Organ Music Fills Cathedral After 10 Years

December 24, 2008

Costa Rica’s largest musical instrument is in operation once again, just in time for Christmas.

The 3,000-pipe organ in downtown San José’s Metropolitan Cathedral made an informal, unannounced debut one Monday afternoon two weeks ago. Swarms of passersby streamed into the church, some startled, all curious, upon hearing a sound coming from the choir loft they had not heard in a decade.

A just-completed, five-week, ¢6 million ($10,700) project to restore the organ to its former glory is the work of German organist and organ builder and repairer Gerhard Walcker.

This is serious, longtime family business. Walcker, 58, forms part of the seventh generation of a firm founded in 1780 in Ludwigsburg, near the southern German city of Stuttgart.

The Walcker family has been no stranger to Costa Rica during the past century- plus. Nine of its organs presently grace houses of worship around the country, mostly Catholic churches, but one Baptist church, too.

The 1891 cathedral organ has different origins, however, having been built by Pierre Schyven & Cie. of Brussels, Belgium. Schyven (1827-1916) constructed 300 organs during his career, the most famous of which sits in the cathedral of Antwerp, Belgium. Two other Schyven instruments are in operation in Costa Rica.

“An organ builder has to decide what he wants to do,” Walcker explains.

In the late 19th century, builders oriented organs toward composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, giving the instrument the musical registers needed to play the softer Romantic music of the period.

Schyven was typical of his era, Walcker says, but he built multiple registers into the cathedral organ. That allowed it to tackle both the softer German styles and more majestic French and Spanish Romantic music, each in vogue during the time, but rarely possible to play on a single instrument.

“A new experience for me,” Walcker says of the organ’s versatility.

The instrument is the church’s second organ, the first having been destroyed in an earthquake in the late 19th century.

As were all organs that predated electricity, the instrument here is entirely mechanical, and therein lay the needed fixes.

The console, which contains the three keyboards – “manuals” in organ parlance – and the pipes were in fairly reasonable shape. The mechanics that connect them and allow air to flow through the pipes were not, however, Walcker explains, and required extensive repair and remounting.

Pipe tuning will be less precise than Walcker would like. (The nearly 3,000 pipes range in size from 20 centimeters to five meters, with shorter tubes giving higher pitches.) The traffic din wafting through the building’s doors and windows makes that task difficult, but Walcker, who will return in mid-2009 for routine maintenance on the instrument, pronounces the state of the pipes “90 to 95 percent in good condition.”

“I hope they play it often,” he says, citing the need for any organist to be “friendly” with the organ, and to get to know its quirks.

Various organizers have approached the archdiocese with requests to use the organ for concerts. (The Las Mercedes church in the western Central Valley city of Grecia, with its 1886 Walcker-built organ, the country’s oldest still in use, is a regular venue during the annual Credomatic Music Festival.)

“The priority for now is the organ’s use in Mass,” Germán Salas, press spokesman for the archdiocese, told The Tico Times. “Concerts may come in their own time.”

 

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