Thanks to Christine Kraemer’s musicality and the power of a historic organ, those who attend one of the mid-week Lenten concerts at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 939 Hinman Ave., will experience organ music
at its most uplifting.
Organ aficionados regard the Skinner Organ Company’s Opus 327, installed at St. Luke’s in 1922, as one of the finest organs in the country, if not the world. It is among the few pipe organs by the artistic and engineering genius E. M. Skinner that can still claim to have most of its original pipework, structure and mechanisms.
The Skinner organ is so highly prized that it has its own not-for-profit organization. Opus 327 NFP is dedicated to music performance, education and stewardship.
Admirers of the organ flock to St. Luke’s Church from around the globe. Dr. Kraemer, whose title is “organ curator,” says she is “honored” to be the guardian and steward of the celebrated Opus 327. Responding to visitors is one of the responsibilities she and her husband, Mark, most enjoy. “It’s fun for me to see the look on our guests’ faces” when they hear the organ, she says.
In addition to hosting professionals, Dr. Kraemer is enthusiastic about educating the uninitiated in the basics of how a pipe organ works and why Mr. Skinner and this particular organ are so famous.
She begins with comments on acoustic space. “Acoustics are critical to the sound of an organ,” she says. St. Luke’s Gothic-style nave (its central worship space) is a perfect complement to the organ. Begun in 1906, the nave was completed to a height of 70 feet in 1914.
The nave boasts a three- or four-second reverberation, Dr. Kraemer says, too much for the spoken word but just enough for music. Removing a horsehair-and-burlap layer from the ceiling in 1986 raised the reverb from near zero. A 2015 church renovation – new north windows installed; floor, limestone pillars and reredos cleaned; west window replaced and fortified – further improved the sound, she says.
Briefly, a pipe organ has a keyboard, a wind system and pipes that sound when pressurized air produced by the wind system passes through them.
Opus 327 has more than 4,000 pipes. The voice of each of them is controlled by air that enters a leather pouch through a valve. The pipes sit in windchests that receive air from reservoirs kept at optimal pressure and humidity. A motor forces air into the reservoirs through a blower located in the church basement.
Pipes are the most prominent feature of Opus 327, although only a few of them are visible, and some of those are façade pipes with no voice. Tasked with fitting the pipes into an already-built space, Mr. Skinner arranged them on three levels in a chamber across from the console.
As organist, Dr. Kraemer sits at the console on the left side of the chancel (the area at the front of the church near the altar). Like a skilled athlete, she performs several actions at once, each contributing to the pitch, volume and color of the music. Her feet dance across the pedalboard and her fingers strike the keys of the four keyboards or manuals while she pulls out one or more of the knobs called stops. Stops control which pipes sound when an organist presses a key on a manual.
Because each pipe produces a single pitch, the pipes come in sets, called ranks. The pipes within a rank produce the same timbre or sound quality for each note. A note may be sounded by different ranks of pipes, alone or in combination. Stops allow the organist to selectively turn off (“stop”) certain ranks in order to produce different combinations of sounds.
The more stops, the more volume. “Pulling out all the stops” creates the loudest possible sound and is the source of the expression used figuratively to mean going all in for something or someone.
Seated in the chancel, the choir and the organist do not experience the same sound the audience hears. So Mr. Kraemer, who is a string bass player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in addition to singing at St. Luke’s, says he sometimes sits in the pews “to help [Dr. Kraemer] get the right sound.” The right combination of stops creates thrilling music in “surround sound.”
St. Luke’s console is the control center of the intricate instrument once described as “the size of a three-story house.” Mr. Skinner’s innovations affect both the sound and the mechanics of his pipe organs. Organ restoration specialists A. Thompson-Allen call Opus 327 “a very complete realization of Mr. Skinner’s thoughts and practices for a large church organ, eloquently stated and carefully preserved.”
The man behind the opulent sound was born in 1866 and finished only six months of high school. He soon gravitated to the business of making pipe organs. To help support his family, he found a job as a bellows pumper and repaired his first organ. He rose from shop boy at a small Massachusetts organ builder to become factory superintendent at another. He furthered his training with a trip to England, where he encountered sound and wind technology not yet known in the U.S.
Among other advances, Mr. Skinner worked to establish a standard distance between organ keyboards and invented an electro-pneumatic computer that allowed an organist to connect with pipes located at a distance from the console. Aspiring to achieve a full orchestral sound, he devoted himself between 1904 and 1924 to creating stops that mimic symphonic instruments. One of his idiosyncrasies was to label Opus 327’s 64 stops in various languages – “a little bit of French and a tiny touch of German,” a former organist says.
Years before he died at age 94 in 1960, Mr. Skinner had been squeezed out of the company he founded. By the mid-1930s, the symphonic sound he had created had succumbed to “musical progress,” and as taste changed, he saw many of his organs modified or discarded.
Opus 327 survived largely intact in part because St. Luke’s was short on funds. They “limped along,” Dr. Kraemer says, until the arrival of Organist-Choirmaster Richard Webster, who she says “had the vision to know what the organ could be.” He raised $500,000 and oversaw a thorough restoration that began in 1993 and concluded in 1998. Pipes were cleaned or replaced; new leathers were installed; the interior of the console was refinished; and the original Skinner lettering was copied onto the half-dozen new stops. The work was so thoughtfully planned that part of the organ was always available for church services.
But even expert work and the finest materials have an expiration date. Dr. Kraemer estimates Opus 327 will require another overhaul some 50 years after the last was completed. In anticipation of that need and to mark the organ’s 100th birthday in 2022, St. Luke’s is looking to raise another $500,000.
It is a matter of paying it forward. “We are experiencing the beauty now and want to pass it on,” Mr. Kraemer says.
Dr. Kraemer will be playing at the free Mid-week Organ Meditations for Lent Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. on March 13 and 20 and April 3 and 10. Jackson Borge will be the guest organist on March 27.