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Breathing new life into an old instrument.

The original pipe organ in Epiphany Church was built in 1903 by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut. This was an interesting time of transition for most pipe organ builders in America, a time when new technology and innovation were often at odds with traditional craftsmanship and artistic integrity. Many factors contributed toward this tilt toward factory produced instruments of innovative mechanical design, but perhaps in the end the most satisfactory explanation has nothing to do with expanding new markets and remarkable technological innovation, but rather the natural decline of a stylistic period of pipe organ design loosely referred to as “romantic”, which is the latter of only two broad categories of pipe organ building up to this point, the earlier referred to as “baroque”. The majority of influential organs from the French, German, and English romantic schools were built in the second half of the nineteenth century.

 

The original Epiphany organ employed a mechanism know as tubular pneumatic action, a conservative transitional approach where electricity play a minimal role in the control of pipes and console amenities. This complicated technology presented insurmountable problems from its earliest stages, and nearly all examples of this type of mechanism were discarded as quickly as funds were available. At Epiphany Church this happened in the late 1940’s, when a new electro-pneumatic control system and console was grafted to the original Austin mechanism. This too presented many liabilities which had to be endured for half a century, interspersed by several rejuvenations and minor improvements.

 

Finally the total condition of the instrument had to be addressed, and the failing condition of the mechanism together with the poor condition of the pipework pointed to only two possible solutions, either an entirely new instrument or a comprehensive rebuilding, which would utilize only the best of the pipes and the case and façade of the old organ. The second method was selected, which points to a broader trend in pipe organ design which could best be described as conservative and eclectic. This current trend in pipe organ building differs from work which found favor in the second half of the twentieth century, in that the whole approach is toward a specific historic style, and not toward a collection of voices representing every conceivable style from every period. 

The approach for the reconstruction of the Epiphany organ is essentially to impose a limit based on an historic model- in this case not literally but at least in theory. The pedigree of the existing Austin pipework was decidedly English Romanic, so it was very logical to construct the rebuilt instrument along these lines. The work of the London builder T. C. Lewis (whose masterpiece has been recently restored at Southwark Cathedral) is the historic model to which the Epiphany organ aspires, characterized by relatively uniform low pressures for reeds and flues, and bold diapason choruses capped by strong quint mixtures.

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Epiphany Roman Catholic Church

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania