Bridge to History

Celebration of Oberlin’s Bridge Memorial Organ begins with Oct. 16 recital; continues Oct. 30-31.

October 13, 2021

Erich Burnett

Bridge Organ in Fairchild Chapel.
Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

Oberlin is celebrated the world over for its prodigious collection of pipe organs—some 32 of them in all, representing 500 years of building practice across Europe.

This month, the celebration turns inward as the conservatory honors the 40th anniversary of one of its most remarkable instruments: The Mary McIntosh Bridge Memorial Organ, Opus 25, which has been perched since 1981 in the gallery of Fairchild Chapel, Oberlin’s Gothic-inspired worship and performance space in Bosworth Hall. Four October concerts will pay tribute to the organ and utilize it extensively.

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

It all starts Saturday, October 16, with a 4:30 p.m. faculty and guest recital in which Oberlin historical performance faculty members Jonathan Moyer, Mark Edwards, and Christa Rakich will take turns at the organ for works by the influential Dutch composer and organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. Also featured will be guest keyboardist Kevin Birch, who will perform on a newly commissioned clavichord that shares the same keyboard layout and other characteristics of the Bridge Organ. The concert falls exactly on the 400th anniversary of Sweelinck’s death. Visit the campus events calendar for a complete list of works to be performed.

Inspired by the early 17th century organs of northern Germany and the Netherlands, which were played by Sweelinck and contemporaries such as Michael Praetorius, Oberlin’s Bridge Organ is considered one of the most significant historically inspired organs of the 20th century—and one that inspired the creation of countless other instruments that followed.

It was built by John Brombaugh, one of the nation’s most acclaimed organ builders, who crafted some 66 pipe organs during a career that spanned more than four decades. Early in his career, Brombaugh translated his fascination with early organs of Europe into his own work—at a time when historical building practices were dismissed by many. Oberlin’s Bridge Organ is tuned in mean tone, a nod to organs of the Baroque and Renaissance periods, but an extreme rarity among modern organs at the time of its construction.

Jonathan Moyer.
Jonathan Moyer

Moyer, chair of Oberlin’s Organ Department, cites the instrument’s three-tiered legacy: It is renowned for the quality of its build, for the research it has supported in the study of tuning systems and the interpretation of early music repertoire, and for the countless Oberlin organists whose musical lives were changed through access to the Bridge Organ.

“Its significance has been far reaching, perhaps most notably for the ways in which it opened up entirely new performance possibilities for organists without access to the finest historic organs of Europe,” says Moyer, himself a 2012 Artist Diploma graduate of Oberlin.

“For the musicians who have performed on this instrument over the past 40 years, it has had a profound influence on their playing, on their musicianship, and on their ability to interpret this music. There’s nowhere else in America where you can play the music of Sweelinck and Praetorius in this way.”

The celebration continues with a Saturday, October 30, recital in Fairchild Chapel by guest organist William Porter ’68, a former organ professor at Oberlin who presided over the installation of the Bridge Organ in 1981. He will be joined by longtime conservatory faculty member Michael Lynn on recorder.

It will be followed on Sunday, October 31, with a pair of events, also both in Fairchild: a 2:30 p.m. recital featuring Oberlin organ alumni, and a 7:30 vespers concert with Porter, faculty members Moyer and Rakich, and Collegium Musicum, Oberlin’s early music vocal ensemble, led by musicology professor Steven Plank.

Brombaugh is slated to return to Oberlin for the October 30-31 festivities.

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