Two New Organs in the Holy Land

The construction of organs in the Holy Sepulchre and Gethsemane basilicas is under way. The Austrian company Rieger, founded in 1873 and the Custody’s partner for decades, was given charge of building both of them.

This exacting work required years of consideration and preparation due to the many different aspects of the project that had to be considered. To mention just a few: placement restrictions due to the architecture and environment (light, air currents, etc.), acoustics (that will determine the positioning and orientation of the instrument), the organs’ functional plans (how they will be used, not only in the present but also in the future), choice of construction techniques, adequacy and similarity to the old organ.

It was decided that the organ console for Gethsemane would be made in olive wood… from Gethsemane. This detail, says project supervisor Johannes Zander, is itself “an exceptional work of art”. The wood is from the trunks of trees that were cut down years ago and carefully set aside by the Franciscans. Carefully chosen, they sent to Austria, where the console was fashioned.

The new organ at the Holy Sepulchre is a little smaller than the present one, and will have pipes ranging from sixteen feet to one foot sounding at different levels. Thus, the instrument will be more versatile in the shading and timbre of its sound, there being both metal and wooden pipes. This choice is the fruit of many discussions with Fra Armando, organist and composer for the Custody of the Holy Land. In this way, the organ was conceived and planned for its specific use in daily procession and solemn masses.

It is worthwhile to note that the Roman Catholic Church, represented by the Franciscan order, is the only one of all the Churches present in the Holy Sepulchre to use instrumental music in its liturgy. Johannes Zander reviews the work for the month of June in the Holy Sepulchre. “We took down the old organ and are presently preparing the site for the installation of the casing. Parts of the casing have been curved and formed to match the irregularities of the wall in the Chapel of Mary Magdalene. This first step, the “external appearance” will be completed at the end of June. In total, it will take over 8,000 hours of manual work to create this instrument.

Because the organ is very large, it is divided into two separate sections. The first will be located in the corner opposite the Mary Magdalene altar, in a small gallery that overlooks the chapel, facing the altar. This organ will not be visible, unlike the one it replaces, in order to avoid exposing it to dust, variations of temperature, and humidity. Even so, Rieger has made its appearance a central concern. The casing will be made of lacquered oak, walnut and gold, bringing warmth to the Franciscans’ chapel.

For the moment, the chapel is still filled with scaffolding and large wooden cases containing the organ’s pipes. The work will continue until autumn, ending with a complete adjustment of tone quality (not to be confused with pitch), pipe by pipe. “Last year I was in Korea; we work all around the world. I have to say that it is an enormous honor and a joy to work in the Holy Sepulchre. It is a unique site, and in spite of the somewhat odd work schedule we have [the crew has to stop work for every procession or liturgy – E.R.] it is a real pleasure, and we are doing everything so that the final results will be worthy of this place,” adds Johannes Zander, smiling. It has to be said that the pilgrims, a little surprised at the magnitude of the work, don’t stop approaching him with questions and taking photos!

The Holy Sepulchre organ was financed thanks to the faithful generosity of Austrians through the intermediary of the Holy Land Commissary of Austria and a special appeal. The Custody is grateful to the benefactors of the Gethsemane community for the organ in the Basilica of the Nations. Both organs are to be inaugurated and blessed this autumn.


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