West Tisbury church members will sing in praise of pipe organ

The little gem of a pipe organ with its pure, clear voice, is tucked away up a winding staircase in the choir loft. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Some musical performers upon reaching the age of 50 can begin to feel a little creaky. But the pipe organ at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated this Sunday, is in fine voice and the prime of musical life.

The little gem of a pipe organ with its pure, clear voice, tucked away up a winding staircase in the choir loft, has burst forth with a joyful noise, inspiring the congregation since 1962. This Sunday afternoon, the organ will be the center of attention at a gala anniversary concert at 3 pm featuring organists David Rhoderick and Phil Dietterich along with the church choir. Mr. Rhoderick is interim music director and organist for the church. Musical selections will span the 16th to 21st centuries. The program will include both traditional and some less familiar Christmas pieces and opportunities for the audience to join their voices in song.

Along with the instrument itself, a specially honored guest will be Fritz Noack, who built the organ a half-century ago. The West Tisbury organ was one of his very first commissions. Since then, Mr. Noack has become one of the country’s pre-eminent organ builders, with some 150 instruments to his credit, and he continues his craft today at his Georgetown shop.

Spirits will be high on Sunday in gratitude for the exceptional instrument that has graced the historic church all these decades. But, as is often the case when a church needs a new organ, the purchase of a Noack pipe organ was debated at length.

Dinny Montrowl, a choir member and church council chair, displayed a sheaf of correspondence, old letters arguing the pros and cons of various pipe organs and electronic organs.

Tom Thatcher, an active church member in those years, recalled the arduous decision-making. “I was the instigator,” he chuckled.

Mr. Thatcher said there was no organ committee or music committee at the time. The church interior had recently undergone extensive refurbishment by Daniel Manter. The existing Estey reed organ needed to be replaced.

Mr. Thatcher had strong feelings about what was appropriate for the church. A minister friend in New Hampshire told him about Fritz Noack, a young German organ maker just starting out. After meeting with Mr. Noack and his wife, Mr. Thatcher was convinced that he could build the right organ for the West Tisbury church. Mr. Thatcher recalled disagreements with the Rev. Elden Mills, who advocated a different organ. Some thought an electronic organ would be the better choice. There was considerable discussion — “an organ battle,” Mr. Thatcher said. At one point when a decision could not be reached, Mr. Noack advised the church, “I don’t need to build this organ.”

Determined, Mr. Thatcher solicited expert opinion. He sought guidance from organist and organ historian Barbara Owen. He approached the widely known and respected organist E. Power Biggs of Cambridge who highly recommended the Noack pipe organ.

Another letter came from a young James Taylor who researched the matter extensively, and considered an electronic instrument would serve the church well. Mr. Thatcher also was in contact with noted Boston musician, composer, and teacher Daniel Pinkham, who too supported Mr. Noack for the job.

Mr. Thatcher was instrumental in finding funds for the organ. He approached Jane Newhall, and suggested she consider a donation toward the purchase. Miss Newhall expressed willingness to help, but asked that the gift be as anonymous as possible.

After a year of controversy, the church voted in November 1961 to have Mr. Noack build the organ and he began work. The organ arrived on Dec. 4, 1962. At last it was installed. With Sydna White at the console, it was dedicated on December 16, 1962.

“We got a very nice little instrument; it’s appropriate for a 19th-century church interior,” said Mr. Thatcher, pleased that his opposition to an electronic organ and insistence on a pipe organ had succeeded. He added that the church had taken a chance hiring a beginning organ maker. “We bet the right way,” he said.

Unlike conventional practice, the organist sits at the console facing outward, his back to the pipes. Usually the organist sits facing the pipes, back to the congregation. But Dr. Mills had insisted that the organist face the altar so the bench and console were installed accordingly. The price was $16,400. Mr. Rhoderick estimated that the organ would cost $132,000 new today. Island weather takes its toll on the organ, Mr. Rhoderick said, and it must be tuned and maintained regularly. But he said with proper care it should last for many decades to come.

The two-manual (two-keyboard) organ has tracker action — i.e., it is mechanical rather than electronically operated — and boasts 592 pipes, all fitting in the tiny loft.

“I think it’s a wonderful organ,” said Mr. Rhoderick. He added that he is a Bach lover, and that this organ is perfect instrument for playing Bach, “I love the purity of this organ. It’s got a lot of integrity.”

“It’s fun to play on!” said Mr. Dietterich, who has played many organs around the Island. He then said that John Calvin strictly disapproved of organ music in church, calling the instrument “the Devil’s box of whistles.”

“It’s like playing with a box of whistles,” said Mr. Dietterich with a big grin. “You get an immediate response.”

Mr. Rhoderick has been working on the concert plans since mid-November. He has created a varied program that will show off the organ’s talents as well as those of the musicians.

The program begins with the haunting “Once in Royal David’s City.” Mr. Rhoderick’s solos include “In Dulci Jubilo,” Chorale Prelude on “Lo, How a Rose,” and compositions by J.S. Bach and Robin Milford.

Mr. Dietterich performs “Swiss Noel with Variations” by Daquin, Buxtehude’s “Fugue in C Major, “and a Pastorale from “Le Prologue de Jesus.”

The choir will sing several Christmas pieces. Soloists include Laura Gliga, Betsy Gately, Susie Bowman, and Kevin Ryan. A special highlight is “O Magnum Mysterium,” a composition for unaccompanied choir by Dorian Lopes of Vineyard Haven, grandson of longtime First Baptist Church organist Kathryn Stewart.

A reception will be held in the parish hall following the concert, a fitting and festive birthday party for a modest but elegant organ that is likely to celebrate many more.