Century-old pipe organ getting new lease on life
Germany-born builder details repair job on St James Parish Church’s instrument
THIS MECHANICAL organ is a complicated instrument, built 132 years ago in the United Kingdom, but appears to have no plans of retiring soon.
Today, its home is the 248-yearold St James Anglican Church in Montego Bay.
Eighteen feet tall, a battery of silver-looking pipes, a horizontal metal base plate with embellished motifs, a keyboard, foot pedal, and stops, and a wind generator that supplies air to the pipes are among the sections being renovated by renowned organ builder Germanyborn Friedemann Buschbeck.
Valued at US$500,000, this is the second time in 20 years that the instrument is being serviced although that should be an annual event for the church, which would be one of few standing historical buildings of such vintage in St James.
“It is just wonderful being in this old church. I am used to working in older churches in Germany and repairing their organs,” said the restoration specialist as he marvelled at the St James Anglican Church’s mechanical clock and the carillon in the edifice’s tower, which he says are unique because they are rarely seen today.
Buschbeck established his business 30 years ago in Tampa, Florida, where he now resides, but has been coming to Jamaica since last summer to maintain and repair the instrument revered by older churches.
But Bushbeck was saddened when he visited the St James Anglican Church for the first time to discover that the organ was almost unplayable because it was covered with dust from refurbishing work on the building.
“You see, it has weights on it to keep the air pressure, and the air pressure goes through separate channels that hold all the pipes and pallets,” Buschbeck, who was trained in East Germany during the communist era, said in a Gleaner interview.
Each keyboard, he says, has a wind chest, including one for the pedal boat. The pedal bikes are on the sides. And to make sure that everything is not playing at the same time, there are stop knobs that are pulled out. Each stop has a different character.
“So they are more the softer wooden pipes, and sometimes pipes do not stop sounding. So that is one of the problems I am trying to fix,” he said in a Gleaner interview.
The 1890 organ at the St James Parish Church is just one of three on the island that Buschbeck is fixing. There are two others - at the Savanna-la-mar and the Black River Anglican churches.
Those were manufactured in the Unite Kingdomd at the height of World War I, in 1915, a quartercentury after their St James counterpart.
After more than 50 years in existence, mechanical organs will deteriorate and be in need of new parts.
“An organ needs to be maintained about maybe once a year for tuning and little adjusting. So unfortunately, this organ was not maintained for the last two decades,” Buschbeck said.
He revealed that overhauling the entire church organ would be prohibitively expensive, estimating that cost to be in the range of US$200,000 (J$30 million). The timeline for the completion of repairs may be a year and a half.
Mechanical organs currently cost between US$500,000 and US$1.5 million.
Archdeacon Justin Nembhard, who has oversight of all Anglican churches in the Montego Bay chapter, acknowledged that electronic instruments have steadily become the preference of many churches because of their ease in handling. But traditional houses of worship, particularly parish churches, tend to have pipe organs that hark back to the colonial era.
“It is important as a musical instrument, and the organist will tell you of the versatility that they can use in producing music. For example, this organ is electronic, as well as it is mechanical, and there are times when we have had power outages and we have to resort to mechanical action, that someone would go behind there, and I used to be very sympathetic with that person when he got out from behind the organ because he had to pump the organ for notes to be heard,” the cleric said.
Nembhard believes that the organ adds tremendous worth to the experience of worship.
“Music and churches without organs, whether electronic or pipe, their worship services are on the dull side, and people may be turned off or don’t bother come back,” he said.
Buschbeck describes the church’s organ as a treasure that requires regular servicing.
“It’s a wonderful construction that has withstood the high humidity of over 100 years, it just needs better maintenance,” he reiterated.
Without total refurbishing in sight, his aim is to make the entire instrument playable.
Buschbeck has learned the art of improvisation over the years, telling The Gleaner that the training he received in then socialist Germany prepared him to build his own parts to repair organs.
Parts, he said, are hard to come by.
“You have to be creative in repairing things,” he quipped.