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FEATURE | A Tour Of Toronto's Big Three Pipe Organs — Head-to-Head

By Anya Wassenberg on November 28, 2017

Ludwig Van tours three of the most important organs in Toronto — all Casavants — being among the largest in Canada, and one in the top 50 globally.

The 5 manual, 120-stop organ console at Metropolitan United Church. (Photo: John Terauds)
The five-manual, 120-stop organ console at Metropolitan United Church. (Photo: John Terauds)

From the floor shaking low rumble of a 32-foot stop to the soaring notes of strings and even the delicate trill of a bird, there is nothing that really compares in sheer scale and range with a pipe organ. Toronto is home to a wealth of pipe organs of varying sizes and types, such as the Warren tracker organ at St. Michael’s Cathedral or the pretty instrument at the St. James Cathedral downtown. More than just individual instruments, they are part of the city’s history.

Among them, the city plays host to three of the country’s largest instruments, housed at the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church (TEMC) on St. Clair West, St. Paul’s on Bloor St. East, and the Metropolitan United Church downtown. There are only another four organs in the 6,000-plus pipe club in Canada, three of them located in Montreal at the Church of St. Andrew & St. Paul, the Oratoire St-Joseph, and the Basilique Notre-Dame, and one at the  Winspear Centre in Edmonton.

Along with the instruments themselves, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Toronto was also home to a number of organ builders. There was Samuel Warren, Canada Pipe Organs, and Mathews Pipe Organs, among others. All three of Toronto’s largest pipe organs were built by Casavant Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. Brothers Claver and Samuel founded Casavant Frères in 1879 after spending some time in Europe learning the craft. They owed their expertise to père Joseph Casavant, known as the first organ builder to have been born in this country. He worked in the Montreal area beginning in the 1840s. While most of the previous century’s pipe organ manufacturers have fallen by the wayside, Casavant Frères remains one of the premiere organ builders in the world.

The Casavant housed at the unassuming Metropolitan United Church on Queen and Church is a majestic instrument, built in 1930 after a fire destroyed much of the churches’ interior. Incorporating 8,233 pipes and 116 total stops, it’s Canada’s largest pipe organ, and ranked at about 42nd in the world. The original instrument included 7,840 pipes and incorporated 500 miles of wire. Another 400 or so pipes were added as a gift to the church in honour of a member of the congregation in 1998. The newer set of pipes were also made by Casavant, and are housed on the back wall of the church.

The original instrument at TEMC was built by Casavant in 1914, Opus 583, with just under 7,000 pipes and five manuals. The organ at St. Paul’s on Bloor Street was also put together in 1914 with four manuals or keyboards. The last addition at St. Paul’s in 1955 brought the number of pipes to 7,461.

Naturally, regular maintenance of these large instruments is crucial. The metal pipes are affected by temperature changes, and monthly visits by organ techs seems to be the norm. The beauty of having a well-maintained instrument, even one that is a hundred years old or more, is that they don’t have to remain static. The organ at TEMC underwent a multi-phase renewal in 2016 that included refurbishing the console, keys, and electronics, along with the addition of 1,080 new pipes by Casavant Frères. While the maintenance and renewal projects undoubtedly represent a significant outlay of cash, congregations seem happy to pony up the funds.

The guts of the organ — the pipes that create those majestic sounds – are often hard to see, not to say outright invisible. At the TEMC, for example, the original pipes are encased in the walls on either side of the organ. At St. Paul’s, the main organ’s four manuals also control a Gallery organ, housed in an organ chamber high over the west doors. The look of each instrument is individualized. In St. Paul’s, the visible pipes are unpainted zinc, in keeping with the Gothic design of the church.

Each instrument has its own special characteristics. The reeds at St. Paul’s are renowned for their power and clear tones, including an impressive tuba division. They were made in England for Casavant by W.G. Jones, Frank Wesson and Harrison and Harrison. With multiple tuba stops, the sound is rich and full.

The placement of the various components can prove a challenge to the organist. “The acoustic of the church is part of the instrument,” explains Thomas Bell,  Music Director at St. Paul’s. At St. Paul’s, there is a fair amount of space between the various divisions, which can cause a delayed echo. “The acoustics favour the audience,” he says. That means the organist and singers have to adjust to play to what the audience hears, as opposed to what they are hearing themselves up beside the instrument. The whole church, in effect, becomes part of the instrument, and maintaining it is just as important as tuning the pipes. Carpeting, wall coverings, ceilings – all play a role in the acoustics of the space.

