The Cathedral: The Great Organ

Great Organ

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Construction work on the Chancel ceiling was nearly complete by March 19, 1941, and plans were being made to demolish the partition wall between the Nave and the Crossing. Skinner was given approval to move the organ back to the Great Choir at a cost of $6,554. The last service in which the organ was used before being moved was on June 8, 1941.

After this phase of construction was completed, the trustees realized the need to update the voicing and generally improve the sound of the instrument. In 1950 G. Donald Harrison, president of the Aeolian Skinner Organ Company , was contacted by the cathedral's organist, Norman Coke-Jephcott to examine and report on the condition of the Great Organ. Mr. Harrison took this appointment very seriously and noted many fallacies. He attended services and took notes stating that the organ's "use as an accompaniment for the choir was extremely limited" as well as the organ's effect in the room "when vast throngs of eight to ten thousand worshippers were present on the great festivals." Harrison outlined his plan for tonal revision of the organ in a report to the trustees and drew up a detailed specification. He also recommended mechanical repairs to correct worn parts which he thought would soon fail. He estimated the total cost, depending on the extent of mechanical repairs, would range from $39,878 to $48,373. Harrison's enthusiasm for the project was very apparent in his letter. He wrote: "The cathedral offers a possibility of the most thrilling instrument I have ever built because of its architectural and acoustical properties, and I am absolutely confident that the plans I am enclosing herewith, if carried out, will produce an effect for you that will be unequalled anywhere."

His prediction proved right. What was born out of his insight and creativity was an instrument unlike any other in the world. He later added in his proposal the addition of the State Trumpet, located at the West End underneath the Great Rose Window and a full 500 feet from the organ console, operating on 50" wind pressure, making it the most powerful organ stop in the world. The new Tubas would operate at 20-25" pressure making the Great Organ one of the most powerful instruments on the face of the planet. The work was finally completed in early 1954 and Harrison titled his work Opus-150a . He had great pride in his work, which he felt had been more than successful. In a promotional brochure put out by The Aeolian-Skinner Company , he wrote the following: "One and all, the men whose hearts, minds and hands constructed this instrument, felt the magnificence and privilege of opportunity and were inspired by the glory of the edifice. More than the mere exhibition of their skills, this organ is their act of faith. I feel that through those of the Cathedral who sensed and met the need for this comprehensive instrument, a significant contribution has been made to our American culture."

Since the re-construction of the Great Organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, there have been seven organists: Norman Coke-Jephcott, Alec Wyton, David Pizarro, Paul Halley, Dorothy Papadakos, Timothy Brumfield and Bruce Neswick. Restoration of the instrument was undertaken in 1994 by organ curators Douglass Hunt and Anthony Bufano. The State Trumpet was fully restored as was the Swell Division. However, work ceased when a leaky roof kept undoing the work being done. A devastating fire in the unfinished portion of the North Transept on Dec. 18, 2001 resulted in heavy smoke damage to the Great Organ which silenced this magnificent instrument for a time. Under the supervision of organ curator Douglass Hunt, removal of the organ began in July of 2003. Cleaning of the cathedral's interior began in July of 2004. The cleaning and restoration of the Great Organ and the interior of the cathedral was completed in November of 2008.