13 January 2011

If This Were the New Springime, We Wouldn't See This Story

A long-time area pipe organ maker is retrenching and halting new organ production. Photo and story from STLToday:

Highland pipe organ maker to halt production

HIGHLAND • Wicks Organ Co., which has built pipe organs in Highland for more than 100 years, will shut down its manufacturing operation over the next few months, its president, Mark Wick, said Thursday.

Wick blamed a bad economy and changing tastes in church music. The company has built more than 6,400 organs and Wick estimates that as many as 5,000 are in use worldwide.

Wick said the company's work force would go from 33 to about 10 but the company would continue to provide organ parts, maintenance, warranty service and repairs. He said he would not rule out a return to manufacturing if demand increases in the future. [...]


CarpeNoctem said...

That's it-- "art" is the key. True art engages the not only the receiver, but it also requires the work and sacrifice and blood/sweat/tears of the artist. A cynic could say that "art" keeps people employed, and they would be true. (Of course, it is more than employement, else the artist has 'sold out', which we often see.)

It takes many years of training and a degree of raw talent to make an organist... and even then a great organist really needs to 'want' it by sacrificing all else for the 'pearl of great price'... the ability and discipline to really play well. It takes many years of apprenticing and learning the trade to be an organ builder. It takes a great deal of financial sacrifice to put a 'real organ' into a 'real church'. When all of the pieces are there, a single hymn that is sung on Sunday morning has involved several hundred people in making the experience and the worship take place... but isn't that something of an icon for the unity of the Church?

Canned music... CD's, synthesizers, MP3's, etc, just don't have the same effect. It teases the senses. It's like 'diet Coke'. (An interesting article I once read compared diet Coke to the contraceptive mentality of our day... all the pleasure none of the guilt, thanks to chemistry... but I digress.) Anyway, art that becomes mass-produced for mass-consumption... we call that kitsch. It's the difference between an icon written by a monk and the stuff you can order out of catalogues. It's the difference between vestments sewn by artisans, rather than a sideline business of a academic regalia company or something like that. It's the difference between a steel-and-concrete donut church compared to the great cathedrals hewn from stone by hand. If I can be so bold, it's the difference between a Catholic priest who went to seminary for 6-8 years, making (and keeping) the promise of obedience and celebacy, compared to some garden-variety protestant minister who got his degree online somewhere in 6 months or a year.

All true 'art' demands sacrifice. Anything else is consummerism masked as art... again, kitsch.

While this is sad, Wicks Organs will rise again, I bet. For the most part, they have been a fixture in the US and in the Midwest, especially in Catholic circles. No, they're no Cassavant. Heck, I preferred Austin's myself when it came to typical American instruments that are found in neighborhood churches, but they really made some great improvements in their hardware and works in recent decades.

The problem is not the change in taste in Church music, but the loss of taste in Church music. The Church still demands authentic worship "in spirit and in truth", using worthy instruments, engaging talented musicians, breathing life into worthy compositions. Open up any 'newsprint' hymnal in a Church where the music is provided by a well-meaning over-amplified electric piano player and "Careuso-esque" cantor (pax to Tom Day), and we can quickly see how far Catholic culture has sunk to the level of self-parodying irrelevance.

Michael Bavlsik said...

It is clear that the last two years the folks in Washington have allowed a recession to become a depression.
The story with Wicks Organs however has a lot to do with Catholic liturgy. Traditionally Wicks was viewed as ( as advertised as) a low-end pipe organ builder. The simple needs of Catholic liturgy- chant accompaniment, choir singing, sacred polyphony, limited congregational singing and very limited use of classical organ literature made Wick's simple, study instruments the choice of Catholic churches. In the era before the Novus Ordo, the Wicks opus list in St. Louis looked like a catalog of all the Catholic churches in town-Basilica of St. Louis, St. Cecilia, St. Mary Magdalene (South City and Brentwood), Our Lady of Sorrows, St. George, St. Gabe's, St. Raphael, St. Joan of Arc, St. Francis de Sales, All Saints, Immaculate Conception, St. Boniface, Little Flower, St. Clement, St. Alphonse Liguri, St. Stan's, Sacred Heart (Valley Park), St. Vincent de Paul (seminary). Mainline protestant churches tended to eschew Wicks instruments because they tended to be somewhat inadequate for the more complex musical needs of those churches.
After the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reforms, very few pipe organs were built in Catholic Churches in St. Louis. Protestant churches tended to build a lot of new pipe organs-almost completely avoiding Wicks and using higher-end or boutique builders.
Since 1970 I am only aware of 2 Wicks instruments having been built in St. Louis for Catholic churches-Mary Queen of Peace and St. Joseph in Cottlesville. The very few Catholic churches that built new instruments during that time similarly tended to use high-end/boutique builders: Our Lady of Providence and St. Monica's using St. Louis local Martin Ott Pipe Organs and Sacred Heart (Eureka) using (Canadian)Casavant. Just about everything else has been electronic instruments (which were usually replaced every 20 years or so with new electronic instruments).
While the reform of the reform of the liturgy might lead to better music in church, it probably will not help Wicks. Two examples: Assumption parish with 10000+ parishoners and a reform-minded, Extraordinary-form priest used their long-standing "organ fund" to buy an electronic instrument last year which sounds absolutely awful (but ironically is a better looking piece of furniture than the altar). Also, while the organ at St. Francis de Sales needs to be repaired or replaced, rumor has it that only European organbuilders are under consideration.

Anonymous said...

The magnificence of the pipe organ cannot be matched. They are such a blessing for any church.
Unfortunately, the extremely high cost of building a new one, or even refurbishing on old one, is well beyond the range of a regular parish.
Sad, really.

Michael Bavlsik said...

Anonymous is mistaken. While pipe organs may be expensive, it is all about stewardship. I have played two brand new pipe organs in the past year that were installed in churches that understand stewardship. Trinity Episcopal in the Central West End built a new Quimby organ that is outstanding. They have only 400 parishoners in a very mixed neighborhood. St. Mark's Episcopal just built a new Juget-Sinclair Tracker organ. This church seats only about 250 people. It is in South St. Louis in a middle-class neighborhood. Excepting the Cathedral Basilica, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Joseph's Shrine and the Priory and perhaps St. Margaret of Scotland, I do not think that there are ANY Catholic Churches in St. Louis that have built similarly high quality instruments in St. Louis in the past 200 years.

Anonymous said...

To Michael Bavlsik:

Your last sentence makes my point.
I agree with you, though, that stewardship is the key to maintaining an organ. I wish that all churches took this seriously. As an aside, I find it hard to believe that a parish of 400 built a new pipe organ without a VERY large endowment from one or two very wealthy parshoners, living or deceased. New pipe organs can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, on up into the millions.
Even good stewardship doesn't make money appear out of nowhere.

Michael Bavlsik said...

Nope- sorry, they hit me up for money for it as well. No endowment. No big donor. Just 400 motivated people. St. Mark's Episcopal ( as well as Sacred Heart RC in Eureka)did have a big donor. Trinity spent 400K on their organ. The organ builder did throw in a free rank or two when he realized what a showpiece it would be.

Anonymous said...

From what I understand the Oratory has two organ proposals - one from a European firm and one north american firm (the same builder as St. Mark's Episcopal). However the new Vicar (an accomplished organist himself) would prefer a new digital pipeless organ.