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Beloved pipe organ celebrates 100th birthday at Cathedral of St. Peter

Michael Davidson has been the cathedral’s director of liturgical music for more than 23 years.

The Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington will celebrate Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Austin Opus 807 pipe organ with a special organ recital.

The Austin Opus 807 will be the center of attention at an Oct. 21 recital at 3 p.m. in the cathedral.

The recital is free and open to the public and will feature six organists and other instrumentalists to mark the occasion with many classical organ works and congregational hymns. A special arrangement of the hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King” has been composed by Dr. David Herman.
The organ was built in 1918 and has been renovated by Michael Davidson, director of liturgical music over 23 years with the addition of new pipes to modernize the sound of the organ, and major repairs to the pipe organ.  In 2006, a new three manual console with modern computer switching technology was installed to replace the original console by the Peragallo Organ Company, Paterson, N.J.
The contract for the cathedral pipe organ was signed in May 1918 at the cost of $8,000 by Msgr. Dougherty with the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Conn. Consisting of 25 ranks (sets of pipes) and three manuals, the organ was installed later in the year on Oct. 15, 1918. The organ featured the Austin’s patented walk-in “Universal Wind Chest” that provides uniform air pressure to all of the pipes in the organ, and facilitates servicing of the electro-pneumatic stop action system which controls the flow of air to each pipe. The tonal design was typical for the period, having an orchestral sound to accompany the choir and provide music for the Latin Mass: “voice big” was written on the blueprint.
In 1929, after a fire in the church, the organ was cleaned and tremolos were added. In 1963, the organ was retrofitted with new pneumatic valves, replacing the original action design. In 1982, when Michael Davidson took the position of cathedral organist, the organ bellows were found to be torn and leaking badly. Having experience in pipe organ repair and maintenance, Davidson sealed the leaks and hired Crossan and Savage Organ Company to releather the bellows. And while the organ had a beautiful sound, it lacked the tonal structure to fully accompany congregational singing, which came to the forefront of Catholic liturgy with Vatican II, or to play a wide range of organ literature.
In 1983, Davidson, with the help of Sara Conlon and Bill Patterson, began a 23-year project of tonally renovating the organ by replacing five ranks (sets) of original pipes with new principals having a more brilliant tone, and added a festival trompette rank to give the organ a regal sound for festive diocesan celebrations. He also rescaled and revoiced several existing ranks to create the current tonal sound of the organ. Other major work includes replacing 207 of the leather valves that control the flow of air to the pipes.
Today, the organ has 30 ranks consisting of approximately 1,800 pipes. With new and revoiced pipes, new pneumatic actions, and a new console the cathedral organ has a brighter, richer sound that meets the needs of liturgical worship and is adaptable to a wide range of organ and choral music.  Davidson said none of the repairs and renovations to the organ could have been made possible without the support of cathedral rectors and by the generosity of foundations, parishioners, and friends of the Cathedral of St. Peter.