Pipe organ tuning: how does it work?
At the Maison de la Radio, the headquarters of Radio France, it's tuning season. Built in Barcelona by Gerhard Grenzing, our organ was inaugurated and placed in Radio France's auditorium a few years ago. But how do you tune a pipe organ, anyway?
The Auditorium of the Maison de La Radio is not accessible when the organ is being tuned. Someone wrote: Pipe organ tuning session. No entry. Only three people can access the auditorium: Mario, André and Emma. The trio is in charge of tuning the instrument by the end of October.
André is perched on top of the pipes. He threads his way between them and takes a seat next to those that require tuning. Using a hammer and pliers, he expands or narrows the opening of the shallot (brass tube), which has an effect on the timbre. Most of the times, a few millimetres are enough. This thorough work is carried out on each one of the 5336 pipes.
Emma works as an organist in Paris; to help him, she is sitting behind the keyboard. She plays the notes corresponding to the pipes that are being checked by André, right above her. Emma is a partner of Gerhard Grenzing organ workshop, where the instrument was built. She discovered this job thanks to the workshop:
“Mr Grenzing made me discover tuning. Tuners are just like sculptors: they sculpt space with sound. I really admire this job. The tuner is a real artist, a poet sculptor. And it is also a complex task, it can be tough since there are many parameters to be taken into account”.
There’s another tuner in the trio. Mario is sitting in the auditorium. His role is to listen to the notes played by Emma and tuned by André. The three of them have to find the perfect pitch, meaning a sound that is in tune and can also be heard well by the audience. It is a huge challenge, especially because the auditorium has a particular configuration, as explained by André:
“Here, the major challenge is that the orchestra plays in the centre. It enjoys amazing sound projection, but the organ is in some kind of chamber, therefore the sound has to reach the audience getting out of that space; in addition, the quality of its sound must be equal to that of the orchestra”.
In order to perfectly tune all the organ pipes in the auditorium and find the perfect pitch, it will take them about 3 months of work. The instrument will be in tune by the end of October, ready to be played again next December, for the performance of Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3.