Pipe organs are the sonic equivalent of mountains. They can be as inspiring as a majestic purple peak at sundown. Here in Evanston, scenic mountains are out of reach. But the transcendent splendor of a world-class, historically important pipe organ is mere minutes away.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 939 Hinman Ave., houses one of the few remaining organs of its kind in the world. Designed and built by the renowned Skinner Organ Company in 1922, this venerable wonder has been meticulously maintained throughout the years and sounds almost exactly as it would have a century ago.

St. Luke’s Church in Evanston is home to a rare Skinner pipe organ built in the 1920s. Credit: St. Luke's

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down at the St. Luke’s organ console with Peter Morey, associate director of music and organist at the church, and dean of the Chicago Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

When I asked Morey what word best describes his job in musical terms, he said “orchestrator.” That’s because in addition to the demands of performing the music as written with all four appendages replicating multiple melodies (“a workout for brain, hands and feet”), an organist needs to decide what sounds the instrument will produce on the fly. “On the fly” is an apt term here, because the massive array of controls at the console resembles the cockpit of an airplane. And Morey can take the sound in any direction he wants. 

When the organ at St. Luke’s was built 100 years ago, pipe organs in America were akin to symphonic synthesizers, designed to emulate every sound in the orchestra as faithfully as possible. E.M. Skinner was renowned for his almost maniacal pursuit of the perfect sound. Morey shared contemporary reports that Skinner “would stay up late into the hours of the morning in the pipe shop, trying to get the shape of a pipe exactly right.” The results were successful and set the standards of the day. Morey demonstrated the English horn piping with a famous passage from Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and the sound was emotionally piercing yet rounded and warm — much like the real thing.

Click on the triangle “play” button above to hear Morey’s one-minute demonstration of the E.M. Skinner organ at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Skinner’s obsession with mimicking orchestral instruments was very American and very much of its time. European organs were generally built to sound like organs, not orchestras, and ultimately tastes in the New World followed suit. Most of the old orchestral beasts were thus eventually tamed — retrofitted to the new “authentic” preference — or simply scrapped altogether. To listen to the St. Luke’s organ is to be transported in musical and technological history. As Morey noted, “There’s no microchips, no computer board or anything like that. It runs on electricity, pneumatics and air.”

At one point, Morey played a 32-foot pipe, resonating at approximately 16 Hz. He calls it “the cement mixer,” and the note is outside the range of the human ear. But it can certainly be felt! No subwoofer will do this pipe justice. Cars may go boom, but they can’t boom this deep.

Perhaps you’ve always found recordings of pipe organs one dimensional or underwhelming, or maybe comparing pipe organs to mountains seems like a stretch. If so, I urge you to head over to St. Luke’s and experience a rare and beautiful wonder for yourself.

The Skinner organ is featured in multiple musical programs throughout the year. Please visit www.opus327.org to learn more.

Editor’s note: This story has updated to more precisely specify the name of the organ company, include Peter Morey’s position at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and expand the reference to musical programs.

Burnley Vest

Burnley has a penchant for immersing himself in people’s stories, so any and every topic under the sun is fair game. He especially loves to write about music and sound, as those are his overriding passions...

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