Monday, July 19, 2010

A man's 44-year love affair with the pipe organ

Grant Smalley at work on one of his patients. Photograph by Geoff Howe.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 19, 2010


An unseen player worked the four keyboards of the massive Wolff Opus 47 organ in a rose window high above a cathedral floor.

The magnificent notes of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” roared through the stone interior of a nearly deserted Christ Church Cathedral.

Grant Smalley paused, allowing himself a smile.

“I feel thrilled,” he said during a pause in the music. “It’s wonderful to me, all this air-produced, natural wind sound. No speakers, no amplification.”

Mr. Smalley’s love affair with the pipe organ began in childhood as a choirboy in Oak Bay. For the past 44 years, he has built, rebuilt, and repaired all manner of pipe organs. His craft has a venerable heritage but a limited future. At 66, he is the last of his kind on Vancouver Island.

Mr. Smalley is a general practitioner who makes home calls, a surgeon capable of taking apart countless moving parts before replacing them with a steady hand.

“Pipes are human,” he insisted. “They have a body. hey don’t bleep or toot, but they speak out of their mouths. They have an upper lip. They have a lower lip. They have ears on either side. And they stand on their toe, which is on the bottom of their foot.”

Mr. Smalley, 66, was conducting a tour of his patients, all in good health. The Wolff with its 4,136 pipes is a spectacular instrument. Three others can be found in this sacred building.

A 270-pipe organ can be found to the left of the altar in a side chapel. Built by Bevington & Sons of London in 1862, it was shipped to the West Coast around perilous Cape Horn. It survived the voyage only to be in need of rescue when the original cathedral caught fire seven years later. Two priests hustled the pipe organ away from the flames, the only damage some scorching to the interior. It is said the organ was kept in a local saloon until a new church was constructed.

We then walked to the other side of the altar, where Mr. Smalley sat before the two keyboards of a Harrison & Harrison organ built in England. He had a stirrup pedal to his right and several other tractor-like pedals at his feet.

The stop knobs of turned ivory include hand-engraved notations on which can be found poetry. The knobs on the swell are named “trumpet” and “tremulant,” “lieblich gedeckt” and “echo salicional,” as well as the felicitously named “vox angelica.” The great’s knobs include the “flageolet” and the “open diapason,” the “rohr flute” and the “claribel flute,” and the “swell to great.” The latter pretty much captures the range of emotions when you listen to an organ in its full glory.

Mr. Smalley rose before stepping through a door leading to the interior of the organ. A small notation hand scratched in pencil was attached to the inside of the door: “Erected by W.S. Todd, W. Ackless, M.L. Haywood, boy H. Wood.” It was dated Nov. 19, 1927. Originally built for an English manor house, it was given to a boys’ training farm outside Duncan before being donated to the cathedral in 1976.

The repairman slipped a pipe from its place, the better to show the speckled grey-and-black colouring, an indication it had been forged from equal parts tin and lead.

“Very soft,” he said, laying the pipe across stubby fingers. “I can easily squish this with my fingers. But durable. They can last for centuries.”

Nearby rested a wooden machine crafted by his own hands, a $40,000 instrument designed to accompany a small vocal ensemble. An attention to detail is obvious in the contrasting colours of rosewood and maple keys. His organ is on permanent loan to the cathedral.

A pipe organ is “not just a piece of furniture,” he said. “It speaks back to you.”

Born during the war in Sidney, where his father was an instructor at the nearby air-force base, now the international airport, the boy’s early passion for organ music was taken up by his father. Arthur Smalley, a building contractor, built an organ for the family home. It got so big that the family moved to larger quarters, where the organ had added to it bells, gongs and whistles scavenged form an organ that had been in use at a movie house. The organ remains in private hands in Saanich. Its maintainence is among Mr. Smalley’s happier duties.

He has been busy in recent weeks completing the restoration of a Casavant Opus 400 organ at the Victoria Conservatory of Music in a former Methodist church. The instrument’s 3,100 wood and metal pipes have been silent for a decade, ever since the sanctuary became a performance hall. Mr. Smalley had been introduced to the instrument when assisting organ technician Hugo Spilker in 1966.

The organ will be played in coming days as part of a celebration called Pipes Around the Pacific, a five-day international conference held by the Royal Canadian College of Organists, Canada’s oldest association of musicians. The festival began in Victoria on Sunday.

(Incidentally, the brochure describes the Wolff organ at Christ Church as having been “recently installed,” though it is now five years old. Only in the centuries-old organ world could a half-decade seem but a hemidemisemiquaver.)

Mr. Smalley is looking forward to a celebratory recital to be performed on the Casavant on Tuesday morning, marking to the day the centennial of the organ’s installation. It is the custom to toast the organ with wine poured from one of its pipes.

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