of Organ Building & Restoration!
includes Organs in the Naples Cathedral
This is not meant to be
even a mini-manual on organs—their
history, how they are made, how they are played, how
they are restored, etc. (For that, I urge you buy
The Cambridge Companion to the Organ by Nicholas Thistlethwaite and
Geoffrey Webber. Cambridge University Press,
1999, and read it. Get back to me when you’re
done.) Suffice it
to say that an organ has keyboards, pipes, ranks,
pedals, stops, registers and, historically, any number
of ways to move “wind” though the instrument; an organ
can have one keyboard or many and it can have many
thousands of pipes. Organ terminology is very
technical, and none of it is accessible to the layman.
(They speak of “pipe feet,” “pull-down seals,” “cone
valves,” and “pallet magnets,” which to me might as
well be parts of the Large Hadron Collider
atom-smasher about to open near Geneva. “OK,
Luigi, listen. Pull this knob and you open the
16-foot B-flat trombone stop; pull this one next to
it and you open a black hole. Be careful.”) All
of this combines to produce a glorious musical
instrument like none other in the history of the music
of western civilization, one that moved Milton to
these lovely lines:
But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloister's pale,
And love the high embowed roof,
With antique pillars massy proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.
There let the pealing organ blow,
To the full-voiced quire below,
In service high, and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.
In the church of Ascensione a
Chiaia. This organ has 2,500 pipes
and is in working order. It appears to be of more recent construction,
probably twentieth century.
In a city such as Naples, where there
are hundreds of churches, many of which were built in
the hey-day of the Baroque (the 1600s), you would
expect there to be at least a few dozen fine, ornate
organs still up and playing. Alas, there do not seem
to be. There are a few, but not many, and the real
problem is that no one seems to know, or, until
recently, to have cared much about preserving this
rich part of the musical heritage of Naples, a city
once called The Conservatory of Europe. Where are the
instruments? When were they built and by whom? When
were they restored (if ever)? What are the details of
their construction (i.e. number and configuration of
keyboards, pedals, stops, etc.)? At present, there is
nothing even close to a catalogue of such things. The
closest you might find is a 2-volume work by Stefano
Romano called L’arte organaria a Napoli
(The Art of the Organ Builder in Naples) published in
1980 (vol. 2 in 1990).
Most organs in churches
throughout southern Italy are from the 1700s and 1800s but
there is documentation of early organ building in Naples
as early as the first half of the 1400s. The first truly
prominent organ builder in Naples was Lorenzo di Giacomo,
hired away from Bologne in 1471 by King Ferdinand of
Naples. That was the beginning of a long string of
prominent organ builders in the city of Naples and,
indeed, the entire kingdom of Naples (including Sicily)
that spans 500 years.
The church of
S. Maria in Portico. The instrument is from the
it is not in working order and there are no plans for restoration.
The details of it all, however, are obscure for many reasons. A lot can happen in 500 years. There are the natural ravages of time, not to mention earthquakes, volcanoes, bubonic plague, cholera, urban destruction/renewal, wars, revolution, vandalism and theft, all of which have caused entire churches to disappear, forget about the furnishings! Through all of this, even devout Roman Catholics—while no doubt concerned about their immortal souls—might be forgiven for not caring much about who was minding the organ. A new organization has arisen, however, to meet the challenge: the “Giovanni Maria Trabaci” Organ Association (note*), founded in 2006, is dedicated to filling in the blanks. They have already held one conference at Santa Chiara and are now at the beginning of a long process of cataloging instruments and publishing the results on-line and in a print journal.
* The eponym, Trabaci (1575-1647), was an
organist and prominent composer for the instrument who
for many years was active at the Oratorio of the Filippini in
the church of the Girolamini in Naples.
The organ that stirred my inner Lon
Chaney in Santa
Maria della Sanità is from the early
1700s and was last restored in 1940. That restoration
was done by Pietro
Petillo, a Neapolitan whose entire family was
prominently involved in organ building and restoration
throughout Italy in the last half of the 1800s and first
half of the 1900s. (I am indebted for that information
to Gian Marco Vitagliano, a Neapolitan restorer of such
instruments.) The Sanità organ has two manuals
(keyboards) and about 2,000 pipes. It is not currently
in working order and plans for restoration are unclear.
