Piping up

By Michael Visontay

Amy Johansen celebrates an important organ donation.
Image of Amy Johansen

Amy Johansen in front of the new pipes.

Amy Johansen beams as she takes me on a tour of one of her “offices”. Hers is no ordinary job – she is the University Organist and Carillonist – so her offices are anything but ordinary: the Great Hall organ and the Clavier Room of the carillon. We are at the organ office where the German-made organ, built in 1972, is being given fresh vibrancy with a new stop and a major cleaning, all to mark the 40th anniversary of its construction.

The centrepiece of the restoration is a shiny, brass trumpet stop (a sequence of pipes of similar tone, one for each note of the keyboard). Made in Germany, and consisting of 58 pipes, the trumpet stop was shipped out in crates and mounted horizontally, and very visibly, in the front of the organ. The new trumpet stop, to be called the “Chancellor’s Trumpet”, is a project generously funded by the Chancellor’s Committee in honour of Lady Joyce Black, wife of a former chancellor, Sir Hermann Black, and an organ and carillon student at the University in her student days.

But the majority of the 12-week process is being spent on the less glamorous task of cleaning the 4000 pipes. The cleaning is laborious and risky, says Johansen. Three of the largest front pipes had sunk and needed to be repaired. These zinc pipes are six metres long, weigh around 60kg each and require three strong people to lift them out of their position and reinstall them. Every single pipe has to be taken out and cleaned, then re-voiced and tuned.

The work was carried out by two teams of organ repairers sent out by the manufacturer, Rudolf von Beckerath, from Hamburg in the north of Germany; two teams because neither was allowed to stay longer than six weeks each due to government visa restrictions. The first team was Siegmund Tessmer and Anja Sattler, who showed great enthusiasm for the task, and music in general.

The Great Hall organ compares well with those in Europe, they agree, in sound and size. But is it the biggest in Australia?

“No, much larger are the organs in the Sydney Town Hall (where Amy’s husband Robert Ampt is the organist), the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne Town Hall.” Amy was born in the USA but speaks with an American accent so mild that she could pass for Scandinavian, like her surname.

Image of organ repair

The organ repairers at work

During my tour, the name of Johann Sebastian Bach is mentioned often – he wrote much of his music for the instrument. Both the repairers and Amy are huge fans. “The Chancellor once told me that she didn’t know what she would have been without music, Bach’s in particular,” she says with relish.

As Amy takes me around to inspect the repair work, she delights in regaling me with interesting trivia about her instruments. Did I know that the expressions ‘pull out all the stops’ comes from the organ and, ‘goes like the clappers’ from the bells of the carillon? Or that the new trumpet stop will give the organ its 54th stop, the same as the number of bells in the carillon?

Anyone wanting to hear what the enhanced and cleaner organ sounds like can come to a gala 40th anniversary concert on 4 December. The program will feature music by – you guessed it – Bach, among others. And, of course, the official debut of the Chancellor’s Trumpet.

Images of the restoration

SAM celebrates the beautiful addition to the University organ with a photo gallery of the craftsmen at work. Click on the thumbnails below to view the full-sized image.