MILWAUKEE — If you’ve never been to a birthday party for an organ, now’s your chance.
The older of the two organs at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its installation later this month, and to mark the occasion, the cathedral is inviting the public to experience the full scope of the instrument’s magnificence in a birthday concert Tuesday, Oct. 25.
The event is free and will feature the artistry of Adam Brakel, an organ recitalist and Juilliard graduate from Florida who has traveled nationwide giving performances and master classes.
“Not too many people get to hear top-notch pipe organs in big, beautiful resident spaces,” said Michael Batcho, director of music for the cathedral. “We have a beautifully acoustical space with this fantastic organ, so it’ll be not only an aural experience but visual as well, tying in the grandeur of the cathedral building itself.”
Organ came to cathedral by chance
The instrument, situated in the cathedral’s west gallery, was designed by famous recitalist Robert Noehren and boasts four keyboards, 74 ranks and 3,586 pipes. It was originally meant for a church in California, but thanks to an urgent need in Milwaukee and the quick thinking of Sr. Theophane Hytrek of the School Sisters of St. Francis, it came to the cathedral in the fall of 1966.
“That year, Milwaukee was hosting the Fifth International Church Music Conference. There were Catholic church musicians from all over the world coming to Milwaukee,” said Batcho. “At the time, the cathedral didn’t have an adequate instrument to host such an austere gathering of musicians.”
The cathedral’s impressive previous organ, built by Milwaukee’s Wangerin-Weickhardt and installed in 1923, had been a gift of the family of Patrick Cudahy in his memory. It was lost in the 1935 fire that destroyed nearly the entire cathedral and was replaced by a smaller instrument.
“Here are all these people coming to Milwaukee for this, and the cathedral really doesn’t have a fantastic instrument,” said Batcho. Enter Sr. Theophane, a renowned composer, recitalist and music teacher.
“My understanding of the story is that she knows Robert Noehren is building this organ for a church out in California. He finds out they can’t take the organ because they have to do seismic reinforcement of the building. So here he is stuck with this organ, and Theophane contacts him and says, ‘Hey, we have all these people coming to Milwaukee; we could use an organ!’”
And the rest is history.
Organ invokes ‘breath of God’ at liturgy
Though other instruments have found favor in the years since the Second Vatican Council, the organ’s prominence in the Catholic liturgy has never wavered.
In fact, the council fathers wrote in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the 1963 constitution of the sacred liturgy, that “the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things” (120).[su_pullquote align=”right”]The birthday gala concert for the Cathedral’s Noehren organ will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m., 812 N. Jackson St., Milwaukee, featuring classical music from Adam Brakel. A reception will follow in the cathedral’s atrium. The event is free and open to the public, but a freewill offering will be taken up to benefit the cathedral.[/su_pullquote]
The organ is capable of invoking the concept of “the breath of God,” said Batcho.
“The pipe organ – even though it is operated by using keyboards – is primarily an instrument of air. It’s the actual air moving through the instrument through the pipes that creates the sounds – not unlike a flute or a trumpet,” said Batcho.
Fr. Jeff Haines, rector of the cathedral, said the organ creates a “truly sacred experience.”
“The power of this instrument not only lifts up the voices of the assembly, but it literally seems to soar heavenward, yearning to join the angelic chorus giving glory to God,” he said. “When this happens, I am blessed for that moment with a feeling akin to the author of Psalm 150: ‘Praise God in his holy sanctuary; give praise in the mighty dome of heaven. Give praise for his mighty deeds, praise him for his great majesty.’”
“For me personally, the organ brings a sense of transcendence because it’s not an instrument that you hear in regular secular society that often. It’s something other,” said Dean Daniels, director of the archdiocesan office for worship.
The organ, referred to by Mozart as “the king of instruments,” began to be used in the churches of Western Europe in about the 10th or 12th century, said Daniels. Prior to that, the unaccompanied human voice provided music for worship.
“The organ was used primarily in processions and possibly before the liturgy began because it was considered a secular instrument, not a sacred instrument,” said Daniels.
The organ was widely used by the 15th century, just in time for the Reformation and so-called “worship wars” between a Protestant style of worship music and a Catholic one.
“Catholics retained instrumental music and the organ and the choir was (conducted) only by trained musicians; the assembly did not participate at all,” he said. “The Lutherans at the time adopted a blend of both professional musicians playing the organ and encouraging the assembly to sing the liturgy as well. Now, we, as Roman Catholics, are kind of in that blended stage. We have professionals who can perform on the instrument exceptionally well, and also encourage the assembly to join them.”
This switch to the “blended” form of worship was codified by Sacrosanctum Concilium, said Daniels, which encourages the faithful to sing at Mass.
Since that time, large-scale mechanical organs such as the cathedral’s Noehren are not as commonly found in churches as they used to be due to several practical considerations. Not only are they expensive to purchase and maintain, but to play an organ is no simple feat. It requires a tremendous amount of training and expertise.
“When I look at people like Michael Batcho or Mary Jane Wagner from the School Sisters of St. Francis, not only can they make their hands go in the right place, they can make their feet go in the right place,” said Daniels. “It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach.”
Batcho has long history of organ performance
For Batcho, liturgical organ playing has become second nature. A native of West Virginia’s northern panhandle, he has technically been a church musician since elementary school – it’s only the last 30 years or so that he’s been paid for it.
“Back then, at the parish school, we went to Mass every day. I remember playing for Mass when I was – oh, second grade. It’s just part of me,” he said. “I told the music sister, ‘I can do that,’ and she put me up on the organ and I did it, and that was it. It was really not uncommon for me to be in class and hear a knock on the door, and the teacher would open up the door and say, ‘Michael needs to go upstairs and take the funeral; Sister can’t get out of class.’ I’d just get my book and go upstairs and play the funeral.”
A graduate of West Virginia University with a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, Batcho has also completed coursework in theology at Notre Dame and Washington Theological Union. He has traveled the country performing the organ and is a former adjunct faculty member at Cardinal Stritch University.
What he finds most edifying about his work as an organist and church musician is the ability “to touch people like nobody else can,” he said. “Music speaks differently than a homily. In our liturgy, there’s a certain concept that the eucharistic liturgy is the point at which heaven and earth meet. And if we, through our music, can give people who walk through our doors a taste of what heaven’s going to be, we’ve done our job.”