Pipes of Majesty

Updated: 2011-12-25 07:45

By Mike Peters(China Daily)

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 Pipes of Majesty

Parishioners attend mass at Xikai Cathedral in Tianjin. The 93-year-old cathedral houses a new Czech made 18-ton pipe organ.

Pipes of Majesty

Pipes of Majesty 

There are 1,897 pipes in the Xikai organ, all of which are controlled by the various knobs and stops in the organs console. Photos Provided to China Daily

More than 90 years after French Jesuits built Xikai church, a massive pipe organ brings the sounds of Christmas to Tianjin in grand style. Mike Peters tracks its journey.

As the triumphant chords of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing roll out the open doors of Xikai Cathedral in Tianjin on Christmas Day, Father Zhu Lige will be hoping the sound carries a long way. The people of his nearly century-old Catholic parish raised 800 million yuan ($126m) to create that sound, produced by a mammoth, 18-ton pipe organ. It took the venerable Czech organ maker Rieger-Kloss a year to build, a few more months to take it apart and ship to China, and a few more months to reassemble it in the tri-domed landmark church where Father Zhu's flock worships. The story of the organ began in 2006, when the people of Xikai church decided that a pipe organ would be their improvement project for the upcoming 2008 Olympic year. While the people of Xikai, also known as St. Joseph's, get the most pleasure and spiritual uplift as the organ's 1,897 pipes boom and trill, donations for the instrument came from all over China. Father Zhu and his colleague, Dean Ma Bao, find that to be very appropriate.

"This is the first organ in the church's 93-year history," Dean Ma told China Daily a year ago.

"There is not much tradition of organ-playing in our country - no music school offers such a major. So we must train more to play here and around China. That will help spread us organ music."

The day we spoke, the organ was not officially in use. But Jan Friedl, one of two company technicians who had arrived six months earlier for "tuning and voicing" the instrument, sits on the hard bench and his fingers dig into the keyboard for the dramatic opening notes of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in G Minor.

Movie-goers today associate the ponderous melody with horror films, but Johann Sebastian did not see Frankenstein when he wrote this masterpiece.

He saw God.

Friedl's colleague Petr Drastik, meanwhile, sits on the wood-deck flooring nearby, unpacking some of the smaller pipes that he will be mounting on the organ later that day.

"The pipes do the work," Father Zhu says through a translator. "Twenty years ago, Guangzhou and Beijing got new European organs for their concert halls, and in recent years more churches are getting pipe organs, too. In Qingdao, for example, the China Nobel church got a new organ from Germany."

The organ companies with great reputations, he says, are in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

"Many of the new organs rely on electronics for the bulk of their sound. We wanted something more traditional," he says, waving at the ornate blue-and-white French Romanesque ceiling above us, which might have shuddered at a modern-style instrument.

Father Zhu confers with the technicians and then briefly describes how Rieger-Kloss Organ No 3732 has two ways of making sounds - reed pipes and whistle pipes.

"It's got notes!" Deacon Ma says, patting the console of the great instrument. "The pipes do the work," Father Zhu repeats.

Now that the organ is completely assembled, some of the biggest pipes frame the 7-meter console, where organist Li Wei'an works the keyboard and the organ's 20 stops to make the multitude of pipes "do the work".

You can see most of the pipes from the church floor by strolling across to the choir loft, where the massive instrument now takes up most of the space where the church's five choirs once had some elbow room.

Li plays at all of the Sunday and daily Chinese Masses, Dean Ma says, especially marriage and festival Masses such as this weekend's Christmas worship. For now, the organ is not used at Sunday's English Mass.

"It helps to make the atmosphere of Masses more solemn and respectful," he says. "People are very inspired by the sound of the new organ during Masses. It has somehow helped to deliver the spirit of our Lord, and brought more visitors to join the Masses."

Some of those visitors will take their newfound enthusiasm for the pipe to the rest of China, he says. But for now, the people of Xikai are happy to have a grand and joyful sound for their own.

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(China Daily 12/25/2011 page3)