Growing up in Ohio, John Brombaugh remembers being fascinated watching the church organist. Standing next to the console, John was allowed to flick the blower switch off when the postlude ended.
When he was 10, his father chaired the committee to replace that old tracker organ, which was considered too hard to play. John tagged along with his father during the selection process.
Now 61, Brombaugh is considered one of the world's significant organ-builders. His 61 organs can be found in 27 states, in Europe, Canada and soon in Japan. A fine example of his craft leads his congregation every Sunday at Central Lutheran, Eugene, Ore.
In his workshop on the banks of the Willamette River in Eugene, Brombaugh talked with The Lutheran about his craft and the unique contribution organs have made to Christian worship for more than 1,000 years.
Brombaugh studied electrical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. After college he worked for Baldwin Piano and Organ Co., where he was granted seven patents on electronic organs. Excited by his work, Brombaugh pursued a master's degree at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., studying electrical engineering and acoustics.
But listening to recordings by organist E. Power Biggs converted Brombaugh to tracker action pipe organs — a technology from the Middle Ages that has caught on again in recent decades because of its beautiful sound and the control it gives the organist. At age 27 he began learning this ancient craft, working as an apprentice with the renown American organ builders Fritz Noack and Charles Fisk near Boston and as a journeyman with Rudolf von Beckerath in Hamburg, Germany.
On a tracker action organ, the organist's finger motion directly opens the pipes via mechanical linkage between the key and pipe. Such organs had been all but replaced by electric action systems early in this century. Using their ingenuity, builders such as Brombaugh found ways around the limitations of the late 19th-century trackers. Now, he believes modern tracker organs have become the best means to assist congregations in worship.
"To my ear, nothing is more wonderful than the sound of a preadolescent kid's voice," Brombaugh says. "And nothing imitates that sound as well as a finely voiced organ pipe — the kind you can still hear in the ancient organs from Bach's time and before.
"That may explain why this instrument that's more than 1,000 years old is still around. I'm building something that's been with our civilization for a long, long time.
"The historic organs of western Europe, particularly those in Holland and north Germany, have influenced me because they work so well with the congregation's singing." Other organs, such as those in France and Italy, were often geared for solo performance.
His most recent work, a half-million dollar organ for Memorial Chapel at Duke University, Durham, N.C., is based on Italian ideas from the early 16th century. "Although Italian organs aren't very suitable for congregational singing since the Italians seldom sang in church, their organs provided a wonderful, quiet background music while the priests were at the altar doing the mass," Brombaugh says.
"When I was asked by Duke to provide a complement to the 7,000-pipe organ at the chapel front, I suggested, 'Aha, let's try something Italian that isn't so loud.' " His customers usually give him the freedom to build what he thinks should be done rather than dictating a particular design.
Walking through his workshop, Brombaugh pulls out a pipe from an organ built a dozen years before Columbus arrived in America. He blows into it and smiles broadly at the tone. "This pipe is from 1480 and is among the oldest on this continent. It was loaned to me by an organ-builder friend," he says. "I also have several pipes made in 1539 by Hendrik Niehoff, probably the most significant early Dutch organ-builder. Bach knew one of his organs when he was a kid in Lüneburg. We used them as models when we first started making pipes in our workshop."
Brombaugh has studied these and other instruments carefully, even analyzing how much tin, lead and other metals are in the alloy. He incorporates this knowledge in his organ-building.
"In the United States we've made major discoveries about what made the ancient historic organs sound so wonderful," he says. "Many of those ideas were lost 200 years ago as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The premier American organ-builders have enough work backlogged that they're not afraid to share secrets with even their toughest competitors. European builders would never do this.
"American customers used to think that if you wanted a good organ you had to get it from a European builder. But our shop and several other American builders have absolutely beaten the socks off the Europeans.
"We build the entire organ in this shop except for the screws, the electric motor for the blower and some small parts that come from Europe." The naturals of the manual keys are covered with cow shinbones, not ivory, he explains, because they don't yellow like ivory.
Brombaugh and his six assistants do all the woodwork, metal work and artistic flourishes on their organ cases, based on designs he works out on a computer.
What gives me personal satisfaction is knowing that the organs I've built will help people's worship experience," he says. "I don't want to go to church where the organ ends up being a concert machine.
"On the other hand, the organ is not really part of the general modern musical sphere. It's a difficult problem."
Brombaugh notes that organs aren't successful in concert halls because these rooms typically lack the necessary reverberation. "If you took an orchestra into a church with a long reverberation time, the sound would be a mishmash," he says. "But organs work well there. Eight-five percent of how an organ sounds is due to the acoustical quality of the room it's in."
After touring the shop, Brombaugh drives to a room that houses one of his organs, Central's sanctuary. Sitting at the console, he demonstrates how he thinks Bach should sound. He's not really an organist, he apologizes.
But as the last chord reverberates in the empty church, one marvels at the broad range of gifts God has given him — musician, metallurgist, woodworker, historical detective, engineer, artist, designer — all to help worshipers sing God's praises.
© 2015 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers