Tour of Yale’s Newberry Memorial Organ ‘pulls out all the stops’

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Yale's Newberry Memorial Organ features 12,617 pipes making it one of the largest pipe organs in the nation. (Photos by Jason Henington)

The Newberry Memorial Organ towers over the stage at Yale’s Woolsey Hall, but the pipes in its façade represent only a small portion of this massive instrument whose components stretch to the back of the hall and descend beneath it.

A tour on April 10 hosted by The Yale Institute of Sacred Music offered a behind-the-scenes view of the historic pipe organ, which was built 1903, renovated in 1915, and rebuilt and expanded in 1928.

Read about more events at the U.N. Global Colloquim of University Presidents.

Participants were led behind the gold-leaf façade to where the organ’s 12,617 pipes, distributed throughout nine chambers, produce cascades of sound and replicate an entire orchestra. From the console at the foot of the stage, the organist can produce notes reminiscent of a wide array of instruments, including piccolos, flutes, clarinets, trumpets, tubas, strings, even chimes, as well as the familiar diapason sound characteristic of pipe organs.

University Organist Thomas Murray demonstrated the organ’s range and explained the intricacies of playing such a complex instrument. The console features four keyboards and 142 knobs — called stops — that control the flow of air into different sets of pipes.

University Organist Thomas Murray demonstrated the organ’s versatility.

“If you don’t pull out any knobs, then you won’t get any sound,” he said, adding that the expression “pulling out all the stops” refers to playing pipe organs.

The console also includes a series of pedals. At one point, Murray raised his hands and played an entire musical passage using only his feet.

Murray explained that large the pipes visible in the façade’s center section produce the organ’s signature diapason sound. He demonstrated with a bit of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”   

The organ is named for John Stoughton Newberry, whose family donated $50,000 to Yale to build the original Hutchings organ in 1903. The family also financed the 1915 renovation as well as the 1928 rebuilding, which was completed by the firm of E.M. Skinner, among the most successful and innovative pipe organ builders of the early 20th century.

The tour was part of the a series of public events related to the preservation of cultural heritage held in conjunction with the eighth U.N. Global Colloquium of University Presidents, which takes place this week at Yale.

Nicholas Thompson-Allen and Joseph Dzeda, co-curators of Yale’s 15 pipe organs, led tour participants behind the façade where the largest pipes stretch several stories. The largest pipe is 32 feet tall and produces a low, rumbling bass.

Nicholas Thompson-Allen, co-curator of the organ, led the tour through the echo division, a component of the organ located in the basement of Woolsey Hall.

The tour participants visited the organ’s “lungs,” a pair of 20-horsepower turbines in the basement that produce sufficient compressed air to power all 12,617 pipes at once. Installed about 100 years ago, the turbines are the oldest functioning electric motors in the state, Dzeda said.

Dzeda proudly showed off a complex mechanism of wood and metal that stored the console’s pre-sets, which allow individual organists to arrange the stops to their preference. The mechanism was built in 1928 and remains functional.

“This is basically a computer controlled by air pressure,” Dzeda said. “It reminds me that there have always been very, very smart people walking this planet.”

The group explored the organ’s echo division, a chamber of pipes that produces soft sounds, that is located in the basement along with four practice organs.

Dzeda said at times the Newberry Organ and the four practice organs are played simultaneously.

“It’s chaos,” he said. “But it’s a wonderful chaos.” 

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