Hadley church to show off its unique organ at Sunday event

  • Chris White, who is the organist at North Hadley Congregational Church, sits at the church's 19th century organ Thursday. He will perform a concert there on Sunday to benefit the town's new library. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Chris White, the organist at North Hadley Congregational Church, sits at the church’s 19th century organ Thursday. He will perform a concert there on Sunday to benefit the town’s new library. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Friday, December 01, 2017

HADLEY — At the time the North Hadley Congregational Church’s organ was installed in the 19th century, the instrument was a prized addition to the church whose families included well-to-do farmers from that section of town.

But in the intervening decades, as wealth faded from the church community, the 1866 Johnson Tracker Pipe Organ never got overhauled, a fortuitous situation that has allowed the organ to remain authentic in its sound and appearance, being built well before the era when organs were all constructed from the same template.

“What’s unique about this instrument is that it was made at a time when the layout of an organ wasn’t standardized yet,” says Christopher White, the church organist and an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

On Sunday, White, who has been playing the organ at Sunday services for about 1½ years, will showcase “The Magic of the Organ” for the public at a fundraising event for both its ongoing maintenance, and to provide financial support for construction of a new Hadley library.

Tickets, which are $10, will be sold at the door of the 243 River Drive church for the 2 p.m. event.

The concert comes following a recent restoration of the organ by Messrs. Czelusniak et Dugal Inc. of Northampton, which sought to get the organ’s music more in line with what it originally sounded like when placed behind the church altar.

“It had been maintained in a way it had been voiced to be more like a modern equipment, which didn’t agree with the mechanisms of the organ,” White said.

This work has also allowed the music to be more warm, and better able to fill the sanctuary with sound.

The organ was manufactured by Johnson & Sons, a Westfield company which built 860 organs between 1847 and 1898 throughout the Pioneer Valley, but also worked in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Since not redone or standardized in any fashion, the organ is now one of a kind, White said.

The pedal board, for instance, is aligned to what would have been found in Europe at the time, with shorter and fatter keys, and the keyboard is bigger and more complex, and features 19 stops, or ranks, that the organist pulls to make the keys produce different sounds.

Since the instrument has no electricity, except for a switch to turn on the electric blower that operates the bellows, it is more difficult to push down on the keys that open the nearly 900 metal and wooden pipes behind them.

“It takes a little more muscle to play one of these instruments than a more standardized instrument,” White said. “It takes more strength than a piano, more than your run of the mill organ.”

In fact, White said it took time to adjust to playing this atypical organ.

During the concert, he will begin with a classical piece by Dieterich Buxtehude, a 17th century German composer, that will showcase the various parts of the organ. He will then play compositions by Nicolas de Grigny, Claude Debussy and Johann Sebastian Bach, with the Bach music likely quite different to the ears of the audience because of the organ.

There will also be improvisations and Christmas song-a-longs during the event, and White will periodically talk about the organ and how he plays it.

That the concert is also a fundraiser for the library is part of the church’s mission to do outreach to the community, said member Polly Keener. The library made sense since one of the church’s late members, Miriam “Midge” Pratt, whose family still attends services, was a longtime Hadley librarian, including spending 48 years at the branch library once housed in the neighboring North Hadley Hall.

“So at this time of growth for Hadley’s library, it seemed a good fit for our support,” Keener said.

The church, in addition to an annual vegetable garden which raises food for the local survival centers, has created several music projects, including the Hadley Village Music Series that celebrated Hadley’s 350th anniversary.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.