-- Honore de Balzac
In the early 20th century, when the Pittsburgh sky glowed red with steel making, concert halls and places of worship thundered with the glorious sound of pipe organs. Whether sacred or secular, the music lifted the spirit and energized the listener.
Many of those pipes live on today and continue to thrill their audiences. Southwestern Pennsylvania is fortunate to have seven pipe organs of "historical, musical, technological and cultural significance" in the view of the Organ Historical Society, a national organization devoted to the preservation, restoration and appreciation of this complex instrument. Beyond these seven are other valuable and important pipe organs in the region, some of which are regularly used and renowned and others which have fallen into disrepair or even gone mute.
Last week when the pipe organ society met in Pittsburgh for its annual convention, special attention was focused by the local chapter on two musical treasures in Oakland that, unfortunately, have deteriorated over time -- the 1907 Kimball organ that is still used at Temple Rodef Shalom and the 1895 organ at Carnegie Music Hall, originally a Farrand & Votey model that has been rebuilt several times but has sat mostly silent for decades.
Like historic forts, train station rotundas or hill-climbing inclines, such instruments deserve to be restored so they can be seen, experienced and valued -- and that can take millions of dollars. Fortunately, Pittsburgh is infused with a preservationist zeal and a philanthropic spirit that is known for saving and sustaining its greatest landmarks.
Rodef Shalom's rare instrument is only about half playable, yet it gets weekly use given the temple's needs. Its organist estimates that repair would cost $1 million, an enormous sum for a congregation that carefully husbands its resources for priorities like worship, education and other aspects of its mission. While such budgetary choices must be made only by the temple's members, a restoration effort, if backed by Pittsburgh benefactors who value great music, would be an investment in the future.
Carnegie Music Hall and its associated museums serve a broader and more diverse audience. The organ was inaugurated in 1895 with Andrew Carnegie present and eventually was used in more than 4,700 concerts. James Stark of the Organ Historical Society says the instrument fell into disuse around 1990, giving rise to concern and proposals for what to do next. One estimate for cost of repair then, according to a spokeswoman for the Carnegie, was $1.5 million -- a number that would be significantly higher now. But no funding drive was launched for restoration 20 years ago and none is in the works today, despite a successful campaign completed in 2008 that raised $161 million for other Carnegie priorities.
That is a mournful refrain, especially when pipe music is back in vogue and the nation's newest and most dazzling concert halls -- in Nashville, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- come complete with new pipe organs.
Philanthropists willing to consider supporting restorations of the Rodef Shalom and Carnegie Music Hall instruments would be encouraged by the dramatic results achieved with rehabilitations of other pipe organs in the city, including those at East Liberty Presbyterian Church and St. Paul's Cathedral. The East Liberty organ, a 1935 Aeolian-Skinner with nearly 8,000 pipes, underwent a $1.5 million repair and reconstruction in 2006-07, leaving the instrument with its new digital console sounding better than ever. The organ at the Catholic cathedral in Oakland, a 1962 Beckerath with more than 5,000 pipes, had a nearly $1 million restoration in 2008 which, in the words of St. Paul's music director, made it "tip-top perfect."
No wonder Mozart said, "To my eyes and ears the organ will ever be the king of instruments."
For Pittsburgh, this is a historic preservation issue of the first order. The city's heritage of music -- like its hills, rivers, architecture and social fabric -- says much about who we are. It is incumbent on this generation to secure these assets for the next.
When we lose sight of their value and fail to pass them on, it says something about us as well.