The Organ of Saint Matthew The Apostle: Our First Official Album Release

After much hard work and progress this year within the Academy, we are thrilled to announce another huge step towards our development: we are releasing our first album as an institution.

This album is a collection of 4 works, by César Franck and Olivier Messiaen. The first is César Franck’s lovely Fantaisie in C, in which huge sweeping gestures paint a vivid picture of a pastoral landscape. The listener sees a sunrise amidst the mountains and meadows, and there is a sense of serenity throughout. This is followed by Franck’s Fantaisie in A, originally titled “Fantaisie Idylle;” a devastating musical retelling of the ancient story of love lost to death. Franck’s wonderful Prière is next; a deeply spiritual piece bridging the gap between Heaven and Earth. To close the program, a beautifully poetic interpretation of Olivier Messiaen’s Dieu Parmi Nous – God Among Us. Messiaen, through his unique synesthetic approach, alludes to Jesus’s triumphant return as Lord and Judge.

Our COO Joshua Sobel said this about the album:

“My fantastic friend and colleague Matthew Cates just played a great recital at The Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C…the final result is nothing short of stunning. I highly encourage you all to listen.…

The Cathedral has a magnificent four-manual French Romantic organ built by the firm of Lively-Fulcher.

History of the Organ

The Cathedral has enjoyed a rich musical tradition dating back more than 100 years. The first instrument designed for specifically for St. Matthew’s Church (prior to its 1939 designation as a cathedral) was a 39-stop, two manual (tracker pneumatic) and pedal (tubular pneumatic) organ placed in a chamber that opened above and behind the present Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Its console was located on the nearby choir loft on the west side of the sanctuary. This new organ begun in 1910 by William Bardroff of Baltimore, MD made substantial use of an earlier organ in the same location that apparently came from the original St. Matthew’s Church on 15th and H Sts, NW.  The record of that organ is found in a detailed contract dated August 15, 1874, for a 27-stop, mechanical action, two manual and pedal instrument built by Henry Erben of New York City.

In 1951, the Bardroff organ was replaced by a large electro-pneumatic Moeller pipe organ placed in the same chamber and containing 2,891 pipes. It is this instrument that can be heard in recordings of President Kennedy’s Funeral Mass in November 1963. Because of its unfavorable location, however, it was difficult for the sound to reach the main body of the Cathedral. An antiphonal division of 1,079 pipes was added above the entrance of the Cathedral in 1974 to correct this problem.  This “solution” created constant tuning challenges as the unconditioned chamber and the new antiphonal division fluctuated in temperature and humidity in unequal degrees.

Furthermore, in the early 1980s, mechanical failures in the Moeller instrument became increasingly frequent. In fact, many parts of the instrument had not worked for years. Following a thorough study, the Cathedral clergy and music staff concluded that, even after costly repairs, the existing instrument could no longer reliably perform its primary liturgical functions. The Cathedral decided to pursue plans for a  new organ that would be free-standing and encased, employing mechanical actions as its primary means of control.

The new organ case would allow the instrument to project its sound directly into the Cathedral nave,  eliminating many of the tuning and tonal problems with the previous organ. Mechanical action was chosen for the key action because of its durability and sensitivity to touch. Upon the recommendation of Dr. Gerald Muller, director of music, and Jay Rader, Cathedral organist, James Cardinal Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, and Msgr. W. Louis Quinn, the Cathedral rector, allocated modest funds for the construction of the new instrument, allowing for future additions as bequests and donations made possible. The use of a case and mechanical action for the new instrument was aimed at achieving long-term reliability, ease of maintenance, and great tonal advantages, thereby ensuring the best stewardship of funds.

The Lively-Fulcher firm took over the reins of the project in 1993, after an initial effort by two other builders (Schudi and M. P. Moeller) who were unable to carry the project to completion.

Rather than wait until the organ project was fully funded, it was decided that even half of the intended  organ stops would adequately serve the Cathedral’s liturgies while the remaining funds were raised. The first phase of the Great Organ was installed with 2,900 of the planned 5,176 pipes.  Its debut was on March 20, 1995 at the 50th Anniversary Mass for Cathedral Rector Msgr. Quinn, a strong and dedicated supporter of the organ. The effort was extremely successful and well-received by parishioners and the Washington artistic community.

As with many projects that begin in phases, the next steps were the most challenging. Fortunately, the organ installed in 1995 remained in excellent condition such that  completing it as planned remained both desirable and practical. Furthermore, the same firm that began the work was able and anxious to take advantage of nearly 25 more years of experience to create a truly remarkable work of art.

In 2013 the Cathedral began in earnest to raise the necessary funds to fully realize the vision that launched the organ project in the 1980s. Through the generosity of hundreds of parishioners and friends, a contract was signed in 2015 to complete the work.  

Since June 2018, new keyboards, a new blower, windways, chests, a new combination action and 2,276 new pipes have been installed. The new stops constitute some of the most varied, dramatic, and unique colors of the instrument. The sounds to be heard in this French Romantic organ are ones that one could hear in the great churches and cathedrals of France, particularly in Paris. Happily, the music of Bach and earlier composers also will find a suitable home in the polyphonic clarity of this instrument.

Features of the Organ

The organ case is built of white oak and contains polished tin pipes in the facade. It reaches a height of nearly forty-five feet at the peak. The goal was that the case not only function well, but make an artistic and visual statement in harmony with the Cathedral architecture. The instrument contains five divisions and 68 stops.

The organ takes its inspiration from the 19th-century French organ building traditions but is designed to maintain polyphonic competence for earlier music. The unusually complete stop list allows for the performance of vast and varied organ literature and will serve its liturgical role in a noble fashion.

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