A few weeks ago, we were invited by Jim Smiley, a transplant to Merida from New York and New Orleans, to come visit him at the Cathedral on the Plaza Grande. He wanted us to see the church’s organ and to meet the two men who were in Merida to repair it. We managed to squeeze an hour out of our busy schedule (oh, how we wish we were being facetious!) to take him up on his offer.
We entered the cathedral with the usual sense of relief as we stepped from the hot Merida sun into the cool stone darkness of the church. We had called ahead so we were met just inside the huge wooden doors by Jim, who led us through a small wooden door we had never noticed before, and up a seemingly-endless circular staircase to the organ loft. There was a bit of delicious excitement in climbing up… the excitement of going to the attic where treasures are stored, to a hidden chamber or a secret hideaway.
Stepping out onto the spacious balcony, the first thing that struck us was the view. It is one thing to be on the ground in the Cathedral, looking up at the stone arches several stories above you. It is another story to be nestled up under those arches. We were greeted with a different sense of wonder, being up near the ceiling, looking down what seemed to be a very long way to the pews and altar where multi-colored tiny little people were attending mass. From our perch, we were able to appreciate the arches and stone ornaments in a way we hadn’t been able to from down below and it took us awhile to stop staring.
Once we got over the vertigo and giddiness of being so near heaven, we looked around us and were met with what looked like a workshop. Tubes and wood and tools were everywhere. And at two benches sat Tom Cotner from Oklahoma, working on a carpentry project and John Hendriksen of Boston, working on a series of aluminum tubes. After waving hello, they continued their work while Jim told us more about the organ that towered above and behind us, reaching up to the very top of the cathedral ceiling.
The organ was manufactured in Germany and installed by an organ builder from Mexico City in 1937 after an earlier organ had been destroyed during the Mexican Revolution. (The organ loft was not an original part of the cathedral, but had itself been built in 1903.) Everything about the original organ… the pipes, the wood… all came from Germany. Without attention and in the climate of Yucatan, these did not fare well over time, and by the 1970′s, the organ was in terrible condition. The Cathedral offices went looking for someone to repair the organ and found Jimmy Williams, a man from New Orleans, who came in the early 1980′s and made major reparations, including building a new console and adding electronics. After the initial repair, a group from New Orleans came every year as volunteers to continue maintenance and repair. And though Jimmy Williams died ten years ago, the two gentleman working the day we were there were an extension of that original team.
Have you ever met an organ repairman? Did you know there is an American Institute of Organ Builders? Do you know how an organ works? This was all new to us, so we had to start at the beginning.
First of all, an organ like the one in Merida’s Cathedral is not one piece. It is a series of pipes, both metal and wooden, held together by a wooden structure, fed by an air blower and controlled by a console whose keys and pedals control the flow of air by way of a complex set of magnets and other electronic components. The loft is a large, apartment-sized space with the console nearest the front of the church close to the balcony. The rows and rows of pipes, some of which are strictly ornamental, are set up behind the console, with plenty of room to walk around between them. The part of the organ that holds the pipes, shutters and air mechanisms is so big, you can walk around inside of it, and, escorted carefully by Tom, we did. Being inside the organ is like being backstage at a theatre… dirty, dusty and not quite as elegant as what is out front.
All this wood and metal and mystery has to actually work together. Until the invention of the telephone switchboard, the pipe organ was the most complicated manmade machine on the planet. There are a lot of moving parts and, at the risk of simplification, each note has to be precisely tuned by placing the right sized and shaped hole in the correctly sized and shaped pipe. Every single note on the organ has a separate pipe, and each of those pipes must first be created, and then it must be tuned and then it must be installed. In the case of Merida’s organ, there are approximately 1800 pipes, with space to add more. Every pipe organ is unique, built and fitted into its own space and, over time, personalized to its environment.
The biggest pipe in Merida’s organ is 16 feet tall (almost two stories!) and the smallest creates a note so high it is just within the range of the human ear (15,000 cycles per second). All the pipes in an organ sit lightly (no, they are not secured in place but simply set into holes so that they can be easily removed for maintenance) in wooden frames. In some cases they are surrounded by louvered doors, called swell shutters, that are controlled by the organist and can move open or closed to affect the intensity of the sound. The blower, which looks like a big box with a pump attached to it, sits to one side, with flexible pipes running out of it that snake through the structure, delivering the blasts of air which magically turn into beautiful music.
For the last few years, Merida’s organ had gone unmaintained due to lack of funds. This year, the city came up with the money to bring Tom and John here and to house them for the two weeks that they worked on the organ. Neither of them, however, were paid for the painstaking and exacting work that they performed each day that they were here. In fact, such is their dedication to their craft that they actually spent some of their own money on materials and supplies.
