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October 20, 2004
Vol. IV, No. 27

"Stick to Where the Action Is"
In a recent Weekly Rampage, I mentioned the late Dirk Flentrop, organbuilder extraordinaire. Over the past week, the page updates I've made are all related to Flentrop organs (see Updated Pages below).

A few years ago, my alma mater, Oberlin College, installed a Fisk organ in the College's Finney Chapel. These days, I'm sure the organ majors are all over it preparing for their recitals. Prior to the Fisk, though, the primary performance organ was the Flentrop in Warner Concert Hall in the Conservatory, even though a large Skinner was available in Finney Chapel.

My organ professor at Oberlin, Garth Peacock, referred to the Flentrop as Big Bertha and Big Bertha was a tracker. For the uninitiated, a tracker is an organ that uses mechanical means to play the pipes from the keyboards as opposed to electrical means. Each of Bertha's three manuals had a different feel, the pedalboard was flat and straight, and one or two stop pullers were necessary as she had no electronics for changing registrations. Big Bertha took some getting used to but the effort was well worth it. In terms of the expression I was able to achieve, I was forever spoiled as a player.

For those who have never played a tracker, it might be hard to imagine what the difference might be between mechanical and electric action. It might help to compare playing an organ with mechanical action to driving a car with manual transmission, utilizing a stick shift and clutch. Driving a "stick" is more complicated but you have a level of control over the way you drive that just can't be achieved while driving a car with automatic transmission. Likewise, mechanical action permits a manner of phrasing and articulation that is simply unavailable on an organ with electric action.

Drivers of cars with a stick shift and clutch know that every car handles differently and takes some getting used to. So it is with tracker organs. Pianists, too, are familiar with the subtle differences in action between outwardly identical instruments.

Drivers of "sticks" value the intimate experience they enjoy at the wheel of their vehicle. When driving an automatic, you don't get the same kind of feel for the car itself. The interaction between the car and driver is less direct.

For obvious reasons, it's rare to hear someone who regularly drives a stick complaining about it. On the other hand, you will find drivers of automatics who zealously avoid and even denounce stick shifts. That debate rings a bell.

I think we can safely assume that Bach would have driven a stick shift, perhaps a Mercedes van so he could haul a portative down to the local rathskeller for a gig. Question: With all those kids, how many cars would the Bach family have needed? Answer:

Click this link to read comments and offer your own:

Updated Pages
Articles Library:
"In 1969, Dutch organist and builder Dirk Andries Flentrop came to town with a new approach to a very old instrument. In a time when many organists were embracing the electronics that could ease the construction of pipe organs, Flentrop was looking back to the mechanical methods of 17th and 18th baroque instruments that Bach mastered. The organ he built in Branford's Congregational Church has just been through a three-year restoration process, and the church is ready to unveil this wall of sound to congregants sounding better than ever." From "Pulling Out All the Stops" by Nathan Fisher, Shore Publishing LLC, October 7, 2004. Click the link below for more of this article.

Featured Links:
Newly added is Flentrop Orgelbouw. "The classical organ has from the beginning been the guide for new organs from the Flentrop workshops. The use of mechanical action and slider chest were self-evident since the nineteen forties. From the first great importance was attached to match the sound of the instrument to the room for which it was meant."

Organ Links:
Added is the Flentrop organ at First Congregational Church of Branford, Connecticut. Also added is the Flentrop organ at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral of Seattle, Washington.

WHAT I'M READING..."1876: A Novel" by Gore Vidal. I'm about 2/3 of the way through. The story has moved on to Washington City (now D.C.). The story is really heating up and still has far to go. It's great to find out so much about a period in our country's history that up until now I've known zero about. We never covered this in US History class or Problems of Democracy. Pipe Organ reference: "But then Blaine's voice began to rise, and his face turned as scarlet as his eyes. The black eyes burned. The voice rumbled like an organ as stop after stop was pulled out." Click the link below for more information on this book:
Click this link to see all selections in Dan's Book Club:

WHAT I'M LISTENING TO..."Johann Sebastian Bach" by E. Power Biggs. I keep coming back to this CD. His registrations are perfect, the organ sounds perfect, his playing is perfect. What more could you want? Passacaglia sounds like a dance, Pastorale has so much character, the Prelude and Fugue in C Major is tasteful. Click the link below for more information on this CD:
Click this link to see all selections in Dan's CD Club:


Have a great week!

Dan Long

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