Pipe Organs have a rich history that is Music to our Ears

One of the most unique concerts I played 2022 took place at the Lake Leelenau RV Park in northern Michigan. The owner of this park, a kindly widower in his 80’s, is a lover of pipe organs and organ music, as well as being very handy with electronics and general building. So it happened that when he found out about a couple churches in the area selling their pipe organs, he was able to acquire them, and with his son built a large addition to his modest home, for his own pipe organ.

This instrument is quite successful in this space, impeccably maintained by the organ lover himself, and played in the summer in a series of house concerts for guests of his RV Park, as well as visitors from the surrounding areas. Though unusual, this venue provided one of the most enthusiastic audiences of any concert I’ve played in recent memory. While classical music audiences don’t tend to attract folks who aren’t already lovers of said genre (and organ music concerts even more so!), this concert was attended by both organ lovers, and people who had no idea what I was doing. Many questions were asked afterwards, and I believe we made some new fans for organ music.

The proprietor of the Lake Leelenau RV Park is not a historical abnormality. In years past, many folks had pipe organs in their homes. In the 19th century, before recorded music was available, the upper crust often had their own pipe organs built in their large homes (families with names like Kodak, Carnegie, Kellogg, etc) and they hired organists to serenade them at mealtimes, or during parties. Can you imagine Jeff Bezos, or Sam Walton with a pipe organ in their home? I guess times have changed and pipe organs just aren’t as sexy as they used to be. Alas…

About 8 years ago, there was a home for sale in Grand Rapids with a pipe organ inside. I knew the house and owner, because he’d hosted organ events there at his home, and I’d been invited to play. Like the widower in Lake Leelenau, this man did not play the organ. He was simply a lover of organ music. The console (that’s where one plays – a large desk-sized piece of furniture) occupied one room, as well as chairs to sit and listen, and another large room was filled with pipes and the blowers – machines which provide the air that flows through the pipes. As I heard, the house was eventually bought by another organ-lover, who moved from the West Coast to Grand Rapids, to live in his dream home – with his very own pipe organ.

If this intrigues you, I recommend the fascinating picture book, Pipe Organs of the Rich and Famous by Smith/ Levasseur, published by the Organ Historical Society. Buy it from them and support organists, instead of Mr. Bezos, with your book buying dollars!

You may think that since you don’t play the organ, or attend church (or attend a church with an organ), or classical music concerts that you would never have an opportunity to hear organ music. How wrong you might be! How about Windmill Island, and Dutch Village? While the instruments there are technically barrel organs, the pipes inside are exactly like the pipes inside the organs I play in concerts. There isn’t a keyboard – they are played more like a music box – but these organs also have bellows. What about the Public Museum in Grand Rapids? In their auditorium, they have a theater organ – an instrument played during silent movies, and previously for all kinds of entertainment. In addition to pipes, theater organs contain a whole battery of percussion instruments, bells and whistles (literally), and extras like fire alarms and birds chirping. The Frauenthal Theater in Muskegon also has a vintage theater pipe organ, though it’s not played as often as the instrument in GR (which was for a time in a pizza parlor!) And here’s one more – ever been to a White Caps game? While they obviously don’t have a PIPE organ at those games, my son and I were delighted to discover last summer than an organist sits at her instrument in the top of the stands, watching the game, and playing songs and snippets in reaction to the plays in real time. Maybe organs are sexier than we all originally thought!