Bulldog Days: Yale, May 2016

by Corey De Tar

I had been anxiously awaiting the day we would tour Yale’s organs so much so that I’d stayed up late for weeks practicing new repertoire to try out on the instruments. As a new organ student, I must admit that sitting down at an unfamiliar console to play music for my fellow organ students is a highly nerve wracking experience. Being a new organ student, I’ve only gone on one similar “organ hop” and given only one studio recital performance. Fortunately these experiences have lessened my performance anxiety and the only emotion I felt at Yale was pure glee. 

The first organ we met was the Neo-Baroque organ by Beckerath in Dwight Chapel. This instrument is unassuming and simply elegant at the chancel of the chapel under a stunning stained glass window. The dark wood and genius use of lines of the instrument’s facade invited me to the keyboard without hesitation. With only a few minutes to enjoy the instrument, I joyfully played my Prelude in G minor by Bach with a bit of improvised orchestration between the manuals. After being introduced to our host, Joey Fala, and given a brief introduction to the Beckerath’s context in history, we set off across the gorgeous courtyard of Old Campus to Battell Chapel.

Battell Chapel is equally as stunning as Dwight but in a more ornamental and spacious way. The chapel itself is open and inviting, and seats hundreds of congregants. The organ itself is unique in that most of the ranks are unenclosed, giving the aesthetic of the organ’s appearance to be uninhibited and a bit brash. The tonal canvas of the organ’s compass is congruent with its visual appearance, and features very interesting timbres. As a player, this organ was really intimidating to play as the volume from the instrument is up close and personal. I really enjoyed seeing the organ’s old piston mechanism: a large mother board of old-fashioned toggle switches controls the piston settings and was an interesting mechanical-predecessor to the modern facility of organ registering. 

Corey De Tar plays the Holtkamp in Battell Chapel

Corey De Tar plays the Holtkamp in Battell Chapel

Before lunch we had the luxury of visiting Trinity on the Green, where we met Mr. Walden Moore and the incredible Aeolian-Skinner Organ. The cascades of sound is outright hypnotic. We each had the pleasure of fiddling around at the console for a few minutes—but the real treat was hearing Mr. Moore demonstrate the instrument for us. I will definitely be back to experience a worship service at this church in the near future! 

After lunch we ventured to Woolsey Hall to finally meet the organ we had all been waiting for: The Newberry Memorial Organ. Here we met with the Curator of Organs at Yale, Mr. Joe Dzeda, who has cared for the Newberry and all other campus organs for more then half a century. He very kindly shared the history of the hall, the legacy the Newberry family left us with, and many fun anecdotes along the way. He and his assistant showed us the incredible mastery of the organ’s construction, from the perfectly operating centennial-aged blowers to the pre-computer era technology represented in its 1920’s combination action; these two tiny rooms housed an incredible array of intricately soldered wires housed in wooden casings in a staggeringly genius employment of engineering. These same two rooms are responsible for the organists ability to select large swaths of organ stops with the flick of a button. Incredibly, the modern back-up combination action only consists of a double three by five foot case of closed circuitry that does the same job but with far less style and craftsmanship.

We explored the belly of the echo division, ONE of Mr. Dzeda’s workshops, the practice organs underneath the hall, and the little-known history of the hall’s largest seat. Chris demonstrated the organ’s compass for us and engulfed his students in breath-taking, albeit sobering volume while we sat at the back of the hall and drank in the sound. Finally towards the end of our appointment with Mr. Dzeda, we were given the gift of sitting at the console and playing with all the power and majesty that hundreds of years of craftsmanship, tender care, and unspeakable amounts of money can grant. I chose to play through my transcription of Barber’s Adagio for Strings while Chris and Joey manned the stops for me. I was in complete and utter heaven as I stoked the keys, evoking an entire symphony orchestra with my own ten fingers and feet. After my moment at the controls, I relinquished the honor to my fellow students and contently sat and let the music wash over me. This experience quite literally made my first year in New England completely worth it. Through all the trial and tribulation of relocating to a new city, new job, new career path…this moment reminded me that life is completely beautiful and sometimes, once in a while, the universe gives a pat on the back and lets us relish the exact moment we have been given in the here and now. 

Our final stop of the tour took us up to the Divinity School campus where a fairly new Taylor & Boody mean-tone organ occupies the Marquand Chapel. My studio mates and I all took turns manning the bellow for each other as we struggled to play the split key console. We talked about mean-tone tuning and the rewards and challenges it presents the player and listener. This was my least favorite organ—simply because it is almost a completely different instrument then I’ve become familiar with and my fingers simply couldn’t caress a pleasing sound out of it. But, none the less, it was a very fun experience with which to end our day.

After a long day of playing and listening, we walked away from campus completely satisfied by our encounters with the organs at Yale. We joined together for a organ-studio family meal over burgers, meatloaf, salad, and beer and returned home to Boston satiated and exhausted.

Christian Lane