Pipe organs built to the highest artistic and quality standards can be marvelous instruments. World-renown instruments include those by Cavaillé-Coll, Silbermann, Arp Schnitger, Henry Willis and others. More contemporary organ builders strive to obtain installations of similar qualities. This requires not only the finest craftsmanship, but also an acoustically friendly build architecture, as well as a large budget for the project. A deficiency in any of these areas will lead to an unsuccessful organ installation, which unfortunately occurs too often.
The master organ builders of Europe were fine craftsman and artisans in the field. At the same time they had the advantage of installing instruments in buildings that are acoustically friendly for organs. This reality led to the saying that “the building is often the finest stop of an organ”.
Many buildings constructed in the past 100 years are not friendly to organ installations. They are constructed of materials that absorb sound making their acoustics disastrous for pipe organs whose sounds cannot be acoustically enhanced. These buildings were also often not designed with adequate space for pipe chambers.
At the other end of the acoustical spectrum are buildings that are so large that it is impossible to achieve a satisfactory pipe organ installation. In such buildings scaling the organ to be loud enough for its sound to fill the entire space makes that sound too loud for listeners located near the pipes. Such is the case with St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world capable of housing approximately 12,000. Located towards the front of the church on both sides of the nave is a four-manual Tamburini pipe organ built in 1954 and refurbished in 1962. This installation has created problems including an organ that is too loud in the front of the church and whose sound cannot be properly heard halfway down the Basilica. The organ’s tuning also causes problems when other musical instruments are used. Finally, coordination between the organ and choir is nearly impossible.
Because of the difficulties with the pipe organ, in late 2017 St. Peter’s requested that an Allen GeniSys be installed and ready for use during the Basilica’s 2017 Christmas Mass. This digital organ resolves the Basilica’s challenging acoustic needs through a flexible audio system that includes a combination of custom Allen audio used in conjunction with the Basilica’s large PA system. While significantly less expensive than a pipe organ, the Allen digital organ provides pipe organ sounds and an audio system that offers greater flexibility than a pipe organ in a challenging acoustical environment.
Below is a link to a You Tube video of St. Peter’s 2017 Christmas Mass. The Allen organ was used throughout the Mass.
The possibility of a pipe organ installation can engender a strong emotional response due to the instruments’ historical heritage. This emotional response needs to be tempered with the realities of what a pipe organ installation would mean in a given building. Cost is a factor, but just as important is the musical limitations such pipe organ installations include.