The number of pipes, and their diversity is important. Together, they make up the vast palette of tonal colour available to the organist at any given time, which varies according to style and genre. “The whole instrument is English in flavour,” Bell explains of the instrument at St. Paul’s. That comes in contrast to, say, a French organ with its noticeably brighter tones. Stephen Boda, Principal Organist at TEMC, describes the churches’ organ as blended. “It has a mix of French and English elements.”

Other features, such as shutters, control volume. With four or five keyboards, rows of pedals, and more than a hundred stops, playing the organ is a full body experience. Each manual or keyboard has a different colour or tone. Blending the notes and tones is the art of the organist. “The permutations are almost inexhaustible,” Thomas Bell says.

Some pipes, for example, are tuned slightly sharp relative to each other to create an audible vibration. “It gives a shimmering sound,” explains Dr. Patricia Wright, Minister of Music and Organist at the Metropolitan. “That’s one of the grand things about pipe organs. The art of organ building is how the colour changes.”

Dr. Wright routinely hosts school and other groups where she describes the various types and construction of the pipes that create the array of sounds. “These are handmade instruments,” she says. “These are works of art.” It’s a craft that is centuries old. She calls the instrument at the Met English-voiced, and highly compatible with the human voice in song. “It plays Romantic music really well.”

The organist creates their own arrangement using the various stops to control the pipes and divisions, using the instrument’s memory settings to reproduce the specific combination of stops for a given piece or desired sound.

The action in this type of pipe organ is electro-pneumatic – electronics open up the air flow when the keys are depressed. That comes in contrast to a tracker organ, which has mechanical action. The keys actually open the air flow. The different types of organs are designed primarily for specific types of music. The music of J.S. Bach and other Baroque composers, for example, is played authentically on a tracker organ, as compared to the Romantic sound of the grand English style Casavants.

Power and volume are also affected by something called inches of wind pressure. One of the pipes at the Met organ, for example, delivers a powerful 14-inches of sound. “My choir doesn’t like it very much when I use it,” Dr. Wright notes.

Along with regular services, the venerable instruments are often used for teaching, with an encouraging stream of younger players interested in learning how to begin to master their intricacies. The large Met organ is used heavily as a teaching instrument through the University of Toronto.

For an organist, the usual path to the instrument comes after attaining about RCM grade 8 or 9 at the piano, with dedicated scholarships available to those who want to make the jump. From there, the instrument itself often convinces students to stick with it.

“People fall in love with the sound,” observes Dr. Wright.

For many, it becomes a passion. “It’s a huge thrill.” Like the other organists, Thomas Bell is effusive about what keeps him at the console. “It’s an absolute joy. The hours fly by.” While most teachers seem to agree that, with that background on piano, it takes about a year to become a competent organist, how long does it take to master such a large and complex instrument? “Several lifetimes!” Bell laughs.

With the pipe organ firmly off the radar as far as mainstream music is concerned, many organists come to the instrument off the beaten path. Stephen Boda, Principal Organist at TEMC, is a graduate of the University of Toronto music program, with a Masters and diploma from Yale, and a diploma in performance from McGill University. Organ wasn’t necessarily his first choice as an instrument, and remained in competition with piano studies for some time before he finally made his choice of major. “I think a lot of people fall into it,” he says. He slipped into the position when he was asked to fill in at the organ at his church as a teenager. “That’s been my job since I was 14 years old.” Even with a solid grounding in piano and keyboard techniques, however, there are unique challenges in making the transition from piano to organ. “The hard part is getting the pedals down,” he says. “It’s like taming a machine.” As he describes it, the reward is a busy career, between playing and practicing with the church choir weekly, guesting with other choirs, recitals, teachings, and concerts several times a year.

Most of all, there’s the opportunity to play a glorious instrument week after week.

They are grand dames from another generation, still living and thriving in modern Toronto — and accessible to the public. St. Paul’s on Bloor Street hosts many concerts and musical events throughout the season, including organ recitals on the second Sunday of each month. TEMC services are also broadcast live on Sundays on AM 1540. The Metropolitan hosts yearly Phantom of the Organ concerts that feature music from Bach to Lady Gaga in an effort to popularize the instrument, along with a regular concert series.

Update: A previous version stated there were three organs in Canada with more than 6000 pipes. There are four.


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