church of San Domenico Maggiore
A few other examples in Naples include the instrument in the church of Gesù Nuovo; it was built recently by Gustavo Zanin in 1986 but uses pieces of the earlier Balbiani organ in the church as well as of an unidentified instrument from the 1600s. The organ in the church of Sant’ Angelo a Nilo is by an anonymous (at least, so far) builder from 1700s and was restored in 1970. The organ in the church of the Madre di Buonconsiglio is by the Neapolitan builder, Domenico Antonio Rossi, and is from 1769—indeed, much older than the church, itself, which is only from the 1920s; the instrument was restored in 1994; the historic organ in the chapel of S. Restituta within the cathedral of Naples is from 1750 and was built by Tommaso Martino; it was restored 1994. (More on the cathedral, below.) The organ in the church of San Domenico Maggiore (photo, above) is from 1751 and was installed to replace two earlier organs during restoration directed by D. A. Vaccaro. It is in working condition and is played regularly.
instrument shown above is a double-organ, the two
components of which are situated on either side of the
nave in the recently restored church of Santa Maria dell'Aiuto.
Double organs were not particularly rare, but this is the
best-restored one I have seen. Literature on the church
simply describes it as "a 17th-century instrument"—not
particularly helpful. I am making enquiries, but I have a
feeling that the otherwise very successful restoration of
this church stopped short of restoring the organ such that
it can be played.
above: The organ in the church of the Girolamini. (update: I comment elsewhere on the reopening of the Church of the Girolamini in May 2011. The photos from before (2009, left) and after (2011, right) the restoration of the church show that the pipes have simply been removed. I have no information as to an eventual restoration of the instrument.)
(from 2009) It is obviously going to be a long process of restoration to return the magnificent Girolamini church to the icon of the Neapolitan Baroque that it used be. My understanding is that it will sooner or later serve as a museum rather than a house of worship much like the Diocese Museum within the splendid church of Santa Maria Donna Regina. But at least the Girolamini church is open after many decades of neglect and that is a start. You can walk in and see the partially restored art work on the walls, as well as other partially restored this and that. My gaze wandered up to the organ (photo, right). It is a total wreck; the few pipes that are still there are askew. I know nothing of the details of the instrument —that is, who built it and when. I suspect it will be the last thing to be put in order and then only cosmetically, which is to say that they may make it look good, but I doubt that it will ever again—in Milton's words—"blow...in service high, and anthems clear...". But one can hope.
The Ruffati organ is essentially the last in a series of rebuildings that go back to 1767 when cathedral organist, Fabrizio Cimino, removed two older organs and replaced them with a new twin instrument, two identical unit organs exactly the same in sound and appearance. Besides 1975, rebuildings of that 1767 instrument occurred in 1843, 1931, and 1963. Such work is not just simple modification, but entails adding pipes, stops, manuals (keyboards) and, most importantly, converting the controls and mechanisms from earlier mechanical systems to electrical ones. The 1767 Cimino organ was itself, however, a replacement for the first grand organ in the cathedral, the first element of which was the 1549 organ, built by G.F. de Palma, set on the right in the main body of the church and, then, a second unit, set on the left and built in 1652 by P. and M. de Franco. Those large components faced each other (the same way the modern ones do) on either side of the nave and were termed "the magnificent twins." (Indeed, they both bore decorative art by Luca Giordano.) Before that, there is no reliable documentation of instruments in the cathedral, but one assumes there was some sort of organ in place to accompany the choir by the second half of the 1400s. The separate small choir organ at the front was from 1782 and had a long life, remaining in use until as late as 1950. It was removed in 1963.
This looks like a complete organ or "unit organ" with the "swell chest" behind the cloth latticed grill at its bottom behind the railing. Vertical lengths of planks form a shutter, all linked together to open from fully closed, basically forming a solid wall which seals off the pipes inside the small room-like enclosure holding various chests of pipes of various voices, to fully open when the planks or shutters, if you will, are swiveled 90 degrees so they offer no resistance to sound. It is the only way to control volume of a pipe organ, and then only those voices in the "swell chest" or "swell cabinet." The old large crank Victrola cabinets had similar ganged-together shutters to control sound from the sound resonating chamber.
The three groupings of decorative pipes include what appear to be square pipes in the larger center grouping usually for lower notes of a 'flute stop' and spotted metal pipes in each of the two smaller groupings probably of different voicing. Behind the decorative pipe display would be chests upon which several other 'stops' or voices would be racked. I would not be surprised if this is one of two similar ornate organs, located on each side, as is the case in large cathedrals. [ed. note: correct.] This may, indeed be the left organ. They would most likely be manually activated 'tracker' organs meaning that a Rube Goldberg system of push rods and couplings allow a pipe to 'speak' when a keyboard key is depressed. Similarly, many voices can be coupled together so that particular voices all speak when one key is depressed.
*This includes Graziano Fronzuto, from whose article on the history of the organs in the cathedral of Naples I have drawn much of my information.