A Conversation with Robert Fisher | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Robert Fisher 

Robert Fisher is a self-taught pipe organ builder, who has owned a studio in Valencia, PA since 1959. A former high-school woodshop teacher and graduate of Carnegie Tech, he is currently restoring a 50-year-old organ at Duquesne University.

Where is this pipe organ from?
This organ has had several incarnations. It was once a practice organ at the Boston Conservatory, but we retrieved it from Kansas City. Unlike most of the organs on this campus, which are so-called Baroque organs, this is of the Romantic school that thinks of the organ in terms of the orchestra. This organ has a somber sound to it, not too brilliant. It's unlike German organs, which are incisive in their sound. This is more or less the kind of organ you'd want if you were to play Beethoven on the organ.

You build pipe organs from scratch?
We build smaller ones, pipes and all. The pipes are a mixture of tin and lead. And the more tin, the better the sound because with tin you can make a lighter pipe, and the lighter the pipe the more it will vibrate. You can tell from the sprinkles on a pipe how much tin versus lead there is in it. Tin is very expensive. Bach had a joke about that: He was called upon to judge an organ. And when he was done he said, "The builder was very generous -- with his lead!" So we had phonies even 200 years ago. A good pipe is made from at least 50 percent tin.

What kind of wood do you use?
The casework is usually built to match the existing trim in the church. Then certain parts lend themselves to certain woods. For example, we use poplar for the wind-chest because it's dimensionally stable, because of its mechanical properties and it's cost effective.

How much does a pipe organ cost?
It used to be when I was a youngster the finest pipe organ company would sell at $500 a stop. Now, I'd say it's more like $12,000 a stop on average. But the amount has nothing to do with the tone quality -- I don't care how beautiful the mahogany is. The final success depends on what the voicer does to the pipes: how he adjusts where the air goes through the flue diameter of the pipe versus its length, the way he adjusts the upper lip. That can't be bought. The voicer is the artist. Sometimes he blows it by mouth and too much of that can lead to high lead content. Some voicers in the past have died from lead poisoning.

What happens to a pipe organ once a church closes?
Well, it depends on how secure the building is!

What are the origins of the pipe organ?
It goes back to about 200 years before Christ in Greece. They had what was called the hydraulius. If you were to turn a cup upside down in a pan of water, there'd be a certain amount of air trapped inside. Then if you drill a hole in it, you could put a pipe organ in it and it would blow as the water filled the cup. Now if the water filled the whole cut, the pipe would stop blowing so they had men standing on either side with a pump, pumping air into the tank. That went on until the Dark Ages. I taught school with a Spanish teacher from Czechoslovakia, whose wife's father, can you believe it, was an archaeologist who helped to excavate the first found hydraulius from Budapest.

When did you build your first one?
I built my first one in my mother's home in Mt. Washington, 60 years ago. Then I built my second one at Carnegie Tech in the physics lab. I got into a project on tuning with a professor -- tuning has been a problem for organs since the beginning. Well, first it was just a hobby for me, then a secondary source of income, until I retired from teaching. One of my students once built a harpsichord and then played it at his graduation service.

How did you become interested in pipe organs?
I had the privilege of growing up in a German household listening to Wagner as I romped around with toy cars. And then my mother would take me to weekly organ recitals in Oakland. And something turned on. It's like a virus, and there's nothing you can do.


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