News & Politics

The Power & the Glory

Pipe organs are majestic instruments that fill huge spaces with heavenly sounds. They’re also complex, infernal contraptions—and Washington has some great ones.

Pipe organs are the prima donnas of instrumental music—capable of beautiful sounds but very high-maintenance. Thousands of individually tuned pipes animated by the organist’s hands and feet make possible music of sublime complexity and subtlety. They also require a lot of attention because of their many components, including delicate mechanical interfaces and electrical wires that would run to miles if laid end to end.

Pipes typically have to be retuned at least twice a year owing to seasonal changes in temperature and humidity. Dust is a problem. Organists keep logbooks of problems to be addressed when technicians arrive. ➝

But the glory of the sound!

Pipes are arranged in ranks that have a similar sound quality—some evoke orchestral trumpets or flutes, for example. The organist activates one or more ranks by pulling out a stop, which connects pipes to keys on the keyboards, called manuals, and on the pedalboard, which is played with the feet. By playing, say, a C, the organist can activate just one note or tens of different Cs as well as other notes, like G and E, to color the sound. Depending on the stops selected, organ sound can range from brassy to ethereal, flutey to foghornlike and beyond. Stops are named, often poetically, according to the sort of sound they produce: Aeoline, Celeste, Vox Humana, Cor de Nuit, Plein Jeu.

Some of the great organ-building companies of the past, like E.M. Skinner and Hagerstown-based M.P. Möller, are defunct. Because different rooms are suited to different sound colors, and organists and music directors have varying preferences, organ builders these days tend to specialize: One might excel in putting together baroque instruments, another romantic. This specialization means many good organ builders thrive today.

Washington is home to a number of very good organs and several that are world-class. The twin Lively-Fulcher organs at the Franciscan monastery near Catholic University and at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in downtown DC are both noble instruments in settings with superb acoustics. Alexandria is home to several, including a beautiful new Lively-Fulcher and an antique Erben at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. In the District, Ascension & St. Agnes Episcopal, St. Columba’s Episcopal, National Presbyterian, and Chevy Chase Presbyterian all have distinctive instruments, and St. Matthew’s Cathedral has an unfinished masterpiece.

Here are profiles of five of the area’s best pipe organs. You really have to hear them to appreciate their greatness.

Power and Glory

The Möller organ at DC’s National City Christian Church (5 Thomas Cir., NW) has the power and flexibility of a giant cathedral organ but in a more intimate, less echoey space. Built in 1976, it has five manuals and 7,592 pipes in 141 ranks controlled by 217 stops.

Pipes in the rear of the sanctuary are operable from the main console and from a smaller console in the gallery. The gallery ranks include shockingly loud horizontal Spanish trumpets and the world’s only set of organ-operated handbells. Thirty ranks from the Skinner organ that preceded the current Möller were retained for the newer instrument, including a Skinner-signature triangular flute made of triangular wooden pipes. The organ’s only nonworking part is a stop for a carillon in the church’s tower, which is still playable separately. Because it’s so big, this organ has a tremendous range of sounds and shines as a solo instrument.

Hear it: On May 4 at 7:30 pm, minister of music Charles Miller will play works by French composers Dupré, Franck, Widor, and Vierne; adults $10, ages 18 and under free.

The Grande Dame

The Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Washington National Cathedral (3101 Wisconsin Ave.) is the largest in the area and one of the 30 largest in the world. With four manuals and 155 stops, its 10,650 pipes are arrayed in 186 ranks around the Great Choir area. Near-constant use from a heavy schedule of services and from student practicing requires weekly tunings.

The instrument has gotten several large overhauls since its 1938 installation, leaving some five dozen of the original Skinner ranks intact. The revisions occurred while a different organ-building fad was ascendant, so old and new ranks sometimes clash sonically. The motley sound palette and the poor directionality—if you’re standing in the main part of the cathedral singing a hymn, you might feel like you’re drowning out the organ—have spurred a big new project, beginning next year, to build two organs controlled by three consoles. Two builders, Dobson and Casavant Frères, will construct the new instruments. The Dobson organ, in the front of the cathedral, will retain some classic Skinner voices from the old organ.

Because the current organ will be torn out, the cathedral is not making major repairs, like fixing “dead notes,” most of which are byproducts of the climate changes that accompanied air-conditioning installation six years ago. Even with dead notes, all the stops work, including a deafening ten-rank one activated with a door key that is not given out to visiting organists. The stop is used only about twice a year, for “O Come, All Ye Faithful” at Christmas and “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” at Easter.

Hear it: Organ-world superstar David Briggs plays a free recital April 15 at 5 pm.

A Palette of Tonal Colors

The marble and concrete surfaces in the nave at St. Paul’s Parish, K Street (2430 K St., NW) greatly enhance the sound of its 1997 Schoenstein organ, imparting a liveliness characteristic of a much larger room. To match St. Paul’s strong musical tradition, the builders created an instrument—with four manuals, 73 stops, and 3,330 pipes in 65 ranks—that could run the gamut of accompanimental duties, from the bass-heavy, clear-melody playing needed for congregational hymns to the soft, pure sounds appropriate alongside a choir. A broad palette of tonal colors keeps things interesting for parishioners and offers recitalists nuance.

A unique feature of the organ is a double swell box. Many organs have swell boxes in which pipes are set behind shutters controlled by a pedal, allowing crescendos and diminuendos. The organ at St. Paul’s has a swell box inside the swell box, allowing greater subtlety in dynamics. There’s also an unusual pizzicato bass stop that produces a brief tone that evokes a plucked orchestral string.

Hear it: With no recitals scheduled, the best option is Sunday services at 9, 11:15, and 6. Watch for concert announcements on

Great Reverberations

The two 1965 Möller instruments in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (400 Michigan Ave., NE) were given a major overhaul by Goulding & Wood in 2000—connecting them, redesigning the visible pipework, and constructing two identical consoles, totaling eight manuals and 157 stops. The south gallery houses 6,751 pipes in 124 ranks, the west gallery 2,642 pipes in 48 ranks.

Before the overhaul, the organs were separate and self-contained. Now when both organs are playing, the sound from the farther organ takes more time to reach the listener, creating the effect of an echo in the resonant space. (Sounds ring in the basilica for up to five seconds.) The basilica also keeps, in the crypt church, a 25-rank 1987 Schudi organ constructed as an homage to the organs of Bach’s day. The instrument has a distinctive warmth and richness that make organists swoon.

Hear it: On April 15, composer and performer Thierry Escaich of the Paris Conservatory will give a recital from the south-gallery console.

A Jewel in Rock Creek Park

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish (Rock Creek Church Rd. and Webster St., NW), perhaps DC’s oldest church, used to have a wheezy old organ in a corner. Its beautiful new instrument, a 2004 Dobson, is in the front.

St. Paul’s music director, Graham Elliott, designed an economical organ—with two manuals, 24 stops, and 1,444 pipes in 26 ranks—that produces a warm, broad, singing sound that complements the generous acoustics of the midsize room (which can be significantly dampened by the bodies of listeners). The organ works not electronically but by mechanical action, meaning that each individual pipe has a tiny lever to open and close it. A hidden video monitor allows the organist to see what’s going on behind his back.

Hear it: The organ will be featured during the Rock Creek Festival, June 16 to 22, which includes an appearance by choral celebrity John Rutter. Call 202-726-2080 ext. 11 or see

Graham Meyer (graham <dot> meyer <at> gmail <dot> com) is an amateur musician who has sung with the Apollo Chorus of Chicago and the Princeton Katzenjammers.