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Spring Cleaning a 30-Year-Old Organ

With lengthening days, and warmer temperatures, springtime has finally arrived. But that lingering afternoon light, which we so missed during the winter, has revealed the dust hiding in the corners. It’s spring cleaning time. Now imagine for a moment if you missed a year of spring cleaning, or two, or 30! For the Wolff organ at Christ Church Cathedral, which occupies the chancel at the front of the cathedral, it was time for a good dusting. But cleaning an organ thoroughly is a more involved project than your yearly spring clearing. 

When the pandemic stopped life in its tracks last March, many of us, myself included, thought this would be a momentary inconvenience. We’d be back to church by Easter! But as Easter came and went it became clear that our lives would be changed for quite some time. For all of the challenges these circumstances caused, it also created an opportunity. Christ Church Cathedral’s organs, which have been played most every day for the past 30 years or so, would be quiet for a time. It was the moment to look “under the hood” to ask what long-term maintenance can we accomplish now, when the instrument being ready to play on Sunday wasn’t a pressing concern. 

For 30 years, the chancel organ, built by Hellmuth Wolff and Associates in 1990, has been maintained by truly outstanding technicians, caring for the thousands of pipes and moving parts that are hidden behind the beautiful facade in the chancel. There is simply a huge amount of material crammed into a very, very small space. And just like cleaning that closet you’ve ignored for a few years, to really do the job, you have to take everything out. So beginning in November, that’s what Patrick Fisher and his team did. Pipe by pipe, piece by piece, they removed the majority of the Wolff organ to clean out any and all dust that has accumulated. Patrick then brought pipes back to his shop in Bloomington to wash each and every pipe. Patrick Fisher is curator of organs at Indiana University, having previously worked for C.B. Fisk, Inc. and Richards, Fowkes & Co., two of the finest American organ firms operating today. Patrick has maintained the organs at Christ Church Cathedral for five years.

Dust in an organ, just like in any other machine, keeps an instrument from operating at the height of its capabilities. Pipes become harder to keep in tune with each other, and reeds speak in undesirable ways. Giving the Wolff organ a thorough “spring cleaning” will help to keep this organ working beautifully for years to come. 

The Wolff organ at Christ Church Cathedral is truly a treasure. It has a distinct voice, with stops filled with character and personality. It creates beautiful soft sounds accompanying a treble soloist or helping communion come to an elegant close, and it creates profound, thrilling fortes that stir something deep within us. The instrument is a joy to play, and to listen to. Patrick Fisher’s work cleaning the instrument will ensure that it continues to contribute beautifully to liturgies at Christ Church Cathedral for its next 30 years and beyond. 

Listen to the organ in action as played by Junior Organ Scholar Collin Miller in November 2020.