Vital Organ

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Vital Organ

A B&W editor investigates the neighborhood’s largest instrument

by Channing Prend

“This is like the cockpit,” Ray Nagem, the Associate Organist at St. John the Divine, tells me as we walk up a rusted iron staircase and enter the organ console. From this small perch above the cathedral nave, a musician can use the four keyboards and dozens of knobs, called stops, to control the instrument’s 8,514 pipes.

The organ is being tuned when Nagem shows me around. The tuner holds down each key for a few moments, and with this simple action, long dissonant tones penetrate every inch of the cathedral. “This instrument is extremely responsive,” he says. “Some organs feel like steering a big barge. But this instrument is like driving a Formula One.”

The Great Organ, as it is affectionately called, was installed at St. John the Divine in 1910. The instrument has been rebuilt twice since then, once in 1954 and then again in 2001 after suffering fire damage. The organ today contains components from 2001, 1954, and 1910, which Nagem tells me are among the oldest functioning electrical equipment in Manhattan.

According to Nagem, this combination of pieces from different eras contributes to the Great Organ’s versatility. “It can play multiple styles of music very effectively,” he says. “There’s really not much in the entire repertoire of the organ that doesn’t sound good here.”

Given the instrument’s diverse abilities, Kent Tritle, the Director of Cathedral Music, notes that there are many secular organ concerts held at St. John the Divine. “We try our best to add to the greater cultural value of the city,” Tritle adds. “This a unique space in New York, and the organ has an important role that extends beyond religious services.”

In addition to events for the Episcopal Diocese, Nagem mentions that he has played the Great Organ for everything from the opening of art exhibits to gala functions held by hedge funds (where else but New York City can hedge fund managers commodify a liturgical instrument?). The cathedral also hosts visiting musicians. “People from across the country and across the world come to play this instrument,” Nagem remarks.

What makes this particular instrument so unique? Tritle says it’s the combination the organ’s power and setting. “It has an extraordinary sound, deep, rich and fiery,” Tritle states. “It’s also located in a spectacular room with great acoustics. Not many buildings in the US have this kind of 8-second reverberation.”

Nagem also highlights the building’s architectural significance and its influence on how the organ is perceived. “It’s a lot like the cathedrals in Europe,” he says. “And there’s a great repertoire of music written by European composers who lived and worked around these massive churches and who took into account that kind of atmosphere, that kind of setting for their music.”

From up in the organ console, Nagem looks out at the cathedral nave. The cacophonous drone of the instrument being tuned fills the immense room. “Playing it can feel daunting,” he says. “It’s a little terrifying to know that 2,500 people are in the building listening and depending on you to lead them while singing.”

The cathedral hosts a short organ recital every Sunday following Evensong at 5 pm that is free and open to the public.