Is Hauptwerk Ready for Large Venues?
An exposè by
Drew A. Worthen
With the ever-growing presence of Hauptwerk in the organ world, you might be asking yourself, "Is Hauptwerk ready for use in churches and public spaces?"
In a word, "yes." If you know what you're getting into.
It's not lost on me that the subject of Hauptwerk, at least amongst some professional organists, is seen as “taboo," particularly when you make an allusion to using it in a church or other public space. Whilst I have utmost respect for these people, and their views, there really is no need to debate whether or not Hauptwerk “is or isn’t” an organ, or engage in the even more cringe-worthy discussion of, "Which is better “Hauptwerk or Allen?" Instead, I think it is important to understand that this is an entirely personal preference - something that has far too many variables at play to be boiled down to any simple "right or wrong" answer. I so frequently get these kinds of subjective questions - questions that I don't have the ability answer for you. People read about the Greenwood UMC Opus 1 installation, email me, and want to know more about it - its limitations, its successes, do I regret it, do I love it, will it work in their church - and inevitably I have to write an essay of an email in response to them, often addressing many of the same questions each time. As a result, I felt I should pen this brief exposé, pulling back the veil and revealing a few insights and honest takeaways that you might find valuable, should you be considering purchasing or building a Hauptwerk-based VPO for your church or venue.
I also want to share our experience at Greenwood UMC, speaking as both the creator of the instrument, and as the church's organist. Now that the organ has been through a few years of constant use (after being completed in 2019), there are some pros and cons that I feel are worth discussing - and some honest takeaways - in the hopes that it helps others who may find themselves toying with the idea of Hauptwerk. We (the congregation) built Opus 1 ourselves, in its entirety, based on my own designs. This alone was a tremendous cost-savings, and should be noted straight away. Commissioning a brand new Hauptwerk instrument will be vastly more expensive but potentially much, much more satisfying if you aren't up to the challenge of doing it yourself. It is, without doubt, a monumental task, capable of shattering all expectations if done properly, or, being deeply underwhelming if poorly executed. As with any of these decisions, do you your homework.
Now, first thing’s first - this is NOT a pipe organ. Don't try to make it one. I couldn't begin to be so dense as to not have the utmost respect for true pipe organ builders; their work, their lifetimes worth of skills and knowledge, the marvelous attention to detail, and the unmatched degree of artistic and scientific merit inherent in the great organ builders past and present. I’ve often been told, in regards to Opus 1, “if you put a pipe facade up, no one would even know it’s digital.” While I appreciate the sentiment of that compliment - in regards to its tonal qualities - I have no interest in trying to fool anyone. It would be an illusion - a trick. To me, it would be dishonest. Hauptwerk VPOs, like all electronic organs, are without question, “emulators.” It’s analogous to a keyboard vs. a grand piano. It’s not a fair comparison from the start, no matter how good it may sound. Comparing even the nicest electronic keyboards, from the likes of Nord or Roland, to a Fazioli F308 or Bösendorfer Imperial is in no way a fair comparison. We are attempting to compare two different things. Make no mistake, however, as this not to say that one is right and one is wrong. No. They are simply two different things, suited for two different applications, with different capabilities. Hauptwerk is merely an outgrowth of the advancements in organs and technology of the 21st Century.
Where the “value” starts to really manifest itself, at least for us at Greenwood UMC, was in the realization that no matter how badly we may have wanted a pipe organ, of good quality, and of sufficient size, it was not - even in a million years, remotely possible - used, repurposed, newly commissioned - they were just too expensive. It wasn't going to be possible. The structural modifications needed for the building alone would have far exceeded financial limitations. Not to mention also, for us, it would need to call into question a certain matter of ethics. Why would a church, in a community with ordinary folks, some of whom are struggling to provide for their families, and in which there is even at least one homeless child or person, find it morally acceptable to spend hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars on a musical instrument? Even as an ardent lover of the pipe organ, its history, its place at the heart of the Christian church, and being a true advocate for the instrument, I could not justify the morality of that. The congregation of Greenwood UMC truly understood this distinction, and I greatly respect them for it. As someone of the ever-elusive Millennial Generation, I can attest that like many people my age, my greatest disdain for churches, generally speaking, is hypocrisy.
That said, we had an obligation to be financially responsible.
In addition, when we began the endeavor of searching out the possibilities for a new instrument to replace or repair our failing 1960's Allen, we realized that even that was costly - and at the end of the day, we’d have spent many thousands rebuilding a 1960’s analog Allen back to 1960’s technology. Why? I seriously doubt many still use a phone or television from 1960 - and for the same reason. This eludes to the next big issue people have with digital organs - longevity.
