In a small section in the basement of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Westbrook Music Building are five doors, behind each of which lies a different pipe organ.
“People who give us these instruments are called organ donors,” Glenn Korff School of Music Director and Chair John Richmond said.
Behind the first door lies an organ dating back to the construction of the building in 1967. There are three ranges on this organ, and each range has a corresponding lineup of pipes covering an entire wall.
“One pipe for each key on the keyboard,” said Christopher Marks, associate dean of the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts.
The pipes vary in size, shape and material, some metal and some wood. Each of these differences produces a different sound.
“You know other musical instruments like trumpets and clarinets?” Richmond asked. “Well, trumpets and clarinets play the same notes in the same octave, but when you hear a trumpet, you would never confuse it with a clarinet. So if it’s made of different stuff, it makes a different timbre – or color – of sound. If it’s a different size, it makes a different note.”
In the other four rooms, the organs are much smaller, but each one has its own distinctive quality. One organ was built in 1885 and was given to the music school by a church in rural Nebraska.
“None of them are exactly the same,” Marks said. “In fact, almost never do you see two organs exactly the same. They’re all custom built, all different shapes and sizes.”
Marks said this is one of his favorite things about an organ: It’s individuality.
“I like the music that’s written for it. I like the variety of sounds that it can make,” Marks said. “I like that each one is different. They each have their own personality, which is a lot of fun.”
Richmond and Marks described a unique organ found in St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, which Richmond described as “spectacular.”
“It has two different tuning systems built into it, which is very unusual,” Marks said. “Most keyboard instruments now have equal temperament, which means that every half-step is exactly the same. That’s – in history – a very recent phenomenon; only in the last 100 years or so.”
Before that, he said, several different kinds of tuning systems were used. As a result, not all half-steps were always exactly the same.
This specific organ requires the player to choose a tuning system, which then determines which pipes will be played and which will not.
“It also determines which piece you’re going to play,” Marks said. “Music that was written in the 17th Century sounds better with the 17th Century tuning system and not as good on a 20th Century tuning system. Twentieth Century music tends to sound pretty horrible on the 17th Century tuning system.”
Marks said that it would be very difficult to re-tune an entire organ to a different temperament. All of the instruments at UNL are tempered with the modern system of equal half-steps.
Organs have been used in many different settings throughout history. Richmond said that they were once used to play in the background of movies.
“There was a time, very, very early in the history of movies,” Richmond said, “where the picture itself was silent, but when you would go to see the movies, it wasn’t just sitting in a quiet room watching a moving image on screen. There would be an organist, sometimes an orchestra, but more often than not there was an organist.”
Richmond said this caused many organs to be designed solely for the purpose of playing in the background of movies, even providing sound effects.
“They’d add sirens, flare guns, bells, all sorts of crazy stuff,” Marks said.
While there aren’t many UNL students who know how to play these organs, graduate student Zachary Turner has worked with Marks for nearly a year and a half. Turner works as a church musician with an undergraduate in piano, and originally planned to continue with piano, but instead decided to work with Marks and learn the organ.
“It’s a newfound love of mine,” Turner said. “The biggest (difference) is the feet. I think also the style of the mechanisms are completely different. With a piano you hit a note, that’s the sound you get. With the organ, that’s probably true, but you can also choose when to soften that note. The same is true of a piano, but the nuances are very different.”
Turner said his favorite part about learning the organ is that the learning never ends.
“Just the seemingly infinite number of possibilities in terms of musical expression and technical development, I mean, it’s infinite,” Turner said. “You cannot stop learning about the organ. It’s the ‘king of instruments.’ Mozart referred to it as that. It has been used in Roman times for dance and festivities, to the church and theatrical organs. It’s the king of instruments.”