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Louis A. Capaldini: Pipe organs were once popular in area in early 1900s

Aug. 20, 2009 @ 09:31 PM

The word pipe and its plural, pipes, mean different things to different people. For example, pipes to a plumber is a water matter. The sailor's pipe is a signal. In talk we can pipe up as in speak up, or pipe down as in be quiet. And there are more.

For example, there is the pipe organ. Over the world, pipe organ enthusiasts say the pipe organ enables some of the most glorious music ever composed and some of the most entertaining music. This assertion is echoed here in the persons of two retirees -- organ professor Al Zabel and communications professor Bob Edmunds.

They point to the musical instrument that is really a wind machine with lots and lots of whistles. Those whistles range in size from a few inches up to 32 feet. The tones, colors and pitches provide many tones, colors and pitches.

It is so much so that the great Mozart (1766-1791) endorsed the pipe organ "The King of Instruments." But a French chap named Marchaut predates Mozart in saying that in the 1300s.

A small pipe organ may have 12 or 24 pipes. It also may have one manual, the manual being a keyboard, which looks like a piano or electronic keyboard. It calls for a different player technique on the manual (hands) and pedal (feet).

Some of the largest pipe organs, for example the Wanamaker organ in the Lord & Taylor store in Philadelphia has over 20,000 pipes and seven manuals.

There are a sizeable number of pipe organs in the Tri-State, most of them being in churches and synagogues. Throughout this and other nations, pipe organs are also in concert halls and public buildings. The music from those grand instruments ranges widely through in classical, sacred and secular genres.

Many contend there is no music more sublime and praised than that composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1675-1750). Some listeners become ecstatic upon hearing a Bach piece played well. "Blown away" is how the younger generation would describe their reactions.

And it all is basically the physics of blowing pipes.

Pipe organs have uses in entertainment, especially when one considers the silent films of the early 20th century. Pipe organ music and its sounds, including sound effects, were the choice of the day in many movie theatres to accompany the silent screen.

The Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center here in Huntington had one. So did the Granada in Bluefield and the Freeman in McDowell County coal-town Northfork. There were a few more but not a lot.

Zabel and Edmunds explain that when movies went to sound, pipe organs (some times piano, and even live musicians some times) were no longer needed. The pipe organs went into decline, disrepair, and even junk yards. But, the sound of theatre pipe organs still resound in the minds of pipe organs enthusiasts.

It is so much so that some collect parts here and there and re-build a pipe organ with the theater sounds of yesteryear. Our Keith-Albee will regain a pipe organ with parts of various organs, thanks to Edmunds and other devotees.

Zabel is the local "Dean of Organists," He has published organ instructional materials, also composed for the organ and the opera stage.

He has taught many students over the years at both Marshall University and other venues. He applauds Edmunds for his bringing alive the history and sounds of theater organs.

Church organs primarily are used to support congregational and choir singing, although it can be an extraordinary device for organ-alone music. The theatre organ uses sounds that support what's on the screen. The organist plays whatever music he or she deems appropriate to the action. They borrow much from classical pieces. Zabel and Edmunds are gleefully anticipate the day when more theatre-organ parts are available to make the Keith-Albee organ complete and used in regular performances and showings of silent films.

Recalling yesterday is but one part of the human imperative. Using a bunch of pipe organ pipes -- is one way of taking us there.

No taxpayer money is being used to restore the Keith-Albee instrument. It's all private.

In a future column, this writer will seek to identify and talk about the fine organs in Tri-State churches.

Louis A. Capaldini is a retired businessman who recently completed studies for a master's degree in music.

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