Piping up at Oxford

LAKE CITY – England’s oldest university will celebrate its 750th anniversary with a pipe organ built in Iowa.

Dobson Pipe Organ Builders Ltd., of Lake City, was picked over companies from around the world to create a roughly 4,000-pipe organ for Merton College, the oldest of the 38 colleges that make up Oxford University.

Installation work is complete in the Merton College chapel, which was built in 1290.

“It’s really a unique experience to work in a place that age,” said Lynn Dobson, the company’s founder, president and artistic director. “I mean, everywhere you go and look it’s historic.”

This was the first time Dobson Organs has gone outside the U.S., he said.

“Actually, very few organs are built in the United States and shipped to the U.K., because there are simply so many organ builders over there to choose from,” Dobson said. “Normally what happens is organs from over there come here.”

The college had a good idea of what they wanted, he said, and in 2008 began investigating a dozen organ builders around the world. They asked for proposals from five builders, eventually narrowing the field down to two finalists.

“Our competition was in Switzerland, Austria and England,” he said.

After being selected, the company began work on the organ two years ago at the Lake City shop. In June it was shipped to England and installed.

“I’ve had a crew of eight people there through the summer. Now there’s two people there finishing the work, who will be there until November,” Dobson said.

The organ is expected to be done in November. A whole year of concerts and recitals are planned using the new instrument.

The chapel’s previous organ had been installed in the 1970s, he said.

“It was very small organ, sort of designed to play only baroque literature. So they wanted a larger organ that could do other things.”

The new organ has three keyboards, plus the pedal board, and 51 ranks of pipes.

“So that’s not a huge organ, but it’s an organ that has a very complete sound. It has a lot of variety in the sounds that it can produce,” Dobson said. “For the college at this point, the biggest concern they had was to be able to accompany this choir of theirs when they do the really famous English choral works. But of course it has to be able to play Bach and all of the other classical organ works too.”

The organ has a computer system to manipulate the 50 stops, but everything else is purely mechanical.

“The connection between the keyboards and pipes is a mechanical action. That was a major draw for our building the organ -they like the feel,” he said. “It’s very sensitive. As they played organs, they discovered our key actions are very fine, and the organist has real tactile control over the instrument.”

Workers have been “voicing” the organ since August, Dobson said. Each pipe has to be tuned to have the right tone color and speech characteristics.

“It has to be done in the church, because we’re making the organ fit the acoustics of the building. It’s kind of a painstaking process,” he said.

Now that the company has experience in England, Dobson hopes to get more business overseas.

“We’re heard from a few prospects in England and Europe,” he said. “Actually it’s fairly common when we’re doing projects. Probably 20 years ago we did an organ in Wisconsin, now we have maybe 10 organs over in Wisconsin. We put one up in the Twin Cities, and now we have 15 organ in that area. It’s the same in North Carolina. If you place an organ somewhere, then because people can come and see it, you get other work in the area.”