A Brief History of Music at St. James

By Don Brown (People's Warden)


Music has always been a significant part of the Episcopal Church, probably the one church ritual observed solely to worship and praise God. Having been born into the Episcopal Church, I feel that our church's use of hymns, chants and canticles are more beautiful, meaningful and, above all, more inspirational than any. These thoughts lead me to the wonderful organ that we now enjoy, and from there, to the evolution of that instrument from the earliest I can remember, up to the present.

We moved to Arlington in the fall of 1948 and attended St. James the very next Sunday. I remember the church being rather cool, a sparse congregation, a rather dry sermon by Father Belcher and, of course, the strains of sound from the tracker type pipe organ.

This instrument had been installed around 1900 when St. James went through a major renovation that had removed the box pews, eliminated the balconies and added the sanctuary in the rear of the original building. The pipes of this organ were stacked exactly where the present organ is located. The keyboard was tightly faced against the stack of pipes that ascended above it. These, I think, were speaking pipes and there were several ranks located behind them with the large square bass pipes located behind them far in the back. I do know that playing that instrument required not only skill far beyond that of an ordinary organist, but also considerable strength. The action was completely mechanical; through a series of wooden bars, levers and joints until a final lifter opened the air supply into the chest to the selected pipes. A human being originally pumped the bellows that supplied air. The organist had not only to contend with this, but had to exercise a tremendous amount of ingenuity to deal with "ciphers" (notes that would not sound at all.)

Almost like rewriting the music on the spot to exclude the problem notes! Of course the vast differences in temperature added to the problem. During the colder part of the year the church didn't heat up much by the 10 AM service and many parishioners wore their coats throughout the service. In the summer, the temperature soared. By the early 1950's, time and temperature had taken its toll and the Vestry, of which I was a member, decided to replace the old tracker. One of the Vestry members, a relatively new parishioner by the name of Ford, expressed an interest in it and we voted to give it to him if he'd remove it during the summer. I learned later that it was completely restored and installed in Mr. Ford's barn, some place in New York, or was it Vermont? When I first attended, Herb Congdon was organist and choir director. Prior to that time, Lorraine Moody's mother, Annie Grout played. Before that Dr. Russell's' wife, Dorothy, was the organist. For many years Lorraine played the organ. Through her and that of her husband's efforts, we now enjoy the present Allen organ.

After the Vestry decided to scrap the balky Tracker organ in the early 1950's, Herb Congdon heard of a pipe organ that was being dismantled in Troy that we could have if we acted swiftly. Fortunately, passenger service on the railroad had ceased and Clayt Hulet allowed us to store all the many pipes, the wind chest and miles of lead tubing in an unused section of the station. Larry Brush and I unloaded the truck under the watchful eye of Herb Congdon. Summer arrived and Mr. Ford, to whom we had given the old Tracker, disassembled it and took it to a barn near Rutland, as planned.

The way was clear and we hired an organ builder who used to work for Estey to install the "new" organ. This organ had what was known as an electro pneumatic action. This meant that when you depressed a key it activated a solenoid that allowed air to flow through several tubes and finally allowed the pipe to "speak". The Estey man worked all summer but was never able to get that organ to work! Naturally, Herb felt terrible when it was determined that we would need a completely new instrument.

A committee was formed and on Saturday we all traveled to Brattleboro to listen to and inspect an Estey organ we thought would be ideal for St. James. I don't remember exactly what the financial arrangements were but I'm fairly certain the Congdon's contributed heavily toward the newly established "Organ Fund". Lorraine Moody was our permanent organist and choir director at that time and did a fine job. The organ served well until the early 1970's, although maintenance was a recurring problem. It was a totally electric action, a much simpler action requiring 56 wires that passed through a hole in the floor and over to the ranks of pipes. That hole is still visible. Lorraine decided that she could perform better if she could see the congregation, so one pew was removed and the console installed on the floor of the nave just in front of the pulpit. The wind pump was located in the basement on a platform behind the boiler.

Maintenance of the Esty Organ finally reached a point where our "expert" gave up and advised that the action was beyond repair. There were many meetings and it became clear that the congregation was split between those who felt that a pipe organ was the only option and those who felt that a new electronic instrument would be the best investment. Again, I was on the committee and we all traveled to Rutland to hear a new Allen electronic organ. It sounded great; in fact we all agreed that it would be impossible to tell the difference between this instrument and a much more expensive, complicated and maintenance prone pipe organ. Despite our enthusiasm and strong recommendation, it was very difficult to convince the pipe organ purists that the Allen was the way to go.

Tom Hayton and I had spent considerable time on that Estey organ in an attempt to make it a reliable instrument. Although Tom was an advocate of the pipe organ, he finally realized that the Estey could not be saved. An organ fund was established and enough money was raised to purchase the electronic instrument. Well, not quite enough. The Moody's agreed to finance the remainder with the understanding that the fund would continue and they would be reimbursed. I was not involved in the finances at that point, but I have a strong feeling how it all turned out! Anyhow, the new Allen electronic organ was purchased and installed. Early in the 1980's, the console was moved back into its present location and the two-inch hole in front of the pulpit was covered with a brass plate. Look for it the next time you're in church!



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