Saturday, December 14, 2019
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The Mighty Wanamaker

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WHILE I was wandering around YouTube for yesterday’s Midweek Hymn, I discovered the largest fully playable musical instrument in the world, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, and I thought it deserved a blog of its own.

It was built for the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and is now in Macy’s (formerly Wanamaker’s) department store in Philadelphia. Here is a short film history – the best bit is that it took 13 railway wagons to transport it to its present home, and it has been much enlarged since then.

The visible organ pipes on the balcony are fakes for decoration. The real pipes are out of sight all around the building, as this second film shows. (There is some overlapping and some plugs for Macy’s, but it’s worth it.) The Friends of the Wanamaker Organ website is stuffed with information.

In the 1980s the organist was the brilliant Keith Chapman, who can be seen here setting up the 729 colour-coded ‘stop tablets’ to play a Bach piece.

Chapman was killed in a plane crash in Colorado (where by coincidence I am writing this) in 1989 at the tragically early age of 43. He was succeeded by Peter Richard Conte who with others gives twice-daily recitals and several special concerts a year.

I thought there must be official videos of the concerts but all I can find are amateur ones, and while they are enjoyable none is very good quality. What many stress is that the videos cannot convey the magnificence of the sound, which must be heard in person to appreciate fully.

Here are a few highlights.

This is the American National Anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, from 2007.

Here is God Bless America, 2013

and America the Beautiful, 2012.

This is a flashmob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus in 2010.

Two minutes and 50 seconds into this is God Save the Queen.

Finally, to recap from yesterday, here is Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s Jerusalem, which was what set me off on this fascinating journey.

I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist.

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