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History of the Pipe Organ: American Colonies to the Present

Several months ago, a series of From the Organ Bench articles outlined the history of the pipe organ beginning with the first organ used in Alexandria, Egypt ca. 250 BC through the late 1800s on the European continent. This week we conclude with The American Colonies to the Present.

Because of the association of the colonies with Britain, early American organ building was heavily influenced by British organ builders. Unfortunately, organ building in the British Isles during this period was rather lacking, unlike the European French and Germanic regions. Also, many churches in the colonies refused to accept pipe organs because of its strong association with Roman Catholicism. Thus, American organ building got off to a slow start, only to plunge off the deep end toward the end of the 19th century, abandoning the historical European organ building practice of using mechanical (tracker) action, replacing it with a new type of action - electric. The advent of electric key action organs took the U.S. by storm in the early 1900s. However, electric key action was a new technology and there was no way to know how durable these actions were. From the early 1900s through the 1940s, American pipe organ factories churned out thousands of new electric key action organs before these organs began to fail, yet American culture did not seem to mind. Simply replace the “old” with the new. The build-and-replace cycle was born!

The first St. Joseph organ (1949) utilized electric key action and began failing in the mid-1970s. It was replaced with another electric key action pipe organ in 1982, which failed in 2009. Only mechanical (tracker) organs last the life of a church building.

Brad Cunningham, organist


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