By Gregory Daurer | Jun 27, 2022
Pipe organ manufacturing and maintenance
When Rick Morel's namesake company gets a call to fix or service an instrument, the owners can't simply bring it to his shop. A repair person usually has to go to a church in order to do the job.
Although their widespread use has been in decline for decades, pipe organs -- sending forth mellifluous blasts of pious sound -- can still most often be heard in churches (although sometimes they're in synagogues, too).
But they're definitely not found in many movie theaters, ever since the end of the silent era. Some theater organs literally got trashed with the advent of talkies, but others were salvaged and reside in the homes of private collectors. Others can still be found in concert halls and Masonic lodges.
"It's got the greatest range of any musical instrument, from low to high," says Morel, 74, of the pipe organ. The instruments may have scores -- even hundreds -- of pipes, with some reaching up within churches (if not literally into the heavens, then at least)16 feet in height. A building can palpably rumble with low end when they're being played. No less than Mozart called the pipe organ "the king of instruments."
Although setups vary from model to model, the sounds are quite often controlled by multiple keyboards (called "manuals") that trigger the releases of jets of air (nowadays produced by an electrical fan) through the organ's tuned pipes, which are made of wood, tin, lead, or an alloy of the two. Pedals on the floor, controlled by the feet, offer additional ways to adjust the sound. There are tones that mimic strings, reeds, and flutes. "It's like having a whole orchestra at your fingertips," says David Plank, 37, a pipe organ technician working with Morel.
They can be startlingly loud. And powerful. "There's an emotional aspect to it that's really remarkable," says Morel associate Donald R. Belshaw, 76, whose father had an old theater organ installed in his home. Sometimes people who hadn't heard pipe organs in years would become "overcome" and cry while listening, Belshaw (seen in this video) recalls.
Morel learned about pipe organs from his father, Ivan, who ran the shop with a business partner from 1960 to 1972. Before that, the partners worked for Fred H. Meunier, who established his company in Denver in 1921. Like his father before him, Morel's dad had worked for the Canadian outfit, Casavant Frères Organ, before moving to Colorado from Massachusetts in 1956, so he could begin his employment at Meunier's company. Then, after Morel's partner retired in 1972, the company officially became Morel and Associates. Rick Morel points out how the business, through successive owners, has been in operation for more than 100 years.
"Over the years we've done virtually everything from servicing, tuning, rebuilding, and restoration of historic instruments to building entirely new organs," says Morel. "It's a very durable piece of equipment and can be renewed virtually forever."
Morel and his team remain on call to service instruments: everything from cleaning and repairing pipes and motors to replacing the leather pads which facilitate the release of air through the pipes to building a new console (see its parts delineated within a diagram here) to adding "stops" to the organ, thereby increasing the amount of different sounds that can be produced.
The company has worked on pipe organs in Denver at the following locations: Montview Presbyterian Church (the newly-refurbished organ was dedicated at a service in 2021), Grace M.E. Church (built by the Roosevelt Organ Works in 1888), and the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
During festivities surrounding Pope John Paul II's visit to Denver in 1993, Morel passed a security clearance so he could attend a mass for Catholic cardinals at the basilica, making sure nothing went awry with the organ while it was being played by sitting inside it. Noting the basilica's "five or six seconds of reverberation," Morel says, "It's got to be, if not the best room in town, then one of the best rooms in town" -- exemplifying how the space in which a pipe organ is housed provides an additional crucial factor in determining how it will sound.
During the COVID-19 pandemic some churches wanted their organs rebuilt. However, others halted services, so the calls tapered off. "Until quite recently, about two years ago, we had in the neighborhood of 130 service contracts that we regularly serviced in Colorado, Wyoming, Western Nebraska, and northern part of New Mexico," says Morel.
What's the future of pipe organs, which have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years without changing much?
Take it directly from one of the youngest remaining pipe organ technicians: "There's still a core -- some churches, some theaters, some rich people -- who are infatuated with organs and they love the history," says Plank. "It's so niche that the business work to keep those up is even more niche."
Challenges: The decline in religious services which incorporate pipe organ music. "A lot of churches are doing more contemporary music and less traditional music," says Morel, "and the contemporary music doesn't necessarily include organ."
Opportunities: For now, it remains the restoration of existing organs. But "depending on what direction the church world goes," Morel says it could still lie in building new instruments. He acknowledges how, "It's gotten to the point [the pipe organ] is a church instrument."
Needs: Enthusiastic employees. "People who really want to learn a skill, yet don't want to make a fortune at it," says Morel. "You just get the self-satisfaction of doing a good job and something that's going to last. Pride in your work, that type of thing."