A sound sweet & soft
HEAR ‘STRADIVARIUS OF ORGANS’ FOR YOURSELF DURING APRIL 6 CONCERT
The Sears family — from left, Rebecca Ann Sears, David Foster Sears and Permelia Singer Sears — pose with the 1842 E. & G.G. Hook organ at the First Parish Church in the center of Northfield.
Permelia Singer Sears plays the organ at the First Parish Unitarian Church. Recorder/Paul Franz
The organ has brightly-decorated front pipes, now with stenciled patterns on them, probably done when it was set up in Northfield.
Rebecca Sears, David Sears and Permelia Singer Sears in First Parish Unitarian Church in Northfield. Recorder/Paul Franz
While playing the organ, these stops are manually pulled open or pushed closed to control which set of pipes get air.
First Parish Northfield
Recorder file photo/Paul Franz
Organ concert Sunday
First Parish Church in Northfield is home to a 1842 E. & G. G. Hook organ, which will be played in a concert Sunday featuring the Sears family and music selected to highlight this historic instrument’s musical chops. See “Music.”
When the 1842 E. & G.G. Hook pipe organ was installed in Northfield’s new church back in 1871, following the destruction by fire of an earlier building, the loudest sound you would hear coming in the open windows on a spring Sunday was the neighing of a horse from the stalls out in back.
In that setting, the Hook organ was considered “quite a bold and aggressive sound,” according to retired organ restorer Ed Boadway of Claremont, N.H. “Until gunpowder reached Europe in the Middle Ages, the loudest sound in the western world was the sound of a pipe organ and, right up until the 19th century, people would often refer to ‘thunderous pedal pipes’ and the terrific roar from many organs. We listen to them now and think nothing of it — it’s a very ordinary decibel level.”
Concert organist Permelia Singer Sears of Dunstable explains, “In that era, organs were softer than what we think of as a regular organ today because they were built with a very low wind pressure. When this organ was built, there was no electricity and the wind got into the organ by somebody — usually a young boy — pumping it out back. They were built for a time when you didn’t have to compete with the noise of cars and tractor-trailers and bands of motorcycles going by. So the sound is just sweet and soft.”
It’s a sound that derives its unique quality from the “common metal” of its pipes. Common metal is similar to pewter, explains organ technician Robert Newton of Methuen. “It’s not a stiff, brittle metal, it’s a soft metal. It sounds better than later organs where the pipes were made out of zinc.” Newton calls the sound of this organ “very refined and delicate. Well-balanced, but not overly brilliant. It’s a nice, full sound when you put the whole organ on, but definitely refined. Lovely, lovely flute stops.”
Remarkably, says Permelia Singer Sears, “Nothing has been changed from the way the Hooks built it back in 1842.”
On Sunday, April 6, at 3 p.m., listeners can expect to hear sounds just as their ancestors might have heard them in that same sanctuary 143 years ago as Sears, her husband, David Foster Sears, and daughter, Rebecca Ann Sears, make this historic organ sing.
‘A great rarity’
This particular organ was built by E. & G.G. Hook of Boston in 1842 as their opus 48. “That means it’s the 48th organ the company built,” says Newton, who specializes in early New England instruments for the Andover Organ Co., in Lawrence. “They were in business for over a hundred years and built over 2,500 pipe organs.
“What’s special about this one is its age and the percentage of it that’s original,” Newton said.
“It is the second-oldest unaltered Hook organ known,” says Boadway, a founder and past president of the Organ Historical Society (www.organsociety.org) and active church organist for 66 years, now at United Church in Ludlow, Vt.
“Actually, it’s the least-altered two-manual Hook organ. There’s one built in 1836, but it’s had a few more modifications. So it’s a great rarity. A Hook is a Stradivarius of organs because it’s so carefully made and voiced. They were beautiful then and they’re beautiful now.”
“This particular organ is a tracker organ,” says Sears. “Everything in it is mechanical, including the action. So there’s a physical link between the key that you’re pressing down and the pipe. You can follow that link through the organ if you go out back. It’s a physical link of wooden trackers — strips of wood — and little L-shaped pieces called squares that pivot so that when you press the key, it will pull down a pallet (valve) and let air into the pipe.
“Now, along came electricity and with it came some different types of organs. They developed what they called a pneumatic assist, which wasn’t used for very long because they went right to what they call electro-pneumatic organs, which combine electricity and air power to open the pallets. From there, they went to direct-electric organs, which are like turning on a light switch, and then to electronic appliances, which we won’t even mention!”
The Northfield organ was built in 1842 for the Third Congregational Church, Unitarian, in Springfield, and it was there until 1868 or a bit later.
“In 1869,” says Boadway, “they sold the building and the land at auction because it was right downtown and a pretty desirable piece of commercial real estate. In the next hour, they sold the contents of the building. They describe the Hook organ in a newspaper ad, quite a fancy ad. We don’t know if it was sold to the Unitarians in Northfield or given to them. At any rate, it didn’t arrive in Northfield until 1871, because the Northfield church had burned. There were at least two full years — all of 1870 and part of the two adjoining years — that the organ was in storage, somewhere.
