To the uninitiated, the console of the symphonic organ at the Legion of Honor looks like an old, overdone piano. Four decks of keys cascade upward, surrounded on either side by panels containing dozens of knobs, or stops. Worn but expensive-looking wood makes up the frame, whose style speaks to an era more interested in craftsmanship and symmetry than flashy baroque touches.
So it was surprising to learn that this unassuming piece of woodwork is wired up to an entire symphony. It turns out that all the flash is in the breadth of sound this instrument can create. Need a gong? Got it. How about a violin? Sure. Flugel horn? Why are you still asking? Also, there’s a thunder pedal.
If Liberace had been a steampunk, this would have been his organ.
I had the honor of touring the instrument’s innards in a recent press tour, hosted by organ curator Ed Stout, with performances by organist Robert Gurney.
How it works.
The console is the part visible to the public, the part that looks like a piano, and inside is circuitry. But this isn’t like your Casio synthesizer — keep in mind, this organ was built in 1924. The wires run up to the attic of the Legion of Honor to a circuit board that’s about 1 foot by 2 feet.
“You can actually ‘play’ the whole organ right there on the circuit board, using alligator clips,” a tour guide told me. But remember — small device, room full of instruments. Also in the attic are thousands of sound-makers: pipes, reeds, and pneumatically operated chimes and percussion instruments. The circuit board connects to each possible sound-maker with individual wires.
The final ingredient is air. Four 45-horsepower turbines create gusts that run constantly through a blower. The air is then pushed through a maze-like series of ducts that run past each pipe. Back at the console, the organist selects the sounds desired with stops and keys, making possible grand Sousa marches, complete with drum solos. As Gurney played Sousa’s Semper Fidelis, followed by some Gershwin, and then capped it off with organ-friendly composer Bach, I got the sense that the entirety of Western composition (prior to the popularity of the guitar) was at his fingertips.
While the console sits in a rear gallery, the organ plays into an apse in front of this room through a canvas dome. The chambers of the organ’s pipes and other accoutrement surround the dome from above, allowing the music to flow into the rotunda and surrounding galleries. The arrangement allows a single keyboardist to fill the museum with a symphony.
How it got there, and what it did next.
The organ was built in 1924 by an innovative American organ builder, the Ernest M. Skinner Company. Skinner organs were popular throughout the country, though they were mostly installed in churches. But in an era of burgeoning public entertainment, John D. Spreckels donated the organ to provide constant symphonic music to museum goers pondering the Legion’s fine art. The organ was designed to work with the museum’s particular space, hence the unusual placement of the pipes in the attic.
The Great Depression brought an end to the constant organ-playing, but weekend recitals have been a constant since the 1930’s. Water damage from seasonal storms has since put one chamber of pipes out of commission, but a redesign has water draining better and curators hope that the section’s 30 year silence will end soon.
During the Legion of Honor’s restoration in the 1990’s, curators were faced with a tough decision. They knew the dust and dirt of renovations might damage the organ, but they also knew that no organ of this grandeur had ever been reinstalled after being removed for building restoration. In the end, curator Stout says they convinced decision makers that having 90% of the organ functional was better than leaving its pieces in storage indefinitely.
If you want to hear a doppelflute, a clarion, or a tuba profunda, visit the Legion of Honor at the Presidio on Saturdays or Sundays at 4pm. Free with price of admission. Call ahead at (415) 750-3640.