University of Texas gets Aeolian-Skinner organ for Jessen Auditorium

To return the beast to life first took a 54-foot flatbed to truck it from Houston to Atlanta. Then it took 20,000 feet of electrical wire and the reconditioning of thousands of parts: 1,604 handmade pipes, 1,900 leather bits and “bellows,” 700 moving keys, knobs and pedals which were washed, stripped and restored. The work took four men 7,000 hours, over seven months.

This was just the halfway point for the University of Texas’ new Aeolian-Skinner organ. It was then shipped to Austin, to be reassembled in Jessen Auditorium over seven weeks and 1,000 hours.

We have forgotten how important organs once were. When synthesizers were created in the past century, they were imitating much of what the organ once did: creating an incredible variety of sounds, almost emulating an entire orchestra with its arsenal of triple keyboards and pipes.

So it followed that every church in every town in North America once spared little expense to purchase these daunting and versatile machines.

But in the age of miniaturization, many people don’t understand where the organ’s sound comes from. Robert Coulter, who restored the 1963 Aeolian-Skinner organ at UT, says “all they see is the console.” They don’t realize that by pressing keys, the organist is moving air through the huge pipes that line the back of a church or performance hall.

Coulter is a younger man than you might expect to be called a master organ builder. This is his 16th year in the business, after a lengthy apprenticeship period, and he has seen a panic in his industry subside. The organ is not in demand as it once was, but “the organ’s not going anywhere,” he says.

In fact, Coulter’s business is thriving. He employs four assistants who have full-time work and health benefits. Their work might trap them, immobilize them in crawl spaces, or have them squeezing an 18-foot-tall metal pipe into every available inch. (“For the first time in my career, I wasn’t sure I was going to get out,” Coulter’s assistant Andrew Moses said of one troubled spot.)

But mostly the work is “making sure each pipe is speaking properly,” Coulter says. “With a clean, clear tone.”

The UT organ is a relatively small instrument in the humongous world of organs. It replaces a similar Aeolian-Skinner organ that was removed from Jessen several years ago. The arrival of two of the organ world’s most accomplished and influential players, Gerre and Judith Hancock, sparked the organ department to new heights, and before he passed away in January 2012, one of Gerre Hancock’s greatest dreams was to see an organ return to Jessen Auditorium, where he attended UT’s music school as an undergraduate in the 1950s.

Speaking in the reverberating hall just outside Jessen, Judith Hancock is painting a picture of her late husband’s time in this building. “Gerre came here in the ’50s from Lubbock,” she says. “The music department had 150 students and 25 teachers!” Those numbers have now quadrupled.

She grins at the thought of the vibrant young virtuoso walking through this very hallway.

“It’s like his life began here,” Hancock says.

That Gerre Hancock was not alive to see the organ restored is a painful irony for his friends and the university community. For Judith Hancock especially, the December ceremony for the organ was little cause for celebration. “It’s awful,” she said.

And yet, she carried on at the organ’s inaugural concert, doggedly playing some of Gerre’s own arrangements of carols and showcasing what the instrument could do. “This instrument is more of a chamber instrument,” she says. “It’s also a very intimate room.” The hope is that this will expand the repertoire that UT organ students can play. Unlike the bigger organ in Bates Recital Hall, this one can pair easily with strings and brass, which need a more delicate sound.

Gerre Hancock’s dream became a reality thanks to the donation by an alumnus, the journalist Robert Sherrill. It was donated in honor of his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Sherrill, who received an MFA in music from UT in 1955.

Of course, an instrument of this magnitude does not come cheap. It was purchased for $20,000, from a merging Houston church, and its moves, restoration and installation brought the cost to $262,000 and change, with the bulk coming from Sherrill, save $80,000 from the College of Fine Arts.

Back in the marbled hallway Judith Hancock’s head emerges from the auditorium doors. “There is a dropped key,” she says to Coulter. “It’s been driving me nuts.” This stuck key is a casualty of dealing with wood screws and restored wood.

“By our estimate, the console had five to seven layers of lead-based enamel paint,” Coulter says. It had been removed, and Coulter’s team re-discovered the shimmering grain of maple and mahogany, which now shine brightly in the art-deco lines of Jessen Auditorium, drawing our eye from the breathing beast in the room above.

“It’s still scary,” Coulter laughs. “These are complicated machines.”

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Most read

  1. 1 Float Fest lineup includes Tame Impala, Bassnectar, Snoop Dogg, more | Austin Music Source
  2. 2 Paramore brought a fan on stage to sing ‘Misery Business&rs
  3. 3 Heading to the airport soon? Here are 5 new places to check out | Love's a Trip

More from Austin360