A Timeless Box Full of Whistles
And that’s before you even get to the organ.
Walking into a cathedral with intricate wooden ceiling, enclosed vaults, and hundreds of years of history envelopes you immediately. Crossing the floors, uneven due to the slabs of stone being graves to a quarter of a millennium’s worth of Haarlemers’ bones, the sheer majesty of it — the point of building vast palaces of faith in the first place — is inescapable. But then you see IT: the awe-inspiring Müeller organ, resting like a massive living heart inside the chest of the great church. It takes up the entire western wall of the church. If it sat on its own in the Grote Markt, the Müeller organ would be second only to the church itself as the largest building on the square. It is almost 100 feet high, with ornate cherubs carved as if holding it above the floor, capped with two lions bracing the city coat of arms. This all frames 5000 pipes arranged in 64 registers of musical muscle dressed up in beautiful craftsmanship. Twenty-five stunningly beautiful figures carved by the hands of sculptor Jan van Logteren silently watch over this loudest of tourist attractions.
It was completed in 1738, the same year that saw the birth of Charles Cornwallis who would, a generation later, be the General whose surrender at Yorktown effectively birthed the United States. That same year, and just up the road from Mother Cornwallis’ labour, John Wesley found religion in a spiritual awakening that would later be the foundation of the Methodist faith. Meanwhile on the Continent, the Wars of Polish succession finally ended with the Treaty of Vienna. From the throne of France, Louis the Beloved granted permission for the planting of new vineyards, so impressed was he by the quality of Rémy Martin cognac, forever adding the year to the label the brand is now famous for. Throughout all that history, all those years and lives and events that moved the world, people have come to see an epic achievement in craftsmanship, to hear a marvel of human engineering, to wonder at something as natural as wind being harnessed by mortal hands to produce music intended to inspire the divine.
Not bad for what is essentially a big box of whistles.
The origins of the modern pipe organ go back to the ancient Greeks. Calling the components “reeds” was not just an obscure reference but actual nomenclature, and the foundations were more hydraulic than musical. The earliest “water organs” predated Christ by more than 200 years. The oldest example we have, remarkably with metalwork still intact, is from the first century. St Bavo’s Müller isn’t the largest pipe organ; that happens to be the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Nor is it the oldest playable pipe organ still in use; that would be the dozen pipes of the organ inside the Basilica of Valère in Sion, Switzerland, dating from 1435. But viewing it with my 10-year old made an indelible impression upon me.
It was a moment when intersecting moments of present, and history, and place meet and blow your mind. While listening to the history of the mighty instrument, I was told the story of another 10 year-old child anxious to enter the great church and see the mighty pipe organ. I wonder if that 10 year-old held an adult’s hand, perhaps a parent’s or teacher’s, and fairly dragged them across the Grote Markt just like my daughter had. Unlike my child, this one wasn’t content to just see it, but simply had to mount the console and play it. They didn’t let my daughter do that, but 2008 isn’t 1766, and my kid isn’t Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. So … perhaps different rules for different eras. I wonder if he had to be admonished to not walk alone, or if his genius even registered such terrestrial issues on his quest to make heavenly music.
Händel had the same problem some 20 years before Mozart, traveling to Haarlem for the same purpose. The metal reeds in St Bavo’s box of whistles called to him. He particularly obsessed over the “Vox Humana,” the ability of the pipe organ to imitate the human voice, in a manner of speaking. He was known to conduct singers from the console of his parish church’s organ, though he wasn’t a formally recognized organist at a time when such titles and privileges were ruthlessly enforced. Such was his desire to get the voice of both man and machine exactly how he wanted it.
The other end of the musical spectrum still finds a pipe organ useful in a much different places than those classical masters. While the broad traditional and middle still use the pipe organ and its electric descendants in places of worship and classical works, some good old-fashioned secular users can seek out the instrument. Benmont Tench was far from a child prodigy Mozart or Händel in his peak, but he can play the hell out of an organ. Granted it was usually a Hammond, that stalwart of rock and soul music, rather than a pipe organ. Tench earned his musical bones keyboarding for The Heartbreakers, backing up Tom Petty as the core of an illustrious career. But he was at the console for one of my personal favorite, if lesser known, pieces of pipe organ music. Manning the pipe organ of the St James Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, he accompanied a rather unlikely vocalist, riddled with disease and with his own mortality in mind, who wrung what he could out of his wearied voice through old standards “Danny Boy” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Almost everyone hated the pairing, thinking the overwrought emotion of the songs and the church setting they were recorded in didn’t work. Fitting his contrarian legend, Johnny Cash didn’t care. “The session lasted about two hours and it was over. Just exactly the way we had hoped and planned and prayed it would be. It really adds an element that I’ve never had on a record before. Never had anything like that.”
“Danny Boy” was released to little fanfare or notice. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” only saw the light of day as part of a flurry of posthumous material released after The Man in Black faded to black. That was when I found it, and I have loved the old song ever since. Tench takes the St James pipe organ for a solo in it, but is decidedly muted, only teasing a soaring pulling of the stops before gently falling back into the familiar melody. It’s more warm blanket than the sonic sledgehammering the box of whistles can be when fully operational and manned by someone with a mind towards auditory assault. But against Cash’s battered baritone, it works magically so, critics be damned.
I listen to that song often, thinking of my own relentlessly running life clock. I’m often thinking of my own rather tenuous mortality, or my children and other loved ones and taking comfort in the thought of them not being alone, even if it’s just a wish or song or semblance of love that sustains them. My alarm on my phone has long been the bombastic blast of pipe organ that kicks off Meatloaf’s otherwise melancholy and melodic “Home By Now/No Matter What.” It never fails to awaken, like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” never fails to nearly bring tears or a smile in equal measure. That is a remarkable testament to the range and power of an instrument we’ve had as a part of humanity since Hannibal took elephants across the alps.
Across the lineage from metal reeds back to the Greek’s real reeds, from antiquity forward to modern-day LA, there is power in the man-made winds of the pipe organ. When Hans Zimmer scored the movie Interstellar to musically accompany a story of travel that was both futuristic and literally spanning our understanding of time, he turned to the mighty pipe organ. The oldest of our instruments driving home the story of mankind’s future seemed appropriate. The main character of the film reaching for his daughter works on the screen as well as it works for me walking across the Grote Markt with mine, or perhaps to the adult chaperon of Mozart 300 years earlier. It works because man-made wind has a story in and of itself, lending gravitas to its music beyond just the mechanical creation the stops and ranks produce.
It’s amazing how something attached to the wall of a church can travel with you without it moving at all. Pipe organs can be absurd things in the abstract. The bare idea of a 10 year-old boy playing an 8 story building inside a Dutch church sounds strange. But the image of Mozart playing the Müeller of St. Bavo, steeped in our knowledge of the unspoken power of music and the weight of greatness and history behind it… it’s breathtaking. It’s history and place and people all intersecting into something special. It means that none of them, or us, ever really walk alone. The sounds of the others are always close by.
Not bad for a two thousand year old box full of whistles.