Dobson Pipe Organ woodworker Randall Wolff dusts a curved panel of the organ case before it’s sprayed with lacquer. The organ case is made primarily of quartersawn white oak lumber.
Dobson Pipe Organ woodworker Randall Wolff dusts a curved panel of the organ case before it’s sprayed with lacquer. The organ case is made primarily of quartersawn white oak lumber.
March 7, 2013

LAKE CITY - Opus 91 may not be nearly the biggest pipe organ ever crafted by Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, but this project ranks highly among the company's outstanding achievements.

Opus 91 is destined this year for Merton College, one of the 38 colleges that comprise England's University of Oxford, which traces its history to the 12th century. Located at Oxford, England, northwest of London, it was the first university in the English-speaking world.

Opus 91 will be the main organ in Merton College's chapel, a Gothic stone building that dates to the late 13th century.

John Panning, Dobson Organ Builders vice president who's acquired interest in the business from company president and founder Lynn Dobson, says, "For us it's remarkable to be working in such an old building. In the United States, an old building for us is maybe 250 or 300 years old. Working in a true Gothic building is a totally different experience from what organ builders normally have."

Panning spoke while standing next to the base of Opus 91, which derives its name from being Dobson's 91st new-organ project since Lynn Dobson, a rural Lanesboro native and 1967 graduate of Glidden High School, founded the company in 1974.

To celebrate the 750th anniversary of its founding, Merton College conducted a worldwide search to find a builder of a new pipe organ for its chapel. Dobson Pipe Organ won the contract for this project in competition with builders from Canada, Austria, Germany and Sweden.

Lynn Dobson says those five were narrowed to the top two and then selection was made after exhaustive study of the companies' design and musical work. Dobson explains that design plans also must receive approval from the country's Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission.

Dobson says of his proposal, "I picked up on a lot of the detailing in the building. On the other hand, it's still a modern, fresh-looking design."

The white-oak organ case will be about 45 feet tall and 28 feet wide. The birch pipe shades are laser-cut, and carvings on the case were done by hand.

"So there's a lot of expense in just the detailing," Dobson says.

Façade features include touches of bright blue and red, as well as 22-carat gold gilding.

"So it will be a colorful organ," says Dobson, adding, "It's designed in a style that's reminiscent of Gothic architecture because it will be in a Gothic room. On the other hand, it's a very modern shape, too. So it's not necessarily a reproduction of a Gothic organ case. It reflects our own time, and it also reflects the Gothic architecture of the chapel, which was completed in 1297."

Merton's pipe organ is built with a "mechanical key action," says Panning, meaning that there are mechanical linkages that directly connect each of the keys to the valves under the pipes.

"Before the advent of electricity, such a system was the only one known to musicians of the past, such as Buxtehude and Bach," says Panning, who is also Dobson Pipe Organ tonal director. "While most organs in the 20th century were built with electrical systems, Dobson and a number of other builders have revived the construction of mechanical-action pipe organs, which are preferred by many prominent organists."

The pipes in the organ range from pencil-size to 21 feet tall and 9 inches diameter. The front pipes, which are under construction in Germany, are being made of 90-percent polished tin.

Dobson says, "Tin may sound cheap, but it's actually a very expensive metal. It's pretty special to have organ pipes 20 feet long made out of 90 percent tin."

In a final major step before awarding the contract, representatives of the college made visits to view pipe organs built by the final prospects.

"They came to the U.S. and saw about 12 organs we built," Dobson says. "They traveled for about a week in the U.S. In the end, they were convinced they liked the sound, the way the key actions work and so forth."

The 60-rank Opus 91 is smaller than Dobson's largest projects - 125-rank organ in Verizon Hall at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, 105-rank organ at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, and 102-rank organ at Highland Park United Methodist Church on the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas. However, the Merton College project is historic for Dobson Pipe Organ because this is the company's first overseas contract. All of the company's previous 90 organs were built for locations in the U.S.

Panning explains, "Because of unfavorable import duties and support for their local companies, foreign clients very rarely choose an American organ builder. But Merton College, which has a highly regarded chapel choir was impressed by how well our instrument accompanied singing and by how gracefully our design for the organ fit their Gothic architecture."

Panning says Dobson's organ is only the third by an American builder to be sent to England since World War II.

Opus 91 will be used mostly for worship services but also for recitals and concerts. The Choir of Merton College is recognized as one of Oxford's leading mixed-voice choirs.

Lynn Dobson says Opus 91 will provide exquisite sound. "The organ with that choir in that space is going to be really special," he says.

Opus 91 will replace a much-smaller organ from the 1960s that Dobson says wasn't really designed to accompany a choir. Dobson says the new organ will be the fifth main organ in the history of the chapel.

That organ, Dobson says, "it not worn-out so much, but the kind of sounds it produces are not that supportive of choral music. So they elected rather than try to modify it to replace it."

Somebody who lives near the school bought that organ and will move it into a hall being built at the new owner's residence.

The Merton chapel also houses a small chamber organ that's not intended to accompany a large choir.

After Opus 91's construction is completed in April in Lake City - Dobson is housed on the northeast side of town square in an 1898 factory building that was renovated in 1979 - the organ will be dismantled and packed in four ship containers for a 4,000-mile voyage to Oxford.

On June 24, about eight Dobson employees will arrive at Merton College to begin the months-long process of reassembling the 2,947-pipe instrument. After it's installed an all of its mechanism is adjusted, two Dobson employees will "voice" the organ.

Panning notes that the tonal finish is "the painstaking process of adjusting the sound of each pipe so that it perfectly matches the acoustics of Merton's 13th-century stone chapel."

The tonal finishing should be completed in November and the college will then use the organ for services, recitals and concerts before a dedication festival in April 2014. The festival will feature a series of recitals in celebration of the university's 750th anniversary.

In total, Dobson says, 20 employees will put in nearly 26,000 hours on the project, including three years working on the design and two years building the organ.

For Dobson Pipe Organ, this project comes at a time when organ-building business has been hit by financial difficulties - retrenching by contributors and benefactors who give to churches and art organizations, plus budget uncertainty in Washington, D.C.

"It's an incredible honor for us, a firm from a town of 1,800 in northwest Iowa to be chosen to build an organ for the oldest university in the English-speaking world," Panning says. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."