Vassar Today

Pipe Dreams

By Lindsay Dawson ’05

Imagine ordering a product that arrives in thousands of tiny pieces that were carefully cut, filed, and bent into shape over the course of a year. After shipping, the pieces need to be painstakingly assembled and tested. In order to function properly, the item then requires a specially modified location with sophisticated temperature controls. Vassar’s newest pipe organ fits this description.

In February, the organ made its performance debut in Skinner Hall of Music in a recital by Merellyn Gallagher, Vassar College organist and lecturer in music, and Davis McCarthy '05. The instrument was custom-built over 14 months by Tacoma, Washington-based Paul Fritts, whose firm creates a single organ at a time. The new organ boasts 2,418 pipes, each built from scratch. To accommodate the organ, the stage area of the recital hall was reshaped and air-conditioning added. Additionally, grillwork from the previous organ’s screen was added to the back wall of the auditorium to generate better acoustics.

The organ arrived at its new home in August, and Fritts personally completed the installation and voicing process in November. A generous grant from the Marian and Speros Martel Foundation funded the instrument’s construction as well as the renovations to the recital hall. At a celebratory concert on May 10, 2003, the hall will be officially renamed in honor of Mary Anna Fox Martel 1890, a former music student and lover of pipe organs.

Unlike the grand organ in Vassar’s chapel, the newest addition is best suited for Baroque music. According to Gallagher, “The larger, more universal instrument, built for the chapel in 1967, will remain the magnificent all-purpose instrument that it is. The new Fritts instrument is particularly suited for Bach and composers around him, but also for 16th through early 19th century organ literature, music that is perhaps more appropriate for a smaller space.”

The recital hall in the Skinner Hall of Music houses Vassar's new organ.

Inspired by Central German instruments from the Baroque era, the organ features decorative gold leaf carvings ornately crafted onto its top. The organ’s historical elements reflect Fritts’ design philosophy and interest in European organs. He said, “Like any instrument in the orchestra, the organ must relate to its heritage.”

The organ has already been showcased in a series of dedicatory recitals. Two were held in February, featuring Gallagher and organist James David Christie; another is set for March 29, with a performance by Joan Lippincott. For more information, contact the Vassar College Department of Music at 845.437.7294 or point your browser to, and click on Concerts and Events.