Tom Cotner plays the organ beautifully but was reluctant to pull out all the stops (an expression that actually refers to the pipe organ) so as not to disturb the mass going on down below. He explained to us that on this trip, he had come to repair a series of swell shutters and other parts of the wooden structure that had been eaten away by termites. They had fifteen new shutters shipped from Pennsylvania which he had already installed. He had repaired the pedalboard where it had been sticking, and he was in the process of repairing various and sundry wooden pieces that had also been eaten by termites during the last few years of neglect. When we met him, he had also already repaired the organ’s console, replacing the magnets and other mysterious-to-us workings behind the panel, allowing many of the organ keys and pedals to work again. Apparently, over the last few years, the poor organist has been playing with fewer and fewer instruments at her disposal.
The other onsite repairman, John Hendricksen, spent his entire two weeks tuning old and new pipes… a process called "voicing" the pipes. This is an art, learned not at school but from years of apprenticeship and hard work. John, originally from Holland, told us that he began learning organ building in the Dutch/German style in Europe. When he moved to the United States, he learned more working for the famous Aeolian Skinner Organ Company (we had never heard of it either…), a now-defunct business that appears to have been responsible for the American Classic organ style (which, according to their website, "changed the course of organ-building forever"). Aeolian Skinner installed organs throughout the world, in private homes of the wealthy and in churches like Grace Church in San Francisco and the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City (the entire list is on their website, cited below). For the past 53 years, he has been perfecting his craft in churches, concert halls and theatres. He told us that the only way to learn organ building is to apprentice with a master and to train constantly, but nowadays there are few people that want to get into the business.
John also told us that the organ pipes are made of lead, tin or zinc or some combination. There are some wooden pipes as well. The metal pipes must be made from metal that has cured for at least six months. After the metal is rolled into pipes, they must be tapered and the openings must be made very precisely to create just the right tone. While he was here on this trip, John was repairing and tuning some of our organ’s existing pipes, replacing others, and installing a flight of new ones. This appeared to be very delicate and tedious work and, it seemed to us, more an art than a science.
The two organ repairmen are gone now, leaving behind them an organ that works better but is not totally repaired. Merida’s organ is one of two in all of Southern Mexico and one of the largest in the country, and it has a value of $600,000 to $800,000 USD. It is played for five daily masses and seven on Sunday. There are only two people in Merida who are qualified and allowed to play the organ: Maria de Jesus, who learned at the School of Sacred Music in Morelia, and Jim Smiley, who learned to play an organ 30 years ago and who has picked it up again since moving to Merida. Maria plays for the religious ceremonies, and Jim is a guest organist for the Christmas and New Year’s programs. He will probably be one of the players for any secular performances that they plan for the future.
And what about the future of this organ? According to Jim, the organ needs another $50,000 USD worth of repairs and additional pipes to bring it to its full range of capabilities. Though the organ is owned by the state, the Catholic Church must approve any fund-raising plans and any activities associated with it. There used to be weekly Organ Tours but those have been cancelled until further notice. In the meantime, the organ can be heard during any mass. English mass is now being held every Sunday (this started in February 2010) at 9 am, so if you are so inclined, you can go listen to the organ and understand what the priest is saying all at the same time.
It seems to us that such a magnificent instrument should not go unappreciated, should not be allowed to deteriorate and should be attended, nurtured and played to bring beauty and pleasure to all of us who live within earshot. Jim and Maria have plans to start a student program and an apprenticeship to teach organ playing and maybe also organ repair. They hope to solicit donations from local corporations and are in the process of putting together a non-profit foundation for support of the organ. Jim has three secular concerts planned for the coming year featuring guest organists.
If you want to know more about Merida’s or Campeche’s church organs, you can contact Jim Smiley at MondoChuck [at] aol [dot] com. As we were preparing this article, we realized that none of our photos of the organ as a whole entity were good enough to publish, so we’re hoping that if you want to see that, you will go visit the cathedral and see it! No picture can really communicate the feeling of standing before such a grand instrument in all its glory.
Want to know more about how a pipe organ works?
Want to know the origin of the phrase "pull out all the stops"?
The website of the American Institute of Organ Builders
The archival website of the Aeolian Skinner Organ Company
Like organ music a lot? Public Radio has a station devoted to organ music called Pipedreams
How many organs are there in Mexico? This supposedly comprehensive website claims there are four, and Merida is not listed. This website claims there are seventeen, but again, no mention of Merida. While this website catalogs the 30,000 organs (!) that are known to be installed in the United Kingdom.
And lastly, the world’s Top 20 Largest Pipe Organs (Merida doesn’t even come close…), and topping the list, an organ with 28,765 pipes at Macy’s Department Store in Philadelphia.