A History of
the Parish Pipe Organ

Orgues Létourneau opus 68 and its predecessors

Roosevelt Organ

The Church of the Ascension (founded 1845) completed construction of the current building in late 1875. Soon thereafter the prestigious firm of Roosevelt installed a mechanical action organ in what is now the Lady Chapel, the side altar on the Gospel side of the sanctuary. By the 1960s the Roosevelt instrument required substantial restoration.

Shone Reconstruction

Unfortunately, funds for the organ were scarce. Therefore, the parish organist, Robert C. Shone, undertook the assembly of an instrument himself. The rear balcony became the new location for the three manual instrument, which had been constructed from spare pipework from the discarded Roosevelt and surplus mechanical parts. What the instrument lacked in completeness, it gained from the remarkable and exemplary acoustics of the building and the newly unencumbered location from which it spoke.

Moller Opus 11615

The reconstructed instrument, however, grew unreliable; and in 1983 the M.P. Moller firm of Hagerstown, Maryland, was commissioned to build a new instrument for the church. Moller retained only two ranks of pipes from the original Roosevelt, and supplied entirely new structure, winding, console, and pipework for its opus 11615.

Failure of the Moller instrument. Pipe organs are built to endure the ages; but in a short decade and a half the Moller instrument had suffered significant structural and tonal failures, largely the result of poor metal in the largest pipes and structural defects. In addition, it became mechanically unreliable; and since the Moller firm had ceased to exist in 1989, the parish had no recourse other than to commission a repair and rebuilding of the instrument. Thus, the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes found itself in the unusual and unenviable position of having to invest large sums of money to repair and restore a new organ.

Need for a new instrument. As the study of the deplorable condition of the instrument advanced, it became apparent that, even with major repair and rebuilding, the Moller instrument would be unimproved. It had been an attempt to replicate the North German style of organ building, suitable for music of the 18th Century and not especially apt for the expressive demands of the Anglo-Catholic liturgy and colorful and idiomatic choral accompaniment. Clearly, a new instrument would solve all the problems and, were it the work of a premiere firm, would do so for a century or more (as had the Roosevelt). Furthermore, the Moller instrument sat exposed beneath the balcony's lancet windows, neither acoustically focused, nor protected from dirt and damage, nor aesthetically a work of visual grandeur and beauty. The Vestry and Wardens authorized the creation of an organ committee and appointed Captain Robert Hurd USN (retired) to chair that group.

Search for an organ builder

As the project advanced, three leading organ builders, each respected for high integrity of design, superior reliability, and tonal excellence were asked to submit bids for a new instrument. The parish organ committee selected the firm of Orgues Létourneau of Sainte-Hyacinthe, Québec. Although only twenty years old, the firm had amassed an enviable reputation for reliable mechanical and electric action instruments, integrity of workmanship, and attention to detail.

Case design. Because of the architectural significance of the building, and the strong desire to construct a classically encased instrument yet still not obstruct the balcony lancet windows portraying the four evangelists, special thought had to be given to the instrument's visual design. Therefore, the Organ Committee engaged a design consultant, Charles Nazarian of Gloucester, Massachusetts, an international authority on architectural design and woodworking, organ case work, and liturgical appointments. Mr. Nazarian, in his capacity as designer with the prestigious organ building firm of C.B. Fisk, has been responsible for some of the most famous new organ cases in the country including the magnificent facade of the organ at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.

Close collaboration. Thanks to the close collaboration between Mr. Nazarian and the designers on the staff of Orgues Létourneau, the plan for the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes evolved into the twin cases of American red oak framing the central window.

Orgues Létourneau Opus 68

The Létourneau firm removed the Moller organ in early May 2000. While the parish choir sang from a temporary location on the floor at the rear Nave with keyboard music from an electronic instrument and, from time to time, harpsichord, the balcony was refurbished and prepared for the installation of Orgues Létourneau, opus 68. That instrument was delivered in October 2000. After eight weeks of installation and pipe-by-pipe voicing, the new instrument was blessed and put into service immediately before Christmas Midnight Mass of 2000.

Retention of fine old pipes. The Létourneau firm retained some of the better M.P. Möller pipework, mainly the shorter flue pipes made of spotted metal. It also carefully restored two stops from the original Roosevelt that had been, in turn, kept by Möller - the sweet-toned Swell Gedeckt 8' and the same division's Spitz Flute 2'.

The pedal division's Open Wood Diapason came from the 1919 organ at Calvary Episcopal Church in Northeast Washington, a rank that was no longer needed when that parish recently rebuilt its organ. Old and new pipework alike were voiced to create a single, cohesive, and colorful ensemble. In some cases, new pipes were built in the style of older prototypes, as in the copy of an E.M. Skinner Flute Celeste in the Choir division.

Tonal character. The tonal character of Opus 68 is eclectic and North American, but Opus 68 owes much to the rich English heritage of organ building. The reed stops are constructed according to English ideals and the tone of the principal stops is broad and rich recalling the great English instruments of the Collegiate Chapels of Oxford and Cambridge (an analogy carrying with it some credibility since Létourneau built the organ of Pembroke College Chapel at Oxford).

A complete and versatile instrument

Comprising 55 ranks of pipes, the new organ is a complete and versatile instrument suited, first, to the complex and sophisticated demands of the Anglo-Catholic liturgy, the accompaniment of a broad range of choral anthems, the leadership of colorful and enthusiastic hymn singing; and second, to faithful performance of organ literature of all periods.

The organ console makes use of the latest computer technology in controlling the resources of the instrument and registering music. The wind chests employ age-old technology of palette and slider construction. The voicing of its pipes melds art and science in creating a precise, vibrant, and massive chorus of tone.

Opus 68 is both a liturgical and recital instrument that adds a significant musical voice to a great and important location in the heart of the city of Washington .

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Argillius Telluricus Eugenius me fecit