“By 1869, the organ was already out of date in compass (the number of keys and stops and the size). It looked old-fashioned within 30 years of being built. So Northfield obtained this already out-of-date, old-fashioned organ and preserved it, either through good taste or poverty — usually it’s a combination of both — and there it stood. Thank goodness!”
The organ has brightly decorated front pipes, now with stenciled patterns on them, probably done when it was set up in Northfield. The wood graining of the case was painted on.
It has two manuals and an octave of pedals. (Modern organs have almost three octaves of pedals.) It’s what is called a “G compass” organ, which is very unusual. Most organs and all modern organs go down to the C two octaves below middle C. The G compass organ goes down to the G below that C, offering an extra five or six notes, depending on whether they put in all the sharps and flats. The Northfield organ has the oldest extant Hook reed stops, pipes for which the Hook brothers were famous.
All of its unique attributes will be on display in the Sears concert.
The organ whisperers
The terms “horse whisperer” and “dog whisperer” have come into common parlance to mean someone who has a special way with connecting to animals. In that vein, the Sears family are organ whisperers because they connect with historic organs in such as way as to bring out the best in each instrument.
With a master’s degree in pipe organ performance from Yale University School of Music, Permelia Singer Sears could be making a living on the national concert organ circuit. David Sears holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music and a doctorate in composition from Boston University. Rebecca Ann Sears graduated from Bowdoin with a double major in music and classics. All three play in the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra. Together, the Sears family has chosen a concert path that illuminates historic organs in a way few musicians are willing or able to do.
“Most concert organists,” explains David Sears, “people who make a living at it — and this is true of most concert musicians — have a certain number of pieces that are in their fingers for each concert season and they just play those pieces. And while they’re performing those, they’re learning what they’ll play in the next season. Permie and I are not that kind of performer. Rather than having set pieces that we play on a program anywhere, we go to the organ first. It’s sort of a getting-to-know-you type situation, and you discover the things this particular organ does wonderfully.”
First Parish Music Director Lynne Walker of Northfield notes that several organists have visited the organ only to decline to present a concert due to its programing limitations.
“That isn’t the way we approach it,” says David Sears. “What we do is say, ‘Ah, this has an octave of pedals and you know what? The Pachebel chaconne only uses that octave!’ When you live with the instrument a bit, you discover its beauties.
“Almost everything that we are planning to play shows off the beauties of this instrument.”
On the program
After paying several visits to Northfield, the Searses have compiled a program that shows off the organ to its best advantage:
The low notes of the organ’s G-compass keyboard will be heard in pieces by Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783), Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783) and John Stanley (1713-1786). The “Ciacona in d minor” by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), with its repetitions over a ground bass, will show off many of the different sounds of the organ. The “Concerto I for Two Keyboards” by Soler was originally written for two organs and will be performed on the organ and piano, a 1000-year-old Steinway grand. The “Meditation from Thais” by Jules Massenet (1842-1912), arranged for violin and piano, has an organ part added by David Sears just for this concert.
A passion for the pipes
Old pipe organs have problems with being overheated and the wood drying out too much, according to Newton. “Hook’s less than many, actually, because they used well-seasoned wood. One of the other problems is the larger, soft metal pipes — the lead pipes — gradually collapsing. Metals are almost liquid sometimes and because of the weight above it, they ‘pour down’ and bulge out.”
When that happens, the pipes have to go to the shop where skilled technicians like Newton put on new “toes.” It’s the kind of work Newton has been doing for more than 40 years. He passes along his knowledge through an apprenticeship program at the Andover Organ Co.
“You have to have a passion for the pipe organ” to do this kind of work, says Newton.
Happily for historic organ enthusiasts, Andover employs about 15 people dedicated to the art of organ repair and restoration. The youngest apprentice is 17 and in his last year of high school.
A precarious future
“The Hooks built so many organs that a good many remain intact,” says Boadway. “They have survived the scourge of electrifying them, ruining the mechanism and making changes, replacing them with, in some cases, inferior new pipe organs and electronic ‘imitation’ organs.
“Now, many churches are dying or merging and we’re losing organs every year. One by one, valuable Hook organs disappear or burn or are ruined in some manner. They were the Cadillac of organs in their day and it’s too bad so many have been destroyed, so that makes this one all the more precious.
“So there you have it: A quality organ built by first-class builders and surviving in a small country town.”
The concert starts at 3 p.m., on Sunday, April 6, at First Parish Church on Main Street, at the corner of Parker Avenue, in the center of Northfield. There is good parking behind the Northfield Town Hall, across the street. The suggested donation of $10 benefits First Parish Church and its historic organ. Children 12 and under are admitted free. A reception will follow the concert. The venue is not handicapped accessible.
Chris Harris has worked at The Recorder since 2004. She is editor of Valley Kids, Healthy Life, the Valley Guides and the Recorder’s supplements. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 413-772-0261, ext. 265.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.