Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2009

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Tri-captain Thomas Giblin ´10 elevates for a header in a Fall Weekend win against Colby on the Artificial Turf at Silfen Field, while Nick Maghenzani ´13 closes in on the play. Head coach Kenny Murphy´s Camels finished 8-6-1 in the program´s best record in more than a decade.

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Heard but not Seen

Heard but not Seen
Most of the organ´s 2000 pipes are hidden from view. These pipes (picture) behind the alter are actually just decorative. Photo by Lisa Brownell.

John Anthony and the Harkness Chapel organ have been making ceremonial music together for almost 40 years

By Barbara Nagy


The April sun streamed in the west windows of Harkness Chapel, and cherry blossoms — cut fresh from the Arboretum to frame the altar — seemed to glow.

Some 350 friends and family members had gathered on this Saturday to remember Professor Emeritus of Chinese Charles Chu. The din grew steadily as they reached across pews to exchange greetings and hugs.

No one noticed when Professor of Music and College Organist John P. Anthony slipped into the organ pit behind the altar. As the majestic strains of Bach´s Fugue in E-flat Major filled the Chapel, the voices quieted and people found their seats.

The remembrance had begun.

The scene is repeated many times through the year: The organ, almost always with Anthony at the keys, sets a dignified tone for events ranging from memorial services to weddings (Anthony estimates he´s played at 700 in the Chapel).

Anthony is only the College´s fourth organist in 70 years.
The first was J. Lawrence Erb, a professor of music when the Chapel was built in 1939. The Austin Organ Co. of Hartford designed, built and installed the organ in consultation with Erb.

“Afternoons he may be found happily immersed in the organ pit in the chapel luring the soul from the fine Austin,” the College alumni magazine reported in spring 1942 when Erb retired.

Erb´s successor, Arthur W. Quimby, is believed to be the first person to perform the entire Bach catalogue on an Austin organ. The concerts spanned three years and helped entertain New London-area residents during the difficult years of World War II.

James Dendy became College organist when Quimby left for a magnificent organ at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1964, and served until 1971. He was succeeded by Anthony, then a Yale Ph.D. candidate.


JOHN ANTHONY HAD wanted to be an organist since he was a boy growing up in Arkansas, mesmerized by the organ at his grandmother´s church.

“It´s what everybody recognizes about the organ. It can be very powerful. It can make a lot of sound,” Anthony says. “It can be inspiring, very dominating.” He was also amazed that the organ could sound like different instruments, from a flute to a bassoon, depending on which stops were pulled out.

Anthony and his twin brother, James, now a professor of music at Towson University in Maryland, started playing the piano at 8 and the organ as teenagers.

Anthony wasn´t crazy about the Austin when he arrived at Connecticut College. His training was in the mellow, romantic baroque style, and the Austin was built at a time when organs were in transition to a sound that was clearer and louder — more faithful, some music historians thought, to the instruments Bach would have heard when he was composing in central Germany 300 years ago.

But Anthony´s tastes have changed, partly because of what he learned about music while traveling in Europe. “I have tried to open my mind, rather than close it,” he says, laughing.

He finds the Harkness organ to be neither too baroque nor too modern; a wide range of pieces can be performed reasonably well on it. The sound is clear and bright.

The organ, one of two that were intended to showcase Austin´s new style, has 47 stops controlling almost 2,000 pipes arranged in 40 rows. The wind chest under the pipes and the belows, located in the basement, keep air under pressure and release it through the pipes when the organist depresses a key. Each stop controls a row of pipes; pull out two stops and the organist is sounding two pipes for each key he or she depresses.

The organ gets regular use for choral concerts, organ recitals, weddings and services — and of course student lessons. Many students have gone on to teach at colleges and universities, and they play in churches across the United States.

But Anthony sees fewer organ students these days. Most organists are pianists first, and interest in the piano is declining as young people discover other instruments. In addition, fewer are exposed to the sound of a pipe organ in church — a traditional path for developing interest.

But how hard is it to play the organ?

Anthony pauses. “To play any instrument well is difficult,” he says. “In that sense the organ is no harder than any other.” But the organist´s feet and hands are constantly moving, which requires more balance and coordination.

“You learn it just like you learn anything else,” Anthony says. “You gradually learn to ride a bike and you gradually learn the coordination of playing the organ.”


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