Pastor Marie gave a sermon last fall based on 1 Corinthians 12 about the case of the stubborn foot. It decided that it didn’t need any other body parts, and wanted to go off on its own. Of course, the foot is nothing without the rest of the body, and the same can be said about nearly every other organ in all of our bodies. Several years ago, my aunt and uncle gave me a t-shirt with a graphic of the heart, lungs, and brain, which stated, coyly, “deep down, we’re all organists.” If you will indulge me, the pipe organ is also an excellent metaphor of the same kind.
Organs are well-known for having staggering numbers of individual pipes; our new instrument, Aeolian-Skinner No. 1132, has just over 2,600 pipes. The largest instruments in the world, the Wanamaker organ at Macy’s in Center City Philadelphia, and the Boardwalk Hall organ in Atlantic City, NJ, have over 28,000 and 33, 000 pipes, respectively. Why so many? It’s a valid question, certainly. If we think of a piano, there are 88 keys, so there would be 88 strings, right? If you look inside a grand piano, there are actually far more; due to the tension required, most of the notes are duplexed (i.e. 2 strings per key), or triplexed, leaving only about the bottom eight keys as single-string notes.
One of the greatest things about the organ is the instrument’s tonal palate. Coming back to the piano for a moment, a piano has one set of strings for the keyboard. The keyboards on the organ are 61 notes, rather than 88, but the concept remains the same. Here’s the beauty of the organ: our organ in particular has 41 distinct sets of pipes (we typically refer to these as “ranks” or “stops”), each with a very different sound and character. Some are primarily used in combination with other ranks; some almost always are used alone.
Across all the different stops on all the organs around the world, there are several unique, special ranks that stand out, like the famous State Trumpet mounted on the great west wall of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. It’s known for being one of the very first ranks mounted en chamade, or horizontally, making for an extremely staggering visual. It’s also ear-piercingly loud, and is a full city block away from the rest of the organ, and from where the organist sits. It certainly makes a grand or celebratory occasion all the more striking, but cannot be used multiple times each Sunday.
In contrast, a basic 8’ Principal (the organ has many pitch levels, and 8’, a designation of the lowest pipe’s length, is the “baseline” – the same pitch level one would hear as on a piano) wouldn’t be a good fit for a fanfare on Easter Sunday, but it is absolutely vital in almost any chorus of stops together (i.e. for accompanying a hymn), and if missing, would be extremely noticeable.
No matter whether you’re a trumpet, a principal, or any other sound, you are an important part of the body of Christ; each and every person/stop has its own part to play, and the body of Christ is not complete without you. I hope you’ll remember this analogy when you hear our organ for the first time!