Celebrating 100 years of the Cadet Chapel Organ

By Mike Strasser, West Point Public AffairsNovember 16, 2011

Celebrating a century of chapel music at West Point
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Since the first recital on Nov. 12, 1911, the West Point Cadet Chapel organ has expanded from 2,400 pipes to roughly 23,500 today and it is estimated about 1,500 hold their original position. There are five all-pipe organs at West Point, and the one ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Commemorating the world's largest pipe organ
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The West Point community will celebrate the 100-year history of the Cadet Chapel organ with a recital featuring concert organist Felix Hell. The organ is the world's largest all-pipe organ in a house of worship. The recital is a continuation of the C... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WEST POINT, N.Y. (Nov. 16, 2011) -- The West Point community is invited to commemorate the 100-year history of the Cadet Chapel organ at a recital Sunday.

The recital will feature celebrated concert organist Felix Hell, who began his concert career at the age of nine and has toured the world performing several hundred recitals. At 26, the German-born prodigy is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Musical Arts program at the Peabody Institute in Philadelphia.

"Not only are we celebrating 100 years since the chapel's first recital, but this is special in the sense of the prominence of the performer," Craig Williams, Cadet Chapel organist and choirmaster, said. "I've seen the program he created and it's going to be exciting. I think he'll bring a youthful energy to it, and I've already gotten good response in terms of the public wanting to attend."

Since the first recital on Nov. 12, 1911, the chapel organ has expanded from 2,400 pipes to roughly 23,500 today and Williams estimates about 1,500 hold their original position. There are five all-pipe organs at West Point, and the one at the Cadet Chapel is the world's largest within a house of worship. At a time when everything has succumbed to digital conversion, this claim to fame comes by refusing to follow technological trends. The metal and wooden pipes are unaccompanied--untainted, rather--by any digital sounds. Williams said their policy even prohibits sound producers from capturing digital recordings at the chapel.

"I feel it's kind of the way to maintain the legacy of the organists here at West Point who were very attuned to tradition," Williams said.

Traditions, he said, like the cadet chiming squad that climbs the chapel staircase to ring the bells during lunch and dinner formations.

"So there's this sense of trying to do things as they've traditionally been done. It's about maintaining tradition and not necessarily going with the latest in technology," he said.

The history of the organ is not without its share of misfortune. It's been a few years since anyone has heard it played in its full capacity, and Williams remembers vividly the thunderstorm that took the organ down. It was a sunny day in June, he said, and following the completion of four weddings that morning he began some last minute preparations for the next day's Sunday service. He heard a thunderclap and saw the sky was unusually dark for a summer afternoon.

Accustomed to playing through storms, this one made him nervous. A couple thunderclaps later, he thought the chapel took a direct hit because he was stunned by the noise.

"It's probably the loudest thing I have ever heard in my life, and suddenly the organ was just knocked out," Williams said. "You heard this humming chord, this dissonant chord in the air and there was absolutely no way to play the organ after that."

The best way he could describe it was as if the organ succumbed to a stroke. The curator of organs, Grant Chapman, worked overnight and into the morning to restore what he could for the day's chapel services.

"We've played the organ for all weddings and Sunday services since the lightning strike," he said. "We have not cancelled one service due to the organ's state of operation."

That's not to say it's fully functional. The organ hasn't played at 100 percent since the storm on June 14, 2008. That incident launched a repair project that is just completing the first of three phases and Williams said the organ is currently at about 65 percent playability. The difference is not detectable to the untrained ear, but a concert organist would know its limitations. Even still, Williams said any organist would be amazed at what it can still do.

"People say it sounds great, and you'd have to go behind the scenes to understand otherwise," Williams said.

In the course of a century, Williams is only the fourth organist and choirmaster at the chapel and after 11 years on the job he still feels like the new guy. Frederick C. Mayer first held the position for 43 years, followed by John Davis for another three decades. Williams' predecessor, Lee Dettra, remained at West Point for 15 years.

"Well, I think 15 years is a significant amount of time, but Lee was the short-timer here," Williams said. "I've been here already 11 years and it feels like just yesterday. I still feel like I'm finding my way here."

In preparation for the weekend's recital, Chapman and Nathan Smith, associate curator, began tuning the organ weeks in advance. This requires tuning about 16,000 individual pipes in 16 divisions, a time-consuming process.

"And even after you've gone through them all, you also account for how temperatures have shifted and the humidity, so a day or two before a recital the curators will go back and refine things," Williams said. "There's never any shortage of work for them. When they're not tuning then they're working on repairs or they are building--literally taking things apart and rebuilding because our goal is to give the organ an additional shelf life over the next 50 to 100 years."

As they work on preserving the organ for the next 100 years, Sunday's recital will celebrate its first century at West Point. The recital is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the Cadet Chapel. It is free and open to the public but seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. The recital is a continuation of the Class of 1936 Distinguished Organist Recital Series, and made possible through an endowment from alumni.

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