The Wofford College Organ
One of the most valuable treasures possessed by Wofford College is the beautiful pipe organ in Leonard Auditorium/Chapel. Installed in 1997, it has not been seen or heard by most of our alumni, and many in our campus community may not fully appreciate what it is and represents.
In 1996 Dr. William H. Willimon (B.A. 1968), then Campus Minister at Duke University, notified then President Lesesne of a potential gift available to Wofford: a fine pipe organ built in 1969 by the Holtkamp firm of Cleveland, Ohio. Walter Holtkamp himself had designed the instrument specifically for the Duke Memorial Chapel before his death in 1962. At that time he was recognized as probably the greatest builder of organs in the world, rivaled only by the German builder Rudolph von Beckerath of Hamburg. But Walter Holtkamp was more widely known, and his international reputation had become secure throughout the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. He led the organ reform movement that brought pipes out into the open.
Dr. Lesesne invited me to drive to Durham during spring break, 1996, to examine the organ at Duke, play it, and measure its dimensions carefully to see if it would be suitable for our needs at Wofford. It stood in a stone Gothic bay within the cathedral-like Duke Memorial Chapel. The console was on the floor at the bottom; above it rose two tiers of oak-encased chests with pipes ascending to a height of some 28 feet. The stone bay measured exactly 8-1/2 feet wide. I had previously measured the space beside our stage area above the Exit door, between the stage pilaster and the transept alcove housing the portrait of Dr. Carlisle. It measures precisely 8-1/2 feet in width, 32 feet in height, making a perfect fit for the Holtkamp organ, should Wofford decide to accept it.
Naturally, I asked the people at Duke why they were willing to give away such a fine instrument, which appeared to be in perfect condition. The interior of the Chapel had been climate-controlled and the organ was played only for weddings, occasional small services, and a weekly Communion service. It showed no signs of wear or abuse, and it very rarely needed tuning. What was wrong with it? Absolutely nothing.
In 1976 Duke had placed a large, Dutch-built Flentrop organ in the rear gallery to complement its symphonic Aeolian organ of 1930 in the chancel. Music of the Baroque and Classic periods could be authentically performed on the Flentrop, while Romantic music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries might sound more correct on the big Aeolian. The all-purpose Holtkamp organ stood in the small side-chapel housing the stone sarcophagi of members of the Duke family. The organ faculty at Duke felt that was the perfect place for an instrument specifically designed to interpret music of the Italian Renaissance. Thus organ students at Duke could experience all major periods of organ literature, spanning some 500 years of history. So they contracted with John Brombaugh of Eugene, Oregon to build a small organ in Tuscan style for the Gothic arch where the Holtkamp organ stood. Cost: $400,000.
When I saw that the Holtkamp organ would fit ideally into our available space, I excitedly reported that fact to President Lesesne. He informed our Board of Trustees who promptly voted to accept Duke’s generous offer. After all, in the nearly 150-year history of Wofford College there had never been a real pipe organ anywhere on campus at any time.
The Chapel had been variously equipped with wheezy pump organs or clumsy upright pianos to lead singing and accompany processions on academic occasions. Not until the renovation of Old Main in 1960-61 did a grand piano appear (our first Bösendorfer) along with a second-hand Baldwin electronic (“loudspeaker”) organ, which always sounded muffled and anemic. In 1965 the donated Baldwin organ conked out and was replaced by a second electronic instrument, built by the Allen Company of Macungie, PA. This was financed by generous gifts from the Parents’ Council and the SC Methodist Conference, each contributing half the $10,000 cost.
A catastrophic fire in the stage area of Leonard in 1971 destroyed both the Bösendorfer piano and the new Allen organ. Fortunately, the College’s excellent insurance policy replaced both instruments. Nevertheless, by the 1990s the Allen organ had become so unreliable that the College had to rent an electronic organ each time one was needed for Honors’ Day and Baccalaureate—an expensive annual headache. Clearly, the time had come when a proper pipe organ was really needed.
Church-related colleges like Wofford everywhere could usually boast of good pipe organs in their chapels. Not only is the sound of genuine air-blown pipes better and more effective at leading singing, but as investments they are more permanent. Properly maintained, a good pipe organ can last up to 500 years! Our fine Development Office set about raising the funds needed to dismantle the Holtkamp organ at Duke, transfer it to Spartanburg, make required tonal additions (four more ranks of pipes), revoice the whole instrument, and set it up in its new home. It now has 19 ranks of pipes, totalling 1096 in all, distributed over two manuals and a Pedal keyboard. It is named in honor of Dr. William Preston Few (B.A. Wofford, 1889; Ph.D. Harvard, 1896), founding President of Duke University.
Wofford must take pride in its Holtkamp organ. When Dr. David Arcus played the dedicatory recital in 1998, students gave him a standing ovation. In 2002 President Dunlap brought Dr. Marvin Mills of Washington, DC to play pieces at Opening Convocation as did Dr. Jack Mitchener in September, 2006, also to packed houses, both receiving standing ovations. If students like it, it has passed the acid test. The clean clarity and tonal presence of our organ make it as fine and useful as any college organ anywhere. It is stunningly beautiful both visually and tonally. Some of our neighboring institutions may have larger instruments in their larger chapels, as certainly Furman does, but none has a finer or more appropriately designed organ than Wofford. May it serve for a very long time to come.
--John M. Bullard, Ph.D.
Albert C. Outler Professor of Religion