Mormon Tabernacle Choir Blog

Frequently Asked Questions: The Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ

The 11,623-pipe organ in the Salt Lake Tabernacle is one of the world's most famous organs and an integral part of the signature sound of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Here are some interesting facts about this amazing instrument:

Is the Tabernacle organ the world's largest?
No. If one compares organs on the basis of the number of pipes, the Tabernacle organ is approximately the seventeenth-largest organ in the world, with 11,623 pipes. The world's largest fully-playing pipe organ, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in the downtown Philadelphia Macy's department store (formerly John Wanamaker's) has more than twice as many: approximately 28,750 pipes.

How does the Tabernacle organ compare with other organs?
It is considered one of the world's finest pipe organ, based on its superb tonal design, the first-rate maintenance performed on it, and the remarkable acoustics of the Tabernacle itself. It is one of the most famous pipe organs in the world, having been featured since 1929 in The Tabernacle Choir's Music and the Spoken Word broadcasts, in daily organ recitals for visitors, and most recently in thousands of videos on YouTube and Facebook.

How large is the largest organ pipe?
The lowest pipe of the pedal Montre stop is 35 and 7 inches tall and is constructed of white pine. It vibrates at approximately 16 cycles per second.

How small is the smallest pipe organ?
A number of pipes qualify for this distinction, being approximately the size of a pencil, with a speaking length of about ½ inch. The shorteset pipes vibrate at over 8,000 cycles per second.

Are there any pipes left from the pioneer organ?
The current instrument–the fourth organ to sit inside the organ case–was built in 1948 by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston, Massachusetts. One hundred and twenty-two pipes from the original Joseph Ridges organ and another dozen from the 1885 Niels Johnson additions to the organ remain in use today.

Do the gold pipes in the front of the case play?
The 10 largest façade pipes, which date back to the original Ridges organ, do play. Each of these pipes was made of long, wedge-shaped strips of white pine glued together to form a hollow tube with about a one-inch thick wall. The exterior was then plastered to make a smooth and even surface. The remaining pipes are "dummy" pipes, which are there merely to create a uniform appearance. There is no truth to the folk legend that each large pipe was carved from a single tree trunk.

Is it true that the Tabernacle organ came all the way from Australia?
No. The organ that Joseph Ridges built in the 1860's for the present Tabernacle was a completely new instrument. Because Joseph Ridges brought an organ with him when emigrating from Australia, some people have thought that this Australian instrument formed the basis for the present Tabernacle organ. In fact, Ridges' Australian organ was installed in the old adobe Tabernacle, which stood on Temple Square where the Assembly Hall currently stands. When the old Tabernacle was taken down and the Assembly Hall was built, parts of Ridges' Australian organ were incorporated into the original Assembly Hall instrument (which has since been replaced).

How is the organ powered? Was it ever powered by a waterwheel?
The organ is currently powered by three electric blowers, the largest of which is run by a 30-horsepower motor. The organ was once powered by water, but not by a water wheel, as was once thought. Instead, city water mains drove reciprocating pistons in hydraulic motors which, when running, continuously pumped large bellows feeding air into the organ. This was much more economical than paying men to do it. It is true that there was once a water wheel on Temple Squre, driven by water from City Creek, but this water wheel only operated tools in the workshops located on Temple Square prior to the actual construction of the Tabernacle.

How difficult is it to play the Tabernacle organ?
Certainly, the pipe organ is one of the most challenging musical instruments to play, since both hands and both feet are constantly in motion, playing notes, pulling stops, and operating pedals. However, the Tabernacle organ console is extremely well engineered, greatly simplifying the organist's job. All of the members of the Tabernacle organ staff hold advanced degrees in music, and an organist at this level has generally achieved a great deal of proficiency in managing the resources of a large pipe organ.

How often does the organ need to be tuned?
Curators today tune the organ weekly on an "as needed" basis, focusing their energies on those stops that are most tempermental. Usually prior to recording sessions and major concerts they conduct a much more thorough tuning regimen, going through nearly all of the organ's 206 ranks (sets) of pipes. Tuning is a mechanical process that consists of adjusting either the length of the pipe (in the case of "flue" pipes) or the length of the brass reeds.

How much is the organ worth?
This is one of those questions that simply cannot be answered. One might as well ask, "How much is the Tabernacle itself worth?" The current Tabernacle organ was built by a company that was without peer and is no longer in operation, so the instrument is both irreplaceable and priceless. Likewise, the 134 original pipes and the case, which were built by pioneer hands, have a worth that is beyond calculation.