Digital History at Ursinus

"King of Instruments" Awes Audience

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"King of Instruments" Awes Audience


An account of the new Ursinus organ, named the Heefner Organ after its dedication ceremony. It details specifications of the organ and talks about the process of installing the organ into Bomberger auditorium in the summer of 1986.


Ursinusiana, Ursinus Bulletin, 1967-1987, January 1987, p 4.


1986, 1987




UC Bulletin, 1967-1987, January 1987

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The full polished tones of a brass ensemble washed over the Founders' Day audience in Bomberger Hall Auditorium. With authority and pomp, horns announced the first theme of a stately antiphonal piece by Eugene Gigout, bringing the music to a pinnacle.
Then came the answering voice of the new Heefner Memorial Organ, and a thrill ran through the standing-room-only crowd. This sound was not merely large; it was immense. Its penetrating, many-colored vibrations presented a vast range of peaks and valleys. The new organ was truly "king of instruments," as the Rev. Dr. John C. Shetler had said earlier in his dedicatory prayer.
The Founders' Day presentation of the Heefner Organ, and all the ceremony and celebration which surrounded it, were the culmination of months of painstaking work on the part of dozens of people. The organ, a gift of Mrs. Lydia V. Heefner of Perkasie in memory of her late husband, Russell E. Heefner, was built entirely by hand by Austin Organs Incorporated of Hartford, Conn. The instrument is an excellent one which will enable Ursinus to attract artists of world renown, and allow them to perform all literature composed over the centuries for organ. It is the second pipe organ to grace Bomberger Hall in the building's 95-year history, and promises to become known as one of the premier organs in the region. Mrs. Heefner's gift to the College has its origins in her love of music, and her affection for the institution from which her son, William F. Heefner, was graduated in 1942.
In creating the organ's tonal qualities, David Broome, Austin's tonal designer, worked closely with Mr. Heefner; John French, chair of the Ursinus College music department and recipient of the Heefner Chair of Music; and Douglas Tester, organist and director of the choirs at St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Abington, PA.
Work on the massive instrument had begun in Hartford last winter. By summer, construction of the organ had been completed at the Austin plant. Preparations now began at Ursinus. The electronic organ which had served the college since the late 40's was removed, and the stenciled pastel pink pipes--left as decorations from the original pipe organ-- were extracted from the Bomberger stage arch.
Back in Hartford, the completed instrument was dismantled for shipment in late July. By early August, the first truckload of pipes and parts arrived in Collegeville, giving rise to a new sub-culture of "organ groupies" on campus. For those who had regular business in Bomberger, hanging around the auditorium became a popular fall spectator sport. The organ seemed a gigantic puzzle to those watching the gradual placement of 3,593 pipes under the arch. And they observed that an organ builder must be part musician, part construction worker, part contortionist and part mechanical genius to perform all of the functions necessary in putting together such an instrument. Reassembly of the organ took three full months, and "voicings"-- the numerous minute adjustments made in the way the organ's mechanisms affect the sound coming from its pipes--continued through November.
About 50 individuals had a hand in building the instrument. Installation was done by teams from Austin Organ; Eisenhardt Mills of Easton, Pa., which built the casework; Gorski Construction Co. of Collegeville, and the Ursinus Maintenance staff. Hugh Sears of Austin directed the installation, assisted by Zoltan Zsitvay, a tonal finisher for the firm.
In its completed form, the organ's pipes are arranged in 62 ranks, each rank of a different basic size, composition and shape. The lengths of pipes within each rank progresses from shorter to taller. Some of the pipes are zinc; others, an alloy of tin and lead called pipe metal, and still others, wood. There are square pipes and stopped pipes. Their "speaking lengths" range from a quarter of an inch to 32 feet, while their actual physical lengths run from just under 20 feet for the lowest C at the center of the arch to one-and-a-third inches for the highest.
Such an organ is thousands of times more complicated than a piano. Because of the limitless combinations of tones which can be made through the pulling of stops, and the resulting harmonics, the highest vibrations from the organ are beyond the range of human hearing.
The organ has three manuals and 77 stops in four divisions--pedale, recit, grand, and positiv-- and the pipes and stops are enhanced by three electronic 32-foot stops, a 25-note set of chimes and a 61-note harp. The instrument is mounted on a framework of steel beams 20 feet above the floor, with arches rising to its apex 20 feet above that. Its beautifully ornate oak casework was designed and stained to match the existing oak and pine woodwork in Bomberger Hall. Together, organ and casework weigh about eight tons.
Formidable on its exterior, the Heefner Organ nevertheless has a fragile interior. It operates through an electropneumatic action system. Air is pumped through a series of ducts from the basement of Bomberger into its universal chests--pressurized compartments through which air passes into the pipes. The chests vary in the amount of pressure under which they operate depending upon the size of the pipes they serve. Regulators in the chest keep the pressure constant, whether one pipe or hundreds are being sounded.
Austin is the only organ manufacturer in the world which builds instruments whose internal workings may be directly observed from inside their chests., according to Mr. Zsitvay. This has the practical effect of allowing maintenance work to be done quickly and directly. A visit to one of these interior spaces is rather like a trip into the belly of a whale. There, mechanisms composed of thin strips of wood, tiny wires, felt-covered rectangular keys and circular pads allow air into the various pipes and control the combinations of stops as the organist touches keys and pulls knobs. The overall effect is one of an immense loom weaving infinitely varigated music, creating endless combinations of sound.
In her official presentation of the organ to the College on Founders' Day, Mrs. Heefner said that she and her husband had formed "a lasting respect" for Ursinus over the years. "We were agreed to do something that would reflect our gratitude," she said. "I know that he would be pleased by what I am doing today. I am pleased to present this pipe organ to Ursinus College. May it serve the College well. May the music that it makes uplift the hearts of all who listen."

Original Format

Ursinus Bulletin article


heefner organ installation article.jpg


“"King of Instruments" Awes Audience,” Digital History at Ursinus, accessed March 3, 2021,