That Brown possesses the largest remaining operational Hutchings-Votey organ in the galaxy ranks in the top five things you hear on a prospective student tour, somewhere between “there is no typical Brown student” and “No, I didn’t see Emma Watson on campus” (Ed. – We should write that up). While most Brown students never saw Emma Watson, many Brown students do go to an organ concert or two during their undergraduate careers. If you have yet to see the organ in action, don’t miss tonight’s Midnight Halloween Organ Concert. For most of Brunonia, however, knowledge of the behemoth that resides inside Sayles above the imposing portraits of old white guys stops there. Most people don’t even know what a Hutchings (or a Votey) is! Last month, we sat down with Mark Steinbach, Brown’s University Organist, to clear a few things up ahead of the annual Halloween concert. It’s safe to say we got more than we bargained for.
I caught up with Mark Steinbach after one of his organ lessons. I showed up in Sayles at 2:57 for a 3:00 p.m. meeting, and he gave me a polite yet stern request to wait downstairs while he finished with his student. You’re really getting your money’s worth with him, apparently. Once he had finished teaching, however, he dove headfirst into our meeting. I guess you kind of have to be all-in on the organ once you’re that good at playing it. We began with a tour of the inside of the organ.
Behind a door on the Sayles balcony lies a jungle of metal pipes and wooden planks. A Hutchings-Votey organ, for all you organ rookies out there, is nothing more than an organ built by the Boston company for which it is named. They were all the rage in the early 1900s. Yale has a (clearly inferior) Hutchings-Votey on its campus. Cute. Brown’s organ has over 3,000 pipes—ranging from 2 to 32 feet tall—which allow it to build incredibly rich, diverse notes. According to a Brown Alumni Magazine article commemorating the organ’s 100th birthday (Ed. – Imagine Organ 100+!?!?), its first player was the famous Belgian performer Chevalier Auguste Wiegand. Throw that fact in the next time you’re walking backwards across the Main Green, tour guides.
In recent years, however, the organ has been Steinbach’s territory. Impressively, his work at Brown is not confined to the organ, and his organ work is not confined to Sayles. Professor Steinbach also teaches in the Music Department (this spring he’s offering MUSC0560: Theory of Tonal Music) and is the organist for a church in Wickford, RI. The Wickford organ, though no Hutchings-Votey, is perhaps an even more notable specimen: it’s the oldest working organ in the United States.
Professor Steinbach is happy to show off the universally known but rarely understood device that is almost solely his to command. Sure, he offers plenty of lessons for the intrigued—expect a follow-up post, this seems like a great senior spring activity—but, nevertheless, there are only so many people on College Hill who can tame the Hutchings-Votey organ. The rare times that the organ is in use are a real treat for the audience.
And no, playing the organ is not just like jamming on some epic piano. Playing the organ, a wind instrument, is like commanding an entire symphony orchestra with your hands and feet. Watching Steinbach go to work at the organ is like watching Sulu preparing to engage the thrusters. It’s frantic, yet calculated. There are three different keyboards and dozens of different pedals to marshal into a harmonic masterpiece. And yet, for Steinbach, it all seems easy. But the midnight organ concert is almost as much about pageantry as it is about performance. His entrance, which has been as elaborate as a group of pallbearers carrying Steinbach into Sayles in a coffin, is not to be missed.
So when you head to the organ concert tonight, keep in mind the years of craftsmanship—both of the organ and of the organist—that have gone into the performance. It’s sure to be both beautiful and spoooooooooooky.