Swiss organ builders prepare for royal delivery

Whether it be watches, chocolate, or anything else, the Swiss pride themselves on a certain brand of expensive-but-high quality.  One industry not always lumped in with talk of Swiss quality, though, is that of organ building—as in the massive pipe organs you find in churches or concert halls.  WRS’s Tony Ganzer visited Switzerland’s biggest organ builder near Zurich, which is preparing to begin installing a high profile organ in London.

Tony Ganzer on the shores of Lake Zurich: “So I’m standing in Männedorf on the coast of Lake Zurich.  I actually see a ferry just leaving the pier here in Männedorf heading to Zürich proper. Inside this building right behind me is Kuhn Orgelbau—this is [an] organ building company, restoration, maintenance, and inside they are building a new organ for the Royal Academy of Music in London.”

Kuhn Orgelbau has been making organs like this one heard in Cologne for more than a hundred years here in Männedorf.  This despite the craft of organ building being a specialty.

“It is a specialty but there is still competition.  I mean there are at least in Switzerland five companies that are our competition,” says Claude Lardon, an organ builder and project manager for Kuhn.

“We think we are a part of history, because organs are built to last for hundreds of years, and if they are built correctly and maintained correctly, then they practically last forever,” he says. “At least mechanical instruments, because if something breaks it can be replaced by another organ builder.”

Times change

Lardon says in Switzerland you need a four-year apprenticeship to become an organ builder, though business isn’t booming like it once was. 

He says up until about 10-20 years ago many poorly built organs from the last century needed replacing, but that work has dried up.

And falling numbers of churchgoers, and the rising value of the Swiss franc don’t help things either.

“We live in a high-cost country, the salaries are high, and also because of the situation with the Euro and Swiss franc, it is very hard to compete with organ builders from Germany or the United States,” Lardon says.

It’s all in the wood

Lardon and company CEO Hans-Peter Keller show me around the workshop, where carpenters are fashioning customer organ parts and frames.  The company is still finishing the massive 2500-pipe organ for the Royal Academy of Music

“Ja, hier geht alles los—Holzlager.” This is where it all happens, Keller says, the lumberyard.

“What you see here we have all the different kinds of wood for the organ,” Lardon adds. “The organ case is usually made of oak or pine.  But right now for the organ at the Royal Academy we have an organ case made of maple, which is very nice.”

pictures Orgelbau Kuhn AG, Männedorf

We eventually move into the assembly hall, and stand in front of the massive organ for the Royal Academy of Music.  It is about 7 meters tall, unstained. 

I ask, what can it do at this point?

“It’s not playable because the whole action is not built into it, and also all the small pipes are not inside yet,” Lardon explains. “We just assemble it here so when we install it on site then we are much faster, because we can just take it apart and put it together as it was before.  And also we have to put it together here, because the whole action is mechanical, which means that from each key to each pallet inside the organ there is a mechanical connection with thin, wooden slats, and we have to make all of those, and we have to measure them.”

This organ cost about £900,000, funded in large-part, Lardon says, by money earned in a benefit concert held by Elton John, apparently an organ fan.

The real work is inside

In another room, a worker appears to be tuning organ pipes.

“Not really tuning, but voicing,” Lardon says. “Because when the pipes come from the pipe workshop they don’t make any sounds yet.  So they have to be adjusted so that they make the right sound.  This is only preliminary.  All of the work he is doing—he is just making the pipes work, but the real work is done inside the organ itself, on-site.”

Organ builder Claude Lardon says people don’t often realize that there is more to an organ than meets the eye. 

You might see only 50 pipes on the outside, but there are hundreds or thousands more inside. 

It’s a craft, an art form.

These pipes and the rest of the Royal Academy of Music organ will be installed beginning in July, but it won’t be ready for show time until months of fine tuning get it just right.

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