Magnificent Pipe Organ to Enhance Worship in New Chapel of the Holy Spirit

News Story: September 22, 2009

The 105th Psalm offers this joyful invitation: “Sing praise, play music, and proclaim all the Lord’s wondrous deeds.” When the Sacred Heart University community answers this call in its new Chapel of the Holy Spirit, it will be aided by a magnificent new pipe organ designed to enhance worship there for generations to come.

This astonishing musical instrument was hand-crafted in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, by the storied Casavant Frères organization, one of the oldest and most respected organ builders in the world. The organ was designed by Jacquelin Rochette, tonal director, and Didier Grassin, director of the Mechanical Action Workshop at Casavant Frères, in consultation with Dr. John Michniewicz, director of the Academic Music Program at Sacred Heart University. The three men selected and planned the various ranks of pipes to be included in the new instrument’s tonal specification.

The organ’s façade was designed by Mr. Grassin and Pablo Nistal of Sasaki Associates, the international architectural firm responsible for the design of the Chapel. it will harmonize and blend in with the unique architecture of the Chapel, as well as the stunning mosaic behind the main altar designed by Father Marko I. Rupnik. The façade features a wooden screen on which pipes made of polished tin are attached. These pipes will actually sound along with the majority of the pipes that will not be on view inside the organ.

The organ stands over 28 feet high and occupies a prominent position immediately to the right of the main sanctuary and mosaic. The modernist façade houses an instrument that remains “very traditional in its tonal and mechanical arrangement,” according to Mr. Grassin, who has designed organs for churches and chapels in England, France, Japan and Canada as well as the United States. He notes that its tone is “grounded in the French musical tradition which has inspired some of the most illustrious organ music in the repertoire.” Dr. Michniewicz adds that “we wanted an instrument built in this French Romantic tonal tradition because an organ of that style is versatile enough to lead congregational singing, accompany the choir, and present a wide variety of solo organ repertoire. And it will also feature a rich, warm and singing tone that will be full, but not harsh or overpowering. The Casavant firm is respected and lauded for the inspiring organs that it has built in this tradition.”

The sound of this organ is “created exclusively by pipes blown by lightly pressured air, called “wind.” When sounded, each pipe gives one specific note or pitch. Each stop knob on the organ console controls a set of pipes known as a rank, which contains pipes from lowest to highest pitches of a given sound, for example, flute, trumpet, string or principal.

Sacred Heart’s instrument consists of 1,261 pipes with room for an additional 628 to be installed later. When complete, it will provide an “extra tonal dimension expanding its potential musical repertoire,” says Mr. Grassin. A major donation supporting the Chapel organ was made by the Maximillian E. and Marion O. Hoffman Foundation, and additional support is being sought as the instrument expands its capacities. Its pipes are made of tin or wood; the longest is about 16 feet long – and the shortest is the size of a pencil. In total, the organ weighs about four-and-a-half tons.

When finished, the organ console will feature three manual keyboards of 58 keys each and a full pedalboard with 30 pedals that also play the bass pipes. Mr. Grassin, who holds a diploma in mechanical engineering from a French university and a Master of Science degree in Sound and Vibration from an English university, points out that the manual keys are mechanically linked to pallets (which open the air to individually wind each of the pipes) by thin strips of wood called trackers.

This mechanical action offers multiple benefits, explains Dr. Michniewicz, adding that “to work successfully, the keyboards and pedalboard need to be located fairly close to the pipes. For most churches, this is now seen as more desirable. Having a close, tactile connection between the individual keys and the pipes is musically quite advantageous.”

When the organist presses a key, it directly pulls a tracker that physically opens a channel for air to enter a pipe. Dr. Michniewicz adds, “You can really feel the nuances of touch and articulation that are immediately affecting the musical sounds coming out of each of the individual pipes. With mechanical action, the pipes can speak with a more clearly defined character and presence. And mechanical action itself is actually more reliable and long lasting, since there are many fewer parts to wear out or need replacement over time.”

Although the organ’s mechanical action is based on a technique of organ building going back hundreds of years, Dr. Michniewicz points out that “we also wanted the organ to be as up-to-date technologically as possible.” The instrument features its own computer memory that will allow the organist to set combinations of sounds known as registrations. The organist can pre-select these registrations based on the volume and tonal requirements of the music performed. Dr. Michniewicz further explains that “another great feature that we included on this organ is what is called MIDI, (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which is a technologically modern way for musical instruments to interface with each other. Basically, MIDI will allow other keyboards and synthesizers to be played through the organ’s keyboard, while simultaneously playing the wind-blown pipes. In addition, a laptop or other computer can be attached to the organ’s keyboards for further musical options.”

In Alcalá de Henares, like many important churches in Europe, Dr. Michniewicz explains, there often are beautiful freestanding pipe organs located near the altars that are specifically used to lead the singing of the congregation, accompany the choir and present organ repertoire. “This is our model for the Sacred Heart Chapel organ,” he says. “Because of the full and natural acoustic sound that a pipe organ produces, it encourages and supports singing. This will be a huge benefit to the choirs on campus, as well as in its use in Eucharistic and other liturgies, concerts and other special events that will take place in the Chapel. This fantastic instrument will help draw people of all faiths into the Chapel, involve them in the community, and let them participate in a song of praise to God.”The University’s tracker organ was constructed and tested in Québec before being dismantled and rebuilt in Sacred Heart’s new Chapel. “A fine, well-constructed organ is an inspiration to see and hear and, even more, to sing with,” says Dr. Michniewicz, who directs the University Liturgical Choir, Concert Choir, and 4 Heart Harmony in numerous events both on and off campus throughout the year. As a solo organist, he has performed in both Europe and America, including recitals on the great organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York as well as at the Princeton University Chapel.

Recently, he presented a recital on a recently built mechanical action instrument at the Cathedral Magistral in Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, Spain. “It was so great to play that exquisite instrument. The air entering those pipes, and how they resonated and filled the Cathedral with glorious sound was quite special. It was exciting, and I couldn’t help but think in anticipation about the magnificent pipe organ being custom-built for our beautiful new Chapel here at Sacred Heart University.” 

The organ will also be used in an educational role. Individual organ lessons are being offered for credit, and already a number of Sacred Heart students have expressed interest in studying the organ. Next June, the Sacred Heart University Academic Music Program, in partnership with the Greater Bridgeport chapter of the American Guild of Organists, will be sponsoring a Pipe Organ Encounter at Sacred Heart University. This week-long event will gather about 40 high school organists from across the nation. At that time, these students will study the organ with a number of local teachers, participate in master-classes with nationally known organ recitalists, and listen to and present concerts featuring the music of the pipe organ.

Casavant Frères has been making organs for 130 years. As with musical compositions, each of its creations is assigned an opus number, and Sacred Heart’s is 3,869. Their organs are found across the world, and the company is at work right now on an instrument for the national theater in Inner Mongolia, China, as well as for several churches across the country.