Yes, technology evolves fast. I work in commercial technology for my “career,” and I understand this all-too-well. Yes, computer technology quickly goes obsolete. As a result, many organ purists immediately point to this as the achilles heel of digital organs. However, if you consider for a moment, hypothetically of course, that I can take an axe to Opus 1, chop it into a million pieces, and rebuild it from the ground up at least 10 times before I come close to the cost of a comparable digital organ or small pipe organ, then suddenly the whole cost to longevity question starts to become very weak. And, at this point the most bleak of bleak realities begins to set in - "Will this particular church, or your church even exist in another 20-30 years? Will your church be around long enough to justify a musical instrument in the 6 to 7 figure price range?"
As churches close up in record numbers, it begs the question of whether or not the old “pipe organs last hundreds of years” argument is even relevant in many cases.
Computer and audio technology is also constantly improving - getting faster, more powerful, cheaper, and more accessible than ever. Even though I work in this industry full time, seeing it first hand, it’s still mind-boggling, even to me, what is possible now with audio and video that was nothing more than a pipe-dream (no pun intended) even 5 years ago. Having 56 audio channels (like Opus 1 has) was laughable no more than few years ago, but now isn't the least bit difficult to obtain.... with free two-day shipping, even! Imagine being able to say that about a pipe organ!
The Greenwood UMC congregation loves music. In all forms. And so do I. This happens to be one of the reasons I absolutely love the place. It also contributes to why the Hauptwerk organ has been so successful there - variety! There’s nothing that isn’t playable on the thing. And, speaking as a not-so-long-ago student, having the ability to hear and experience the differences in organs across various centuries and nationalities has been eye-opening to say the least. Albeit, not the “real deal” (and of course there’s no true substitute for the “real deal”) but it is remarkably valuable nonetheless.
The drawbacks, of course there are some and are worth pointing out. In my experience, the biggest issue that tends to be the most critical, is that you really have to be your own first line of tech support - which should also be said of traditional pipe organs, might I add. Any instrumentalist should, at the very least, know a little about servicing and maintaining their own instrument. Understandably, this is hard for most churches however, to have a qualified person on hand who knows how to work on the organ. On the other hand though, this kind of technology is much more “second nature” to me and my generation than has ever been before - and I bet it only gets more and more that way. That said, any Hauptwerk organ, built well, using quality components, should give you many years of reliable operation. In the event something goes wrong, having a basic understanding of how the instrument functions will go a long way to helping you resolve the issue quickly. Keep in mind that almost all of the components within a Hauptwerk organ can be replaced in a couple of days, as very little is proprietary within them.
There are performance limitations as well, without question. Any organist will immediately comment on the “feel.” The “mechanics” of a real pipe organ are missing. There can also be an inherent “this organ doesn’t belong in this room” quality in sometimes, depending on voicing, the sample set being used, etc. Take the big Caen Cavaille-Coll set that we have at Greenwood UMC, for example. The church is a wooden A-frame building in central Indiana - there’s just an odd “instrument to room” pairing, there. Any trained organist will notice this immediately. Close your eyes, however, and suddenly you couldn’t care less. The sound is transportive! It's as if you’ve immediately landed on the other side of the world, standing frozen in the transept of a high gothic cathedral, having your soul (and teeth) rattled to the core. It's amazing. With the inherent delay in audio/midi/data processing, there’s also a very scant amount of lag - making extremely precise playing more challenging - especially when using sample sets that were recorded at some distance from the organ pipe. The combined distance recorded in the sample, plus the MIDI/data/audio latency, and the distance from your own speakers (assuming they are far away from you) can all add up to create delay. This isn't always an issue and isn't something necessarily unique to Hauptwerk, as I’ve seen a few examples of poorly placed pipe work, poor chamber layouts/locations, and such contribute to the same kind of problems in actual pipe organs. Any competent builder should know how to best-address these issues before agreeing to take on your project.
All this said, the Hauptwerk organ at Greenwood UMC has been everything we could have ever asked for, and so much more. I am so grateful to be alive in a day and age where something like this is possible for us - if we didn’t have Hauptwerk, the only other option for us was to pretty much have nothing, and what an absolute shame that would have been.
If you are curious to know more about Hauptwerk, you’re always invited to come to Indiana and try any of my instruments out. See for yourself. Play for yourself. Realize the pros and cons first hand, and make an informed decision for yourself. I am always happy to have guests and visitors stop by and play for a while.
We have been nothing but thrilled and amazed, and it has been one of the greatest things to happen to our congregation in my tenure, and had it not been for COVID, we would have had at least a dozen concerts/recitals this year - something that doesn’t happen anywhere else in our area, and something we've never had up to this point - we are one of only a couple of churches in our area with such capacities, let alone the desire to have a grand organ. Hopefully we will return back to our live concerts and events very soon.
The organ dedication concert drew a crowd of roughly 300 people - to a sanctuary that typically has less than 100 in attendance on any given Sunday morning. To say there’s an untapped love for the organ in our area is an understatement. Visitors came from all over the country, and the attention generated by the organ has spread the name of Greenwood UMC even further than I could have imagined. That is, undoubtedly a measure of success - in all ways, this was and remains a true success.