By Bradley Johnson
The pipe organ of Concordia Lutheran Church began its life in 1903, having been completed and installed in the former church during August of that year. The organ was originally built by Henry Pilcher’s Sons organ builders of Louisville, KY. Henry Pilcher (1798-1880) was an English organ builder who came to the United States in 1832. Pilcher established his firm in Louisville in 1874, after relocating from Chicago due to the city’s great fire of 1871. Henry Pilcher and his descendents became known for instruments of exceptional quality. The Pilcher firm built approximately 2000 instruments for churches all across the United States, with more than 100 of those having been built for churches of Louisville, KY. Henry Pilcher and his descendents built pipe organs for 122 years, until the firm closed on June 30, 1944.
Concordia’s organ was built as a 2 manual and pedal instrument of mechanical or ‘tracker’ action, consisting of 10 ranks (sets) of pipes. The first recital was performed one month after its installation on Sunday, September 6, 1903, by a Professor C. Rupprecht of Chicago. The original program for this recital exists in Concordia’s archives. According to the factory books of Henry Pilcher’s Sons (which are now owned by Miller Pipe Organ Company of Louisville, KY), Concordia’s organ is listed as #454. The factory book reads:
#454 Evangelical Lutheran Church, Louisville, Kentucky:
Total Cost: $1200.00
For approximately the first 30 years of the organ’s life, the wind supply was generated by individuals who pumped the organ’s bellows manually. These bellows were located on the back of the organ’s case, and the feet of each individual would be strapped to a bellow (one per foot). As noted in the factory book, the organ was equipped with a ‘bellows signal’ which the organist would use to signal for replenishment of the wind supply. Sometime between 1903 and 1930, a water powered system replaced the manual pumping of the bellows, however, no specific documentation of this change exists in Concordia’s archives.
In 1930, “Concordia Evangelical Lutheran Church” built its present sanctuary. According to correspondence of Concordia’s archives, several different options were considered for the future of the organ. The decision was made to relocate the organ to the new sanctuary in its original condition and specification, with the exception of a new electric blower (which is still intact in Concordia’s basement), replacing the water powered system. The organ was placed on the west side of the chancel (where the Concordia Ringers are presently situated), and the choir was placed on the east side. The organ and choir functioned in this capacity for approximately 54 years before the organ was relocated to its present situation on the east side of the chancel.
In June 1973, while organist/choirmaster at Concordia, Mark Brombaugh began a project of rebuilding the organ tonally. This tonal rebuild involved the complete change of all manual pipes from its original specification to a more German Baroque specification. This revision enlarged the organ from 10 ranks to 14, but did not alter the organ’s playing action. With this revision, the organ’s ability to support congregational singing was significantly enhanced, and also allowed for a wider variety of organ literature. According to a historical document written by Lynn Thompson, a former organist of Concordia, this project was called “finished” on December 9, 1973 when Mr. Brombaugh performed a dedicatory recital on the organ. No such recital program of that year exists in Concordia’s archives. However, references to the need for further revisions appear in bulletins from 1974. Mark Brombaugh and the three other men who assisted with this renovation grew in stature to become well known among the finest of American organ builders. Their names and the following inscription can be found inside the swell division of the organ:
Revised all manual pipes of this Pilcher organ in 1973 and 1975 to obtain a sound to the praise & glory of God alone!
The new specification of the organ after this revision:
In 1983, a mechanical rebuild of the organ became necessary to insure its dependability. According to a letter dated November 14, 1983, Concordia accepted a bid from the Steiner/Reck firm of Louisville to complete this work. The Steiner/Reck firm was engaged to rebuild the organ’s action, replace the badly deteriorated, original, 27 note pedalboard to a 30 note pedalboard, and to relocate the organ to its present situation on the east side of the chancel.
According to correspondence between Concordia and Steiner/Reck, several options were considered for the placement of the organ due to acoustical and visual considerations. All options were considered, and the decision was made to place the organ on the back wall of the east side of the chancel, where it presently sits. In fact, as mentioned in a letter from an Elder of Concordia stating this decision to Steiner/Reck, this was the plan for accommodating an organ when the church was built. The relocation of the organ was in response to a need to have the choir, its conductor and the organ much closer to one another, in addition to a need for “more sound” from the organ. Just after this project’s completion, Mark Lohmeyer, Concordia’s organist at that time, performed a dedicatory recital on Sunday, September 23, 1984. That program exists in Concordia’s archives.
August 2003 marked the organ’s 100th anniversary, and was celebrated with a recital performed by Concordia’s present organist, Bradley Johnson, on Founder’s Day. During 2006, minor restorations were carried out to restore several of the keytops on the manuals, refinish some of the wood work around the manuals, and to straighten the feet of several front façade pipes due to slight sagging over a period of years. Additional support was installed to these pipes to prevent such in the future.
In July 2008, a proposal was presented by Webber & Bourne Organbuilders to modify the organ’s present specification to include two new ranks (sets) of reed pipes. One set, a Trumpet 8’ would be added to the Swell division, and the other, a Fagotto 16’, would be added to the Pedal division. This proposal addressed a particular tonal need for Concordia’s organ since it lacked reed pipes altogether. These 2 ranks would offer greater support to the strong singing of a growing congregation, greater variety of sound, and to further enhance the organ’s ability to accommodate an even greater variety of organ literature. This proposal was accepted and agreed upon by Concordia and Webber & Bourne in November 2008 at a price of $30,450.00. The work for this modification began in early spring of 2009. The organ played for the first time with one set of its new pipes in July 2009. Later that year, the organ played for the first time with both sets of new pipes on Christmas Eve. With these 2 additions, the organ now consists of 16 ranks. During the final stages of this project, a recital was performed by Bradley Johnson on Sunday, February 14, 1010 (Founder’s Day) to celebrate the new additions, and Concordia’s rich music life. With a unique history, and over 100 years of service, Concordia’s pipe organ continues to sound as a testament to the rich musical heritage of the Lutheran church.
The present specification of 16 ranks: