Is the Tabernacle organ unique?
February 1984

“Is the Tabernacle organ unique?” Ensign, Feb. 1984, 29–31

Is the Tabernacle organ unique? What makes it a great organ?

John Longhurst, Tabernacle Organist. The Tabernacle Organ is a pipe organ, one of thousands in the world today. Simply stated, a pipe organ is a complex instrument that allows a large number of pipes to sound under the control of a player at the console. But first and foremost, it is an artistic creation. An organ builder must apply techniques and principles of engineering, mechanics (and often, in contemporary organs, electronics), physics, woodworking, metalworking, and acoustics and should be familiar with organ history and organ literature. He must also have an understanding of artistic principles as they apply to the visual and tonal aspects of the instrument. To bring these diverse elements together in an organ that is successful mechanically, visually, and tonally is no small achievement.

All pipe organs have much in common—but at the same time, there are particular physical and tonal characteristics that make each unique. They come in different sizes and shapes, with varying strengths and limitations, and function in different environments.

One of the unique aspects of the Tabernacle organ is its history—when and where it was built, and by whom. Pioneer builder Joseph Ridges was primarily a carpenter and cabinet maker, not an organ builder. So far as we know, Ridges built only two organs, both of which were housed on Temple Square—one in what is called the Old Tabernacle (which was razed in 1877 to make room for the Assembly Hall) and the second in the present or “new” Tabernacle.

The challenges Joseph Ridges faced must have been enormous. He began building the Tabernacle organ when the Saints had been in the Salt Lake Valley for less than two decades. The Transcontinental Railway had not yet been completed. Accordingly, materials needed to build the organ were not easily obtained. Funds must have been extremely scarce during that period of the Church’s development. It’s interesting that the Church, under the leadership of President Brigham Young, would at that time place such a high priority on obtaining an organ of stature.

Most would agree that Ridges’s visual layout of the organ was impressive and distinctive. Still, as is often the case with creative work, his approach appears not to have been totally original. A comparison of the original Tabernacle organ case with the case of the organ in the Boston Music Hall shows some remarkable similarities. This important Boston organ, built by the E. F. Walcker Organ Co., was completed in 1863. The Tabernacle organ was completed in the early 1870s. We have no specific information to explain the similarities, but we do know that pictures of the Boston organ were available, and we know that Ridges traveled to Boston to obtain parts and materials for the Tabernacle organ (such as ivory and springs) that could not be obtained or manufactured in Salt Lake City. It seems logical to assume that while in Boston he would have taken advantage of the opportunity to see and hear their most prominent organs.

The original organ, as conceived and built by Joseph Ridges, was a rather modest, two-keyboard instrument. The action was mechanical, meaning that the keys were directly (mechanically) linked to the pallets, which when opened admitted air into the pipes. The wind was supplied to the instrument by bellows, hand-pumped by workers behind the scenes.

Through the years, the Tabernacle organ has undergone numerous changes. Its hand-pumped bellows were replaced first with a water-powered mechanism, then with an electric blower. New pipes were added and older pipes removed as the organ grew to its present size. Different builders and organ-building firms have left their mark on the organ: Niels Johnson in the late nineteenth century; the Kimball Organ Company in the early years of the present century; the Austin Organ Company between 1915 and 1940; and, most recently, the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company in 1948. About 1915, Ridges’s original case was extended on both sides to its present size to accommodate the growing organ.

The present organ, then, is not the instrument Ridges built. Although Ridges’s case is incorporated into the present organ and a small number of the original pipes remain in use, today’s organ is primarily the work of G. Donald Harrison, who was the tonal director for the Aeolian-Skinner firm at the time the Tabernacle organ was last rebuilt. Harrison was an influential proponent of what is referred to as the “American classic” organ. The aim of those who believed in this approach was to create an “eclectic” organ, one that blended characteristic features from important European organ-building traditions (primarily French, English, and German). On such an organ, a wide variety of music from various periods and nations can be convincingly played. Harrison’s work has been of immense historical importance, and while a number of examples of his work are extant, some knowledgeable observers feel that none is more successful than the Tabernacle organ.

The Tabernacle organ, pipes, and console

The Tabernacle organ, pipes, and console. Upper left insert: the original organ case built by Joseph Ridges in the early 1870s.

Much is said about the size of the Tabernacle organ. Clearly the present organ is large by any standard. Its 10,857 pipes are grouped in 191 ranks (or sets) in eight divisions played from five keyboards and pedals. It is among the larger organs in America.

The factors that influenced the size of the Tabernacle organ were the size of the building itself (with volume in excess of 1.3 million cubic feet), the size of the choirs and congregations the organ would accompany, and the versatility necessary to play a wide variety of organ repertoire.

It is important to remember, however, that sheer size is not a reliable measure of either the success or quality of the instrument. Often as an organ becomes larger, it becomes increasingly unwieldy to play. This has not been the case with the Tabernacle organ. For its size, the console of the Tabernacle organ is extremely comfortable, straightforward, and uncluttered.

A pipe organ, unlike any other musical instrument, is designed for the particular room in which it is to be installed, and the success of an organ is judged in conjunction with the acoustical properties of that room. Herein lies another of the unique aspects of the Tabernacle organ—the Tabernacle itself. The size, shape, and materials of the structure, together with the specific placement of the organ in the room, all work together to integrate and enhance its sound. That remarkable building, fashioned of native materials with pioneer ingenuity, sacrifice, and love, remains an architectural, engineering, and acoustical wonder.

There is one other unique feature, an intangible one, that we should mention about the organ. And that is the warm and persuasive spirit that seems to permeate everything that emanates from the Tabernacle. I would not presume to explain it, but simply acknowledge it as a reality for all who are spiritually attuned.

The Tabernacle organ, then, has much in common with other fine pipe organs worldwide. But there are other qualities, both tangible and intangible, that set it apart from other instruments and make it one of the more successful and important organs in America and perhaps in the world.