Vatican Corner 02-04-18

Following the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the entire St. Peter’s Basilica began to be used for celebrations. Before that time, papal celebrations were held in the Sistine Chapel, which had no organ, or were held in the Basilica at the Altar of the Chair, that has a mechanical pipe organ, built in 1954, refurbished in 1962, and is still in use today. That pipe organ fits its acoustic space well with no need for amplification and is used for smaller celebrations. However, serving the enormous space of the entire Basilica, which houses approximately 12,000 people and which has interior dimensions of 694 feet by 451 feet at the trancept (cross center), the problem becomes how to fill the entire space with organ music and high-quality sound. Also there was the new problem of conveying that sound to international audiences. The experts at Vatican Radio came up with a public address system for the Basilica, and microphones pick up the pipe organ and amplify its sound. However in doing so came the problems of frequency distortion, background noise and the extreme loudness of the organ near the pipes while being too so# in the rear. Also coordination between the organ and choir was nearly impossible. The Vatican’s search for better solutions has been on going. The Allen Organ Company of Macungie, Pennsylvania has been a market leader of “pipeless” organs in the United States for 70 years. The company was founded by Jerome Markowitz and is still managed by the Markowitz family. Today more than 70,000 Allen organs have been sold and they are found in 70 countries. In the early days the organs used vacuum tubes and coils, but today they are fully digital. Allen organs have been used for papal Masses including the Mass in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 2015. But the Allen Organ company really caught the attention of the director of the Sistine Chapel Choir during a U.S. tour in September, 2017 when they rented an Allen organ for a concert in Detroit. The choir maestro, Monsignor Massimo Palombella was so impressed by the sound of the organ he had his associates contact the company about getting an Allen organ for the Vatican. While significantly less expensive than a pipe organ, the Allen digital organ provides pipe organ sounds and a flexible audio system, with an internal computer audio board and speaker system that could connect to the Basilica’s PA system . The organ system is also easily movable so it can be used for performances around the Vatican complex. The Allen Organ company decided to donate a new digital organ to the Vatican and to customized it so that it could be moved and plugged in simply and quickly. The Sistine Chapel Choir made it their exclusive organ for papal celebrations at St. Peter’s. The president of the Allen Organ company – Steven Markowitz said Allen organs have been installed in many prestigious institutions over the years. Now, being able to place the Vatican at the top of this list is amazing and humbling. He said the first Allen church organ was installed by my father in a small parish church in Allentown. The Company has come a long way. Mr. Markowitz who is Jewish, said he felt privileged to be asked to help with the music for the Pope’s church. The organ made its debut on December 24, 2017 at “Midnight Mass” at St. Peter’s Basilica.

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