Pipe organs speak with majesty

Though religion and tastes are changing, old instruments still command awe


Outside Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Denver, the din of the city roars.

But inside the old church, a stone anachronism in a canyon of steel and glass, there is silence.

Organist Norm Sutphin walks into the cavernous sanctuary, lit only by the glow of sunshine through stained glass. He sits at a bench at the center of the altar, towered over by organ pipes stretching three stories high. He flips a switch, and a breath of air cuts the silence, just slightly.

Sutphin begins to play, and the sanctuary is suddenly alive with the majesty of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, the low notes rattling hymnals in the pews.

“This instrument can rouse emotions in the soul like few other things,” Sutphin said. “I appreciate its beauty, and I respect its power.”

The pipe organ is one of the largest in Denver, and perhaps the oldest. Built in 1888, it consists of 4,275 pipes in 82 sections. The smallest are just inches long. The tallest, low C, is 32 feet.

The Roosevelt organ, which Sutphin calls “one of the monuments of organ building in the West,” is one of many mighty pipe organs scattered around the Denver metro area.

But, Sutphin said, as traditional religious denominations and traditional church music decline, he is part of a diminishing family of organists who still command the power of the world’s largest musical instruments.

“I work very hard to make sure my performances are tight,” said Sutphin, who practices up to six days a week in preparation for Sunday. “It means a lot to people.”

Organs in history

They still mean a lot to Rick Morel, a third-generation pipe organ builder and repairman. Morel is one of three remaining members of Morel and Associates, one of few remaining pipe organ repair shops in the Mountain West.

In an aging warehouse in north Denver, Morel cleans, tunes and repairs pipe organs, using decades-old tools, many of which are handmade.

Pipe organs are marvels of engineering, Morel said.

“The people who designed these were as smart as any computer engineer designing microchips today,” he said. “They can make so many sounds. No other single instrument has so much range.”

Developed in the 17th century, pipe organs were originally hand-pumped, and larger ones required multiple people working bellows to keep them playing, Morel said. The Industrial Revolution introduced organs powered by electric air blowers.

Pipe organs were once a staple of American life, Morel said.

“In the silent film era, any theater worth its salt had a pipe organ. Beyond a soundtrack of mood music, they could make so many sound effects: boat horns, sirens, even waves and pounding surf.”

The early 20th century saw an explosion of similar instruments, including automatic organs that even included banjos, violins and other instruments played mechanically.

Denver had some legendary organs. The old City Auditorium, which today is part of the Denver Center for Performing Arts, was home to a colossal, four-story organ. The City of Denver employed a “city organist” who gave recitals as often as seven days a week some summers.

The Phipps Mansion in Denver’s Belcaro neighborhood, built in the early years of the Great Depression, featured an automatic organ in the basement that could be controlled by switches throughout the house, and could play a variety of contemporary and classic tunes.

The advent of talking movies, the Great Depression and metal rationing during World War II spelled a downturn for pipe organs, but pent-up demand and a surge of suburban church building in the postwar years meant an explosion in the organ market. It would prove to be the last.

“Tastes in church music are changing, and they have been for a while,” Morel said. “We haven’t built an organ since the 1990s. A lot of the old churches are on hard times, and organs can be expensive to maintain.”

Morel said he’s got two or three restoration jobs left, and then it’s probably time to close up the multi-generational business.

“We can’t find anyone who wants to take it over,” Morel said. “This is a labor of love. You don’t do it to get rich. And if you’re not willing to run out in a blizzard to do an emergency repair on Christmas Eve, then you’re not living up to the standards we hold ourselves to.”

Old and new

Some of the postwar suburban churches are still mighty proud of their pipe organs, and finding ways to incorporate them into modern worship.

At Ascension Lutheran Church in Littleton, the 1950s-vintage neo-Baroque pipe organ is still a draw for parishioners, said Michael Zehnder, the church’s director of music ministries.

The church now holds two services every week: a traditional service built around a pipe organ performance, and a contemporary service built around modern music. Zehnder also leads several choirs and handbell choruses.

“I’m a pastor’s son, and when contemporary music came along in the 1970s, it seemed so wrong to me,” Zehnder said. “But time and again in the Scripture, we see passages about making joyous music to celebrate God. We read about drums, cymbals, harps and trumpets. Martin Luther said, ‘Next to the word of God, I give music the highest praise.’”

Zehnder sees the organ as a bridge to the church’s past, and a way to preserve hymns that date to medieval times.

“It’s a way to feel the awe of God,” Zehnder said.

  • Hear Michael Zehnder play the 1950s-era Neo-Baroque pipe organ at Littleton's Ascension Lutheran Church


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