We are approaching the end of the dark period for the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ (KO). In September, after 2 years away, and a complete renovation, our remarkable instrument will be back in Merrill Auditorium prepared to astound and uplift audiences for another 100 years.
I think back to the first time I heard a great pipe organ. I was a freshman at Columbia in New York in 1956. A senior music major on my dormitory floor asked me if I were going to hear Virgil Fox inaugurate the great organ at Riverside Cathedral. I was clearly interested in music, having studied piano in the Julliard preparatory program prior to coming to Columbia. I had no idea what he was talking about. He rightly labelled me a “philistine” and dragged me off to the concert. From the first moments of thunder, and then virtually inaudible sound, that Virgil Fox coaxes from that instrument I realized that I had just entered a different kind of world.
I had been studying the development of western civilization as part of Columbia’s core curriculum. In that study, a great deal of attention was placed on the development of the Church. Whatever it’s fallibilities (and Columbia’s professors were quick to point out how the Church had fallen short) it was clear that ideally, the role of the church was to provide a link between humanity and the divine. Churches that were built in the Middle Ages took generations to complete – some would say that they were never completed- and they served to remind the populace that humanity was frail in the presence of God.
Churches were designed to be awe-inspiring and both uplifting and overwhelming in their presence. In Art Humanities, I studied the cathedrals of Chartres, Siena and Rheims. I studied the incredible Sistine Chapel, and the stained glass of St. Chappelle. And years later, when I actually visited these places, I experienced what my professors had been talking about.
All the time, I would run to hear the great organs of the world whose music paralleled the splendor of the churches in which they sat. It was no wonder to me that the pipe organ was the instrument of the Church. It was the only instrument that could match the grandeur, inspiration, power and awe, of the great medieval cathedrals. For me, the pipe organ was the voice of divinity in western religious society.
As a Reform Jew, whose synagogues were built by German Jews who came to the United States in the middle of the 19th century, I was exposed to Jewish houses of worship that attempted to emulate the power of the Church. My predecessors built magnificent buildings which almost always housed pipe organs in order to create a sense of grandeur and reverence. For me, the pipe organ was the voice of the divine coupled with the chanting of the Cantor in the Jewish liturgy.
From the first time I heard the KO, as a summer resident visiting Maine from the major cities of the east coast in which I lived, I was inspired. I realized that although it was not housed in a church, the KO represented a western tradition that attempted to uplift the human spirit. There are other wonderful organs in Maine that provide a sense of divine reverence, and I go to hear them. But the KO resides in a civic auditorium, non-sectarian and without religious symbolism, which makes it even more meaningful to me. It is a non-denominational voice that reminds me of the divine presence because of the musical and institutional history it represents.
Furthermore, the work that was done to renovate it and bring it back to its fullest glory, was a return to great non-mechanized western craftsmanship. The people of Foley-Baker, who did the restoration, used the same skills that produced organs many centuries ago. In the true sense of the word, they are guild masters, taking pride in their handwork. They remind me of the history of skilled labor that eventually became the industrial revolution.
So the first notes of the newly renovated KO in September will once again remind me of how fortunate we are to live in a society that allows us and encourages us to aspire to greatness, creating it through the work of our hands.
— Laurence H. Rubinstein