John Knox Presbyterian Church, Greenville SC
The new pipe organ at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C. is in essence a microcosm of the developments that have been in process at The Holtkamp Organ Company for the past two decades. These developments are not in the realm of structure or placement. The elements of structure and placement were re-defined in the twentieth century by Walter Holtkamp Sr. Their basic concept, that the organ must be placed to speak directly into the primary space in which it is to be heard, has been somewhat expanded over the years but still remains an essential truth in our craft. The primary reason that lies behind this truth is that it is the quantity of direct sound that reaches the congregation that determines the degree of authority with which the organ leads the congregation. Without doubt it is leading the congregation that is the single most important job that the organ must accomplish. It is also true that if the pipe organ does this job well then it will perform well in its other two tasks, namely the accompaniment of the choir and the rendering of the literature for the pipe organ.
The developments of which I speak are in the realm of mechanism, visual design, and tonal design. From the standpoint of mechanism, there is nothing entirely new in the John Knox organ. It is an instrument composed primarily of slider chests with electric pull downs to actuate the key action and electric solonoids to actuate the stop action. Te remainder of the stops, the unit stops, are on elctro-pneumatic unit chests. What is new is the degree of refinement is the slider chests and their key actions, and the winding system that supplies the chests with air. Through a series of subtle additions to the chest mechanisms we have arrived at a system that is extremely crisp and responsive, and which has eliminated all the abrupt attack and release characteristics which are often present is the electric slider and electro-pneumatic slider mechanisms. The winding system, which have used since 1982 provides a blower bellows and an individual bellows for each division. This results in the elimination of all wind sag at times of maximum wind use while still providing for some flexibility and liveliness of wind throughout the entire range of the use of the instrument.
In the realm of visual design The Holtkamp Organ Company has always been a leader and innovator. From a starting point of mid-century, when our designs were unabashedly modernist, we have gradually moved in the direction of design with a more contextualist approach. This approach is one which the visual design of a new pipe organ is drawn directly from the architecture of the space in which it will be installed. This approach was previously realized in a traditional context in our instrument at The Peabody Institute of Music, and in a contemporary context in our instrument at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Aberdeen S.D. The visual design of the John Knox organ is a continuation of our contextualist approach. As the photographs clearly show, the sanctuary at John Knox is Neo-Classical in design. It was our goal from the outset to compose a visual design that both reflected the Neo-Classical esthetic and fit well into the space available for the organ. This was achieved by creating a large central curved pediment. The area beneath the pediment is separated into three sections, a wide central arch and two smaller double tiered arches. This pediment and the arches beneath it are the true visual focal point of the instrument. The pediment is then flanked on either side by a wide arch topped by a simple cornice. The top of the side cornice was adjusted to be even with the existing chancel cornice. The result is a visual design which is very elegant and poised, and so visually appropriate in this Neo-Classical setting.
In the tonal realm the John Knox instrument represents an expansion of our design philosophy. This expansion leads us further in the direction of the pipe organ’s primary reason for being, namely its function in the contemporary worship service. A tonal design philosophy is something that is in continuous flux and development. When most people think of The Holtkamp Organ Company the sound that comes to mind is that from the fifties and sixties. It is a sound that is characterized by foundations that are somewhat light, topped by fairly pungent mixtures. The other primary aspect of this sound is the somewhat open and singing character of the voicing. This style of voicing, and its blending characteristic, is essential in creating the well knit vertical and horizontal ensembles which are present in all our work. This sound was created over time, from 1930-1950, primarily for the effective rendering of polyphonic music from all periods of music history. Since that time we have moved primarily in three different directions. The first direction is towards a greater range of color in the instrument. As can be seen from the John Knox specification, our tonal pallet has expanded in the direction of greater range of color in principals, flutes, strings and reeds. This naturally gives the organ greater flexibility and the organist a much wider range of color to work from. The second area of expansion is a wider range of dynamic variation. Our Swell and Choir boxes are constructed with double walls. The Swell shades are made of solid poplar. They are overlapping and double sealing for greater dynamic control. The third area of development is providing greater fundamental response through reinforcing the low and middle frequency ranges in the entire instrument. This is accomplished through variations in pipe scale and pipe construction details. This greater fundamental response provides both the warmth of sound and the congregational support that are so essential in the contemporary worship service. These characteristics, combined with our ongoing focus on ensemble voicing and essential balance between divisions, results in a musical instrument which is well balanced, highly colorful, capable of great variation of dynamic level, and in short truly well suited to its task.
All the above is a nuts and bolts analysis of that which distinguishes the John Knox organ from so man others. What is not explored is the reason behind these developments. The Holtkamp Organ Company has been a leader in the world of American pipe organ building since the 1930’s. As I look back on our history I find one example in particular which helps to shed light on the reasons behind our work. It lies in the inscription that Walter Holtkamp Sr. and Walter Holtkamp Jr. occasionally included in their casework designs. That inscription is “ET NON IMPEDIAS MUSICAM”. It roughly translated as “do not impede the music”, or paraphrased “let the music freely sound”. It is an inscription that is particularly well suited to our work as we had so much to do with the creation of pipe organs for the effective rendering of the traditional literature for the pipe, was newly re-discovered in the first half of the century. However, in order to get to the true core of our motivation we need to go beyond the music. The music does not exist for its own sake. Nor does it exist simply for the sake of its basic beauty. The reasons are far more elemental that that. The reason for the music and its presence in or lives is quite simply the effect that it has on the soul of each and every one of us. It is the way in which the music touches us each so deeply, and enriches and lightens our soul, that makes it so very precious. So, perhaps I should edit my predecessors’ inscription. Perhaps it should read instead “ET NON IMPEDIAS SPIRITUS”. It is my hope that our work achieves this end.
John Knox Presbyterian Church website