St. Luke's, San Antonio: An Explainer
Since making the announcement back in April, we have yet to fully explain the genesis of our project for St. Luke’s in San Antonio. I want to make it clear what our intentions are as we proceed.
The organ at St. Luke’s has been having serious problems that frustrated organists there for many years. Russell Jackson, a Fellow of the London College of Music, had taken over as the new Director of Music in 2013. In reviewing the history of the instrument, one of Russell’s first goals was to address the issues with organ. To that end, in 2014 he invited us — along with other well respected builders — to make assessments.
As we have worked on and cared for many instruments of similar provenance and vintage, I felt I had a good idea of what to expect. Still, in seeking to make a thorough assessment for a client, as always, I did my best to set preconceptions aside.
When I examined the organ, mechanically, there was no question Russell’s concerns had merit. I have seen and laid fingers upon many fine and responsive mechanical actions, both historic and contemporary. To my regret, this was not one of them. Among local organists the St. Luke's organ had a well established reputation for its heaviness and intractability. Put simply, for a modern instrument, what I encountered was disappointing and outside the range of acceptability.
Other chronic issues were the slider motors and capture system. For years, key voices in the organ were alternately either unavailable, stuck on, or worse yet, partway on. We were told these problems had plagued the organ for more than a decade. The slider motor units in the Bovenwerk and Pedaal (where the problems were most serious) were particularly difficult to access; in fact one could not possibly hope to access the motors in the Bovenwerk without sweeping more than half the pipes off the chest.
Tonally, things were likewise clear-cut, but regarding this issue overall, let me say this: it would be very easy to look at the present situation and planned future for St. Luke’s organ and rationalize it as a matter of a client wishing to follow a trend or fad in tonal design. Certainly in our trade there is precedent, but applied here, such reasoning assumes that the instrument as originally built was unquestionably a success in musical terms.
The objective reality, as experienced by the church in the 35 years since the organ’s installation and our own survey, is very different. One cannot escape the reality that the scaling of the principal choruses of the organ is extremely slight. The data collected in my survey seemed absurd: base normalmensur for an 8’ principal is 155.5mm, and I found principal stops in St. Luke’s more than 6 HT smaller than what knowledgeable builders consider the baseline point of reference.
In a sanctuary that seats 800 persons, the problem this sort of scaling practice creates is drawn into stark relief. So too the specification, with its Dutch antecedents. St. Luke’s may be patterned after Muller’s organ at St. Bavo in Haarlem and further inspired by Flentrop’s 1965 tour de force at St. Mark’s in Seattle, but it is crucial to note it is in an incarnation smaller by a good one-third, heavily favoring upper work and omitting important foundational voices, especially in the pedal.
If in listening one compares the organ at St. Luke’s to such examples, or even to the work of other successful builders working in the same milieu at the same time, with other builders one sees much more generous scaling and a greater variety of 8' tone in the manual divisions. For the wise organ builder, this is a delicate but deliberate bending of the rules of historicity if one’s goal is replication of an historic instrument, or crafting work in an historic style. It is a necessary concession to the reality of the musical function of the organ in worship. One simply must have a compliment of proportionately scaled stops for choral accompaniment and to effectively lead congregational singing. Such stops also serve as a foundation for the other voices in the organ. In the concert hall and other settings, one can take license, but in a church whose life is established with music in the Anglican tradition, proper tonal foundation is an absolute necessity. One ignores this at one’s peril, and hence, here we find ourselves, 35 years later, confronting the reality.
The cause is clear: the organ is too modestly scaled for a room the size of St. Luke’s and, when engaged, the upperwork of the instrument totally overwhelms the ensemble. In came as little surprise therefore that in later dismantling the organ, we found two out of three of the organ’s manual chorus mixtures with ranks muted off. Consider the irony in that in our early evaluations, we all agreed the Rugpositief's chorus was the most successful of the three, only to later find that all the upper quint ranks were sealed off by someone many years ago with masking tape over the pipe toes.
If all the above were not enough, equally serious was a tuning issue that had remained unresolved since the organ had been built: with the Hofdwerk set in the conventional position atop the Bovenwerk, even in a climate controlled sanctuary the temperature there was always consistently higher. The result was the primary manual division being steadily sharp pf the rest of the organ by anywhere from 15 to 25 cents. Unaddressed, this makes the division effectively unusable in the majority of basic registrations, unless of course one is highly tolerant of such tuning dissonances. The custom had become, sadly, for organists to spend most of their time playing around this very serious problem. Planned changes and upgrades to the church climate control systems will mitigate this issue, but we also plan to keep the pitch of the Hofdwerk matched to the rest of the organ once it is reinstalled, holding out the installation of tuning sleeves (installed in a manner similar to the way Fisk uses them) as an absolute last resort.
These issues being clearly defined, the major problems with the organ loomed large. The Rugpositief being so distant from the console created problems in perceiving balance in registrations, and the action was both heavy and so unreliable that an unwary choir member could disrupt it and cause ciphers simply by standing in the wrong place in the gallery.
What was to be done? Could the mechanical action be rebuilt in a lighter, more reliable incarnation? Certainly it could, but the costs involved would be considerable and the advantages hard to elaborate for an already skeptical client. On an instrument this size, it’s hard to make the case that mechanical action is either more sensitive or more reliable. Add to that the frequent use of instrumentalists and large ensembles in the balcony, and the mobility of an electric console begins to look very attractive. Consider further that electrifying the slider chests would permit the distant Rugpositief to be relocated and encased with the rest of the organ (speaking out from the space where the attached key desk once stood) and it becomes more attractive still. But to be clear, we did not take lightly the thought of conversion; one of our most recent important projects in a prominent Manhattan chapel had accomplished the very opposite.
In the end, both electrical and mechanical means of replacing the action were deemed viable and responsible, so we took both plans to the church and explained the relative merits of each. Once we were confident that they had a grasp on the ramifications, we invited them to choose the option they felt was responsible stewardship of both funds and instrument, and they selected electric action.
The mission that now lays before us for St. Luke’s is to return to them an organ that is better suited for all aspects of its job rather than just some. We intend to succeed in this effort with our characteristic and meticulous attention to detail. Our aim is for a subtle transformation that respects the organ’s original identity. In the coming year we will be posting pictures and videos of the work in progress, and we look forward to completion of this project. We know that in the end, time will be the final judge of our work.