Far below, music director Nancy Hood plays a few keys, pulls out stops and depresses the pedals, providing a wide range of tones.
Stephen Sollows and I are standing at the top of the Beacon United Church pipe organ after donning head lamps, squeezing through a side-panel opening and climbing several ladders inside the giant instrument.
We inch our way along planks, past ranks of cabinets, using handholds attached to the walls. Each case contains dozens to hundreds of pipes, in every imaginable size, made from zinc or wood.
Music fills the sanctuary – from the high-pitched toots of reed pipes to the supreme lows of the sub-base, which are almost felt more than they are heard.
The organ has three manuals with 25 ranks of pipes and 26 stops. It has 15 couplers, 13 adjustable combination pistons, seven reversible pistons and three balanced pedals. There are 1,151 pipes, ranging from 1/4 –inch by foot-long cylinders to columnar pipes eight-inches across and 16-feet high.
“It’s a fantastic piece of equipment from a technical point of view,” said Sollows.
The pipes are tuned in several innovative ways. Some have rectangular holes cut in them with the lower lip rolled back. Unpeeling the roll can alter the pitch. Other pipes have collars sliding over their top, or flaps that can be raised or lowered.
Casavant Freres of Quebec built the Beacon United Church pipe organ. It was installed in Tabernacle Church (Central United Church) in 1927 and transferred to Beacon in 1967, where it was rebuilt and the console was replaced.
A large rotary turbine blower in the basement supplies the wind by electro-pneumatic action. A swell chest and choir chest are located behind the front panel as well as the rest of the pipes.
Casavant has been building pipe organs since 1879. As of 2008, they had produced over 3,800.
Nancy Hood has been music director for the church for approximately 12 years.
She provides a bit of trivia about the instrument: it has kangaroo leather pouches at the bottom of the oboe pipes. They help to produce the unusual nasal tone.
“Kangaroo leather is the very best leather in the world to use for this particular purpose because of its grain. Synthetics simply do not cut it,” she said.
A pipe organ's continuous supply of wind allows it to sustain notes for as long as the corresponding keys are depressed, unlike the piano and harpsichord whose sound begins to decay immediately after being played. No vampire movie or opera phantom documentary would be complete without a pipe organ score in the background.
On Sunday, March 30, a pipe organ recital will feature four organists at the church.
Resounding Pipes – the Joy of Pipe Organ Playing will take place at 3 p.m. A free will offering will be received to help with the maintenance of the Beacon United Church’s instrument, as well as the pipe organ at Saint Michel Catholic Church in Wedgeport.