New Orleans’ magnificent organs once resounded in mansions and theaters as well as in churches.
The 1884 Cotton Centennial Exposition in Audubon Park featured a locally built Pilcher organ. It was later moved to the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Baronne Street, inset.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION, left
It’s like a guy who bets on horses: there are a lot of possibilities, a lot of combinations, no matter how often you do it,” says Albinus Prizgintas, a man who isn’t into gambling, but certainly is into musical creativity and invention. He is an organist, and his instrument of choice for his serious work and for his “ludic” (a favorite term meaning playfulness) adventures is the tracker organ at Trinity Episcopal Church on Jackson Avenue. That is where, for the last 25 years, he has been the organist and director of music (including a round-the-clock annual birthday celebration for composer Johann Sebastian Bach; and a popular, and varied, Sunday afternoon concert series).
A tracker organ is mechanical, with direct mechanical action to open the valves of the pipes. “It’s one of the largest trackers of its kind,” Prizgintas explains.
Like other organists, Prizgintas followed a childhood inclination to the instrument with advanced training, in his case at Juilliard Conservatory in New York. He, like most local organists, belongs to the New Orleans chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
Current Dean of the chapter is Jerrett Follette, organist at Christ Church Cathedral.
Follette notes that Christ Church has “the biggest pipe organ in New Orleans: it’s an electro-pneumatic, run by electricity but with air coursing through the pipes for the sound.” Not surprisingly Follett lists one of his favorite composers as Bach, along with a Frenchman, Louis Viern.
Viern was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris, and “he actually died while playing a concert – the audience heard one note that kept playing and finally someone looked and found him dead,” says Follett. Repairs for that Notre Dame organ occasioned two remarkable fundraising concerts in New Orleans in the 1920s, given by French composer and organist Marcel Dupré on the Aeolian organ at the Audubon Place home of Samuel Zemurray, now the home of the President of Tulane University.
There were three Aeolian organs in New Orleans. The one at the Kress Store on Canal Street was removed, with some of it going to St. Stephen’s church here and some to Louisiana College in Pineville.
Another Aeolian organ was at the Irby house at 520 Royal St., once home of WDSU-TV and now part of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Alfred Lemmon of THNOC explains that Aeolian organs were “built primarily for residences.” There is one at the Biltmore House in North Carolina and one at what is now the Frick Collection in Manhattan. THNOC intends to restore their organ at some time and place not yet determined.
Rachelen Lien, organist at Parker Memorial Methodist Church and founder of the Organ Historical Society in New Orleans, points out that Zemurray’s Aeolian organ was built in 1917 and installed in ’18 at the cost of $30,000. “It was a party organ, it had rolls like a player piano.” Lien adds, “That organ is a treasure, like a Tiffany window.”
The organ was installed on the third floor of the home, in the ballroom. When Tulane President Scott Cowen moved in, the organ was taken out and sent to Roy Redman’s organ firm in Fort Worth, Texas, for restoration.
Although the university contracted for the restoration, they didn’t follow through, and the organ has been in storage with Redman since 1999. Restoration would now cost several hundred thousand dollars but, according to a spokesman, Tulane would find the organ a home and would welcome efforts to raise funds for the project.
“It’s definitely worth saving,” Redman says. The console was rosewood, and there were two music roll players, one which could be controlled and one automatic; it could also be played by an organist.
One lost local organ went from the 1884 Cotton Centennial Exposition in Audubon Park to the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Baronne Street. It was scavenged and replaced by a smaller organ. That organ was made by the Pilcher family, important local organ builders once influential in the musical life of the city, according to John Baron, music professor at Tulane University.
Marcus St. Julien, Assistant Professor of Organ, Music Theory and Voice at Loyola University, once played that Pilcher organ as a teenager. He is now the organist at Temple Sinai, and he and his students sometimes use that location’s original 1927 Ernest M. Skinner symphonic-style pipe organ for recitals. “It has never been altered in terms of its sound,” he says.
Besides St. Julien at Loyola, there have been other music professors in town. Carol Britt, head of the Music Department at Nicholls State University, taught at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, is former Dean of the New Orleans Chapter of the A.G.O., and is currently the organist at St. Augustine Episcopal Church in Jefferson Parish.
A great organ – like that absent Aeolian from Tulane – isn’t simply an instrument. As Prizgintas says of the organ at Trinity, “This organ certainly has a lot of combinations. You get into habits, but you constantly try to figure out new ways of using it. I know it better than most people.”
However, as Prizgintas adds, “An organ like this one does take a lifetime to check out.”
Organs on Stage
There were once 36 organs providing music in theaters around the city. The one at the Saenger Theatre is hopefully going to be restored during current renovations. You can learn about the Saenger Theatre organ, and even listen to it being played, at SaengerAmusements.com/theatres/nawlins/saenger/organ/nosaorg.htm.
Surprisingly, one New Orleans home holds the pipes of a theater organ. E.V. Richards, local theater owner, convinced a neighbor to install an organ that had been removed from one of his movie houses. Although the downstairs console is gone, a later owner, Monique McCleskey, admits that the pipes are still installed in the house’s attic.