An instrument of international renown
The organs that have led worship in The Basilica demonstrate a unique and colorful evolution in sight and sound. The present Wicks (Willis) organ, dedicated in 1950, differs vastly from its predecessor, a Kilgen Orchestral Theater Organ which allegedly came from New York City. There is little clear evidence to trace what instrument may have been used when The Basilica first opened for public worship services.
The "Centennial" organ
The present Basilica organ was installed in 1949 as Wicks Opus 3047 and was formally dedicated to the Glory of God on October 15, 1950.
Mario Salvador performed the inaugural organ concert to a capacity crowd. Salvador was born in the Dominican Republic and emerged as an internationally-known concert organist who also served as organist at the Saint Louis Cathedral, Saint Louis, Missouri. The October 15 dedicatory concert was televised live on KSTP-TV from The Basilica and was the first remote live television broadcast in the Twin Cities region!
The 1950 dedication of the organ coincided with the centennial of the founding of the Saint Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese in 1850. The title of "Centennial" organ was instantly bestowed upon the instrument. The Basilica organ is one of a few large Wicks organs installed throughout the United States during the 1930s and 1940s with the unique tonal influence of Englishman Henry Vincent Willis. Willis' lineage traces back to that of the famous English organ building tradition established by "Father Willis." This distinct tradition, to a large degree, was carried on in Willis' work on The Basilica organ, where he designed and scaled many of the organ's stops.
Contemporary descriptive material by Wicks demonstrates that the firm was following post-war organ building trends by the inclusion of:
- Choir division’s Koppelflute 4’
- The Great division’s Rohrflute 4’
- Complete diapason choruses through mixtures in the Great, Swell and Pedal divisions
The organ evolves
Enlarged by some 26 ranks between 1981-2002, the instrument expanded to 72 ranks across 4 manuals and pedal. While preserving all the original pipe work and tonal characteristics, the additions provided important new tonal possibilities:
- two completely independent cornet registers, of which one is found in the Solo division on 8 inches of wind, useful for outlining melodies to clearly lead congregational singing
- a very large scale 32’ Bombarde in the pedal on heavy wind with an independent blower and reservoir. The en-chamade Herald Fanfare is tuba-scale and modeled after examples found on Willis organs in English town halls. Voiced on 25 inches of wind, it is the most commanding stop of its kind in the Upper Midwest.
The instrument has a plethora of original string and flute registers of varied color, intensity, and dynamic range. Over 40 ranks of mixtures and reeds, together with a mass of generous foundation stops, provide the possibility for dynamic gradations from the quietest whisper to thunderous full organ.
The instrument is superbly qualified for its widely varied liturgical roles in realizing a vast solo organ repertory, sensitively accompanying vocalists, choirs, and instruments, and--most importantly--giving support to the sung liturgy of the ministers and congregation.
The organ underwent a major renovation in 2008 that included the installation of an entirely new digital relay and console. The organ presently boasts 82 ranks across 4 manuals and pedal in six divisions. The new console boasts the latest technological efficiencies, providing a level of reliability and flexibility never before possible. Additionally, the console easily moves to concert and liturgical positions and complements The Basilica's Beaux-Arts interior, taking stylistic cues from late 19th and early 20th-century French examples while employing French-style terraced stop jambs.
All of the original Willis-influenced pipework remains unaltered and carefully preserved. New registers have been added to compliment this unique tonal heritage.
In the news
The Basilica organ has garnered for itself a warm renown through its unique history, tonal beauty and unparalleled acoustical environs.
- It was showcased to thousands of professional church musicians during both the 1980 and 2008 National Conventions of the American Guild of Organists, with recitals and services played by John Scott, Elke Voelker, Cristina Garcia Banegas, and Tom Winpenny.
- In 2002, it was host to a once-in-a-lifetime 8-hour marathon national performance tour of the complete organ works of French organist Olivier Messiaen. The program was played by Paul Jacobs entirely from memory and aired live on Minnesota Public Radio. Jacobs is the Chair of the Organ Department at the Julliard School.
- It has been host to the annual Young Organ Artists recital series, featuring the Graduate and Undergraduate students of long-standing Basilica organist Dr. Kim Kasling, instructor of organ and university organist, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, MN.
- It has been featured on numerous CD recordings: Charles Tournemire organs works, L’Orgue Mystique, on the Sonus-Luxque label; the Basilica Cathedral Choir, All That Have Life and Breath Praise Ye the Lord! and Pax Civitatis: A Basilica Christmas, both on the Basilica Press label.
- It was featured, in part, at the first Twin Cities Aids benefit concert.
- The organ, in addition to being a thrilling solo instrument, regularly accompanies the Basilica Cathedral Choir, directed by Teri Larson, Director of Music
- International choirs have come to perform with the Basilica organ, among them, the famous King’s College Choir and the Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.
- It has been frequently broadcasted on Minnesota Public Radio’s Pipedreams, a weekly radio program featuring the variety of organ music and organs found throughout the world.