by Mike Milam
"I'm never this lucky," I thought, as I clicked the button on Washington National Cathedral's website just a few days before my trip to D.C. in July hoping to snag a ticket at the last minute to an evening tour of the Cathedral's organ. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I had just reserved the last available ticket!
It was a great evening, beginning with an overview and demonstration at the console, led by George Fergus, associate director of music and assistant organist at the Cathedral. The instrument was built in 1938 by Ernest M. Skinner and Son, who was also the orginal builder of our organ at St. John's. The Cathedral organ contains 189 ranks of pipes—a total of 10,647 individual pipes. (By way of comparison, our St. John's organ is a 74-rank instrument.) It was fascinating to hear about how the organ, after its original installation, was gradually enlarged and revised as the Cathedral grew in size over its many years of construction (1907-1990). Major additions and changes to the organ were carried out in 1963 and again between 1970 and 1975.
We continued upstairs into one of the organ chambers to view some of the pipework and the mechanics of the instrument. Though the overhead lighting was not functional during our visit, our cell phone flashlights gave us the opportunity to find our way around in some very lofty (and dusty!) areas of the building. Even a brief tour of this area serves as a vivid reminder of why the pipe organ has been dubbed "the king of instruments." The massive size of the instrument and the incredible amount of behind-the-scenes mechanical and digital equipment that works in tandem to bring it to life and fill the space with sound is just remarkable.
Once we returned downstairs, Mr. Fergus performed a mini-recital as we aurally and visually explored the instrument from different angles and perspectives—console, chancel, altar, and nave. It was a special honor to be allowed to play one of my favorite hymns, "Holy, holy, holy," on the Cathedral organ—an experience I will always treasure.
If you have never visited the National Cathedral, make it a priority. Attend a service and/or concert. Plan to take one of the many tours offered. You will not be disappointed. The incredible history, art, and music in this sacred place ensure that every visit will be unique and inspiring.