgers organ that remains in use to this day.

Mackey Funeral Home had better luck with its one-manual Franklin Legge organ, which has been doing its duty in the chapel since 1942. Though small, the instrument has a considerable vocal range. A walk across the street will bring the organ enthusiast to Cambridge Street Baptist Church, which in 1944 had a nine-rank pipe organ installed in memory of the Morton family — the culmination of plans first laid in 1918 by Mr. Fulton Stewart.

A short walk north, Cambridge Street United Church boasts the largest organ in this area, with three manuals and more than 2,000 pipes. Built in 1913 by the renowned Casavant Frères company of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, it was upgraded in 2008 with the addition of several digital ranks. This blend of old and new technology has beautifully enhanced the many services and recitals, and starred in biennial Phantom of the Organ events held in the church.

Smaller though by no means less historically significant is the organ at Trinity United Church in Omemee. A gift from John and Flora McCrea Eaton (later Sir John and Lady Eaton), it was formally dedicated at a concert on Sept. 16, 1907. At 518 pipes, it was modest in size but stunning in sound. “From the faintest whispers of its soft stops to the loud crescendo of the full organ, every contrast of tone and power was given,” wrote one correspondent.

There are many other pipe organs in the community, from the splendid specimen at St. Paul’s Anglican Church to that in the former Queen Street United Church (now Celebrations), which incorporates 140 year-old pipes previously used in an organ at a church in Toronto. A “melodious pipe organ” was even installed at the MacAlpine private estate on Sturgeon Lake.

Many are the organs, but few are the people skilled at playing them. Even fewer —at least here in Kawartha Lakes — are young people who have taken up the challenge of mastering all of those keys, stops and pedals.

Shannon Fiedler, who presides at the 21-rank Karn-Warren instrument in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Lindsay, began playing the organ in 2008 when she was 14 years old.

“It is interesting to note that St. Mary’s last four organists all started in the position before they were 20 years old,” Shannon observes. “It has proven to be an extremely creative and unique outlet for me. More than that, though, I have a deep appreciation for music’s powerful ability to connect people and foster community.”



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