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1835 Henry Erben organ resonates at Festival Hill

by LINDA HAYES / photography by HOLGER OBENAUS

SWROTE FRANK E. MORTON in a January 1910 issue of The Diapason, about the man responsible for the stately, single-keyboard 1835 Henry Erben pipe organ that sits proudly in the Edythe Bates Old Chapel (named after an organist and longtime patron of Festival Hill) on the renowned Round Top Festival Institute’s campus in Round Top, Texas.

“It’s a wonderful organ with delightful sound,” shares Alain Declert, who has been a part of the Festival Institute for 40 years and now serves as program director. “People from all over come to hear it played during concerts and master classes.” The Old Chapel is also used for wedding ceremonies, chamber music rehearsals, organ recitals and as a lecture hall.

Long before the organ, presented to the Festival Institute by the late Ted W. Blankenship Jr., of Albany, Texas, arrived at the campus in 1994, the Old Chapel, as it is known, itself made a journey from La Grange, Texas, where it was built in 1883 as the Episcopal Methodist Church of La Grange and used for worship by the congregation. “It took most of a day to transport it, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” Declert recalls with a laugh. “And it came in three portions—the parquet floor, the walls, and the roof and steeple, which was in pretty bad shape.” Over time, the floors were revived, the steeple repaired. Original glassworks were preserved, a lower chapel was constructed, and a loft was added to increase seating to accommodate 160 people.

Once on-site, the Henry Erben organ was turned over to Friedemann Buschbeck, who undertook a significant restoration.

“For decades, the organ, the oldest American-built organ in Texas, had been stored in parts in boxes,” he recalls. “The aim of my restoration was to return the instrument to its original functioning in construction and sound.” To that end, missing parts were replaced with authentic materials, damaged pipes were carefully restored and stenciling on the front pipes that had been hidden under a thick layer of gold varnish was revealed.

Upon completion, and after many months of meticulous work, the organ was as close as possible to Erben’s original design. “Although the chapel and the organ were built in different locations, they now fit each other harmoniously,” Buschbeck says. “The organ gives us an authentic sense of how American church music would have sounded a century-and-a-half ago.”

Renowned as one of the major American organ makers of the 19th century, and based in New York City, Henry Erben built nearly 2,000 instruments over his 60-year career. While Henry Erben organs were sold throughout North and South America, and sought by the country’s wealthiest and most sophisticated congregations, many beautiful instruments were built for the churches of New York. The most celebrated was built in 1846 for Trinity Church in New York City. There is also an 1868 Erben pipe organ in the organ loft of the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City. The Christ Episcopal Church in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, boasts the only Erben organ to remain completely unaltered or restored over time.

The 1835 Henry Erben organ at Festival Hill is joined in the Old Chapel by another significant pipe organ, built by Johann Traugott Wandke, a German musician and multitalented craftsman who built pipe organs from scratch in Galveston, Texas, in the late 1800s. This particular organ was built in Round Top, Texas, around 1860, long before the Festival Institute existed. “It’s a unique juxtaposition to have these two organs, built by two renowned organ makers, in the Old Chapel,” says Festival Institute founder, creator and artistic director James Dick. “We hope the resounding sound will be enjoyed for generations to come.” *

Linda Hayes is an Aspen, Colorado-based freelance writer specializing in architecture, design and the luxury lifestyle. Her articles have appeared in LUXE, Hawaiian Style, Elle Decor and Mountain Living.

High Notes

Dr. Linda Patterson performed a special organ recital in the Edythe Bates Old Chapel at Round Top Festival Institute on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2020. Little did she or anyone else know that it would be the last time in quite a while that the 1835 Henry Erben organ would be played during a recital. “It was such a special time,” says Patterson, an accomplished performing organist, current director of music at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Bryan, Texas, and longtime supporter and docent at the Festival Institute, as well as a 20-year Round Top resident. “We filled every seat. There was so much energy and excitement in the room, and the sound was lovely.” Looking forward, Patterson hopes to continue to play the Erben organ at the Old Chapel for visiting groups and at special events, and is planning another New Year’s Day recital next year in honor of the Festival Institute’s official Golden Anniversary. “It’s so wonderful to be able to play there and intrigue people with the music,” she says. “The organ and chapel are lovely and special. We want them to continue to be appreciated.”

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