Hildene organ celebrates 100th birthday

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Modern music speaker technology has created ways to experience the feeling of being in the middle of a grand concert hall, enveloped by music. A hundred years or so ago, a listener could get the same sensation by standing on the stairwell leading off the main floor at Robert Todd Lincoln's Hildene mansion, when his paper roll driven player Aeolian organ was up and running.

The sound is deep and full, like you would expect 1,000 individual pipes to produce. It fills the parlor at the main entrance to the historic house, loud enough to just about stifle conversation with its cathedral-like quality.

On this day, the first Sunday after Christmas, the holiday season is still in full force, and the organ-driven carols ring out as visitors wander in to take in the house that Lincoln's son built. A few pause before the surprisingly small organ, its keyboard hidden behind an elegant wooden console.

Behind the keyboard is Stephen Morse, whose day job is with the state Department of Education in the licensing division. But he's also working on a book about the 210 pipe organs in Vermont that are still used and working. He's gone from one community to the next cataloging and describing the organs so that someone else, who might have reason to go and play one, can quickly look it up and get information on its characteristics, he said.

He's closing in on the finish, up in the high 190s now, and it's a special treat to play Lincoln's old organ, he said.

"This is the oldest residential pipe organ in America still playing in the original place where it was installed," he said. "It's a little different from others I've played - you have to get the feel of it.."

The action is light and easy. The keys are not hard to push or depress, but from where the organist sits it's hard to hear how loudly it's playing, he said. ""When the pipes and the keyboard are in different locations, the sound reverberates; it makes it more of a challenge," he said. "It makes it harder to hear how well the sound and volume is balanced."

Aeolian was the name of the company that originally manufactured the organ, and the console with its array of stops and pedals is kind of like the tip of an iceberg. Underneath the organ run a mass of electric wires and valves that create the sound and pushes it to the 1,000 pipes nearby. A blower and motor, which are almost never seen by visitors, sit one floor below the organ, in a specially constructed room, and form the beating heart of the instrument.

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When a key on the organs keyboard is depressed, a low voltage electrical charge moves from the console through a cable into the organ chamber and is directed by an electrical relay. A series of valves opens that ultimately releases air into the organ pipes.

It's amazingly complex, and such player organs - antecedents in a way of modern home stereo systems - weren't commonplace in the homes of the affluent a century or so ago. Nor were they cheap. It cost Lincoln $63,500 to build Hildene in 1905 dollars, approximately $1.5 million in today's currency. The organ cost $11,500, (about $280,000 in inflation adjusted dollars) and was the most expensive single item bought for the home, said curator Brian Knight.

Lincoln only paid $9,500 for it in 1905, because the Aeolian organ wasn't the first in the house. Prior to its arrival in 1908, Lincoln owned another organ, known as an Orchestrelle, and it was placed nearby in the den. He got $2,000 for it on a trade-in for the grander Aeolian, which he bought for his wife as a birthday present.

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Lincoln himself was not much of a musician, so that explains the paper roll player attachment. You could load one up and start it running, sit back and enjoy the sounds. His wife and children were much more talented musically.

"To have a residential organ with a thousand pipes was uncommon," Knight said. "It was something you might see institutionally in a church or a music hall but not in a home."

When Hildene was taken over by the non-profit Friends of Hildene in the late 1970s, the organ was in a bad state of disrepair. It was, in fact, unplayable, and probably hadn't been played for several years, said Larry Nevin, a Brattleboro-based organ restorer who was hired to rehabilitate the organ and get the music flowing again.

The organ's blower wouldn't start and the entire interior of the organ had been chewed out by mice and carpet beetles. Much of the rest of the system was in bad shape, he said.

"The real meat and potatoes of the instrument - the electric relays - were what were seriously degraded," he said.

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All of those pieces were fixed up or replaced, the bellows were re-leathered and the console player mechanism - the paper roll mechanism - was partially restored as well. He also took apart and cleaned out the organ's pipes as well, although they were in relatively good shape, he said.

The cost of the renovations eventually came to about $12,000, or more than the organ cost back in 1906, before adjusting for inflation.

Twelve years ago the paper roll system was replaced by a modern, computer-driven MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) system, which performs the tasks that used to be handled by the paper rolls, which were fragile to start with and had degraded over time. Some, but not all of the original paper rolls of music have been transposed onto the MIDI system, Nevin said.

Renovation work is continuing. Eighteen months ago, one of the organ's stops - a component of an organ that admits pressurized air to a set of organ pipes - failed, and he is in the process of repairing that, he said.

Ahead lies more renovation work on the pneumatic valves - some of them original parts of the organ. It will involve removing the organ from its present site, he said.

Huge as the entire apparatus may seem to modern eyes today, it was actually of relatively moderate size as residential organs went, back in their heyday, he said. It was also the only residence organ in Vermont at the time it was installed, he said.

"For 1906, this was a very advanced piece of engineering," he said. "This was the beginning of the whole player roll adaptation of some pipe organs so people could enjoy the instrument without having the hire an organist."


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