Magazine article The Tracker

The World's Largest Organ and Its Connection with the Baroque Organ

Magazine article The Tracker

The World's Largest Organ and Its Connection with the Baroque Organ

Article excerpt

The Midmer-Losh organ in the main auditorium of the Atlantic City Convention Hall (now known as Boardwalk Hall) is well known as the largest pipe organ in the world. Among its 320 stops (449 ranks totalling 33,114 pipes) are four reed voices blown by 100 inches of wind. Also, there are ten stops on 50-inch pressure, including two 32-foots. It is only one of two instruments in the world to have a full-length 64-foot pipe. Registers include curiousities like the "Pileata Magna" (a big-scaled stopped flute) and the Gamba Tuba (a version of William Haskell's labial tuba). Strangely, though, no rank is named "Bourdon" nor "Salicional"-stop names that are usually found on even the most humble of organs!

Many people consider the instrument to be a monstrosity (the English organ builder Henry Willis III referred snootily to it as "the world's largest collection of pipes") with no musical use or tonal quality. However, those people who have actually heard it in situ have nothing but boundless enthusiasm for it. Robert Elmore, who recorded the organ in 1956, said "it could move men's souls as no other organ could".

Certainly, the Atlantic City Convention Hall organ is, in many respects, a bewildering instrument to comprehend, but among the novelties, curiosities, and excesses there is a serious and important message from its designer, Emerson Richards.

Richards was, by profession, a lawyer and a politician (State Senator for Atlantic County, New Jersey) but, for decades, he exerted a considerable influence on the organ scene in North America. He is now widely recognized as the "Commander-in-Chief of the American Revolution in Organ Building" (a title coined by David Fuller for his fascinating and comprehensive essay about Richards, published in Volume I of Charles Benton Fisk: Essays in His Honor).

Perhaps surprisingly, the best place to observe Richards's message is in one of the Convention Hall organ's smallest departments, with stops voiced on the instrument's lowest wind pressure, just three-and-a-half inches. The department in question is the Unenclosed Choir and it consists of the following stops: Quintaton 16 (metal, capped), Diapason 8 (metal), Holz Flute 8 (wood, open), Octave 4 (metal), Fifteenth 2 (metal), Mixture 12-15 (metal), Mixture 19-22 (metal).

Richards said that this Unenclosed Choir was to be a "little Great organ... similar to the Silbermann organ familiar to Bach". The message he was trying to put across to the American organ world at the time was about the need for tonal cohesion and harmonic structure: in a phrase, "proper choruses".

In fact, the origins of the Unenclosed Choir went back to the Atlantic City High School organ, which was also designed by Richards and built, in 1923, by Midmer-Losh. On this instrument, Richards specified an unenclosed Choir division with the following stops: Diapason 8, Holz Flute 8, Octave 4, Fifteenth 2, Mixture 12-15-19-22. His reason(s) for providing this department were set out in The American Organist magazine of September, 1925:

The truth seems to be that the Choir has become a sort of depository for all the fancy stops and organists' pets that cannot be conveniently distributed to other manuals... Builders and organists will tell us that the Choir is an accompanimental organ. Aside from the fact that there is nothing accompanimental about a clarinet or French horn or orchestral oboe, one finds nothing but the diapason and the occasional flute that will serve for accompanimental purposes... no wonder Bach sounds uninteresting and stodgy as played on the average American organ compared with the blaze of color that Bach had at his disposal two centuries ago!"

Of course, "proper choruses" were nothing new, they had been included in organs for decades. However, that was in the past, and Richards and a growing number of other organists considered that the organ had "gone off" its tonal tracks since then. "Proper choruses" were out of favor; while an ever-increasing variety of flutes, strings, and diminutive reeds-usually at 8-foot pitch-were the vogue. …

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