The Cathedral has a magnificent four-manual French Romantic organ built by the firm of Lively-Fulcher. In addition to being played at Mass and other liturgies, the organ is featured each year in concerts and recitals that are always free and open to the public.
History of the Organ
The Cathedral has enjoyed a rich musical tradition dating back nearly 100 years. Its first instrument is said to have been a mechanical action organ that was placed in the wall opening of the former Sacred Heart Chapel, the present Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
In 1951, that first instrument was replaced by a large electro-pneumatic organ contained in a chamber behind the wall of the chapel. Because of the unfavorable location of the instrument, it was difficult for the sound to reach the body of the Cathedral. An antiphonal division was added on the back wall during the 1970s in an attempt to correct this problem.
In the early 1980s, mechanical failures in the instrument had become increasingly frequent, much to the dismay of the clergy, musicians, and parishioners. Many parts of the instrument had not worked for years. Following a thorough study of the situation, the clergy and music staff of the Cathedral concluded that, even after costly repairs, the existing instrument would have been unable to perform its primary liturgical functions. The Cathedral decided to obtain a completely new organ that would be free-standing and encased, employing mechanical actions as its primary means of control.
The new organ case allows the instrument to project its sound directly into the Cathedral nave and eliminates many of the tuning and tonal problems encountered with the previous organ. Mechanical action was chosen for the key action because of its durability and sensitivity to touch. James Cardinal Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, and Msgr. W. Louis Quinn, the Cathedral rector at the time, allocated modest funds for the construction of the new instrument, wisely allowing for future additions, should bequests and donations make this possible. The use of a case and mechanical action for the new instrument provides for long-term reliability, ease of maintenance, great tonal advantages, and is certainly the best stewardship of funds.
Features of the Organ
The organ case is built of white oak and contains polished tin pipes in the facade. It reaches a height of nearly forty-five feet at the peak. The goal was to make the case not only functional, but to make an artistic visual statement that harmonized completely with the Cathedral architecture. The instrument will ultimately contain five divisions and 68 stops. Several stops from the previous organ have been reconditioned for use in the new one.
The organ takes its inspiration from the 19th-century French organ building traditions, but is designed to maintain polyphonic competence for earlier music. The unusually complete stop list will allow for the performance of the vast organ literature, and will serve its liturgical role in a noble fashion. When finished, the organ, along with the magnificent acoustics of the Cathedral, should be one of the most remarkable and comprehensive instruments of its type in the country. This additional work needs continued generous financial support to complete this magnificent musical instrument and enhance the sacred worship of our community.