“A monumental instrument in a landmark building.”

An organ of “rare beauty, coherence and depth.”

That was the vision laid out before Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders, the Tacoma, Washington, workshop now constructing a unique, handmade pipe organ for the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Representing four years of dedicated labor, the Murdy Family Organ will be the 36-year-old studio’s most ambitious piece for any client. Played in public for the first time in October 2016, visitors to the University’s historic church may now hear an instrument capable of leading congregational singing with unprecedented power and beauty and of training 21st century masters in composition and performance.

Notre Dame Magazine reports here on its creation.

Building the Organ

“All of these things I could never come up with on my own. We draw upon history. . . I make no apology for that. A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from. So my mission is not to reinvent the organ. It’s to further the art form.”—Paul Fritts

The men behind the Murdy include an organ historian, a trombone performance major, a boat builder, a former Texas Instruments engineer, an avocational gemcutter and a college dropout who studied the violin growing up and wanted to write a paper in 8th grade about becoming an organ builder. (That last one is Paul Fritts, and his mother’s comment on the paper was, “No, you’re not.”)

They do not all know how to play the organ. What they share instead is a devotion to the materials, skills, craftsmanship and long hours of traditional organ building and the creation of beauty that will touch the hearts of generations yet to be born.

Magnum Opus

A look at the Murdy Family Organ under construction at the Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders’ workshop.

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Scenes from the Paul Fritts & Company Organbuilders' workshop.

Meet the Organ Builders

Preparing the Church

“It’s terrifying to be honest with you, because this is the basilica. If you screw this up you're going to be in a little bit of trouble.”—Tony Polotto, senior project manager, Notre Dame Facilities Design & Operations

The Murdy will be the fifth pipe organ to accompany worship in Sacred Heart since the 1850s, each one bigger and better than the last as the University has grown and the church itself ascended to international importance.

Installing the musical equivalent of a four-story building in the loft of a 145-year-old church takes preparation that touches on everything from structural fortification to acoustics to climate control — not to mention the removal of the Murdy’s beloved and timeworn predecessor, which alone was no small task.

Key Change

Image from Basilica Organ video

Why Notre Dame is replacing the Holtkamp Organ with a new, unique, mechanical action organ for the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Installing the Organ

“The challenge in the basilica is projecting into the end of it. At the same time, we don’t want the organ to be too loud for people sitting under it. . . . The job of a voicer is to adjust everything so it’s just perfect in terms of sound quality.”—Paul Fritts

Fritts & Co. arrived on July 31 to unload the trucks and gave themselves until Christmas 2016 to reassemble their delicate giant piece by piece, to tune each pipe and to voice the whole to fit the basilica’s unique acoustical environment.

Working long hours, putting their tools away during Sunday liturgies, daily Masses and weekend weddings, the voicers would finish nearly two months ahead of schedule, leaving plenty of time for thanksgivings and — for Notre Dame organists — the task of learning anew from this original instrument and exploring its limitless possibilities.

Playing the Organ

“Paul has an extraordinary ability to make everything come together in an ensemble that's magical, gorgeous. Just the sheer velvety sheen of the sound is almost like nothing I’ve ever heard. It's magnificent.”—Craig Cramer, Notre Dame Professor of Organ

In the end, what matters most is the music, the hearts held aloft in prayer, the spirit’s chance to contemplate, to sorrow, to soar. Most basilica visitors will experience the Murdy during rites of prayer and worship — congregational hymns, psalms and sequences, choral meditations and the majestic preludes and postludes that signal the beginning and end of an hour of sacred, communal time.

For the professionals who will play it, and the students in Notre Dame’s increasingly competitive undergraduate and graduate organ programs, the Murdy will play the additional role of teacher. Between Notre Dame’s two grand organs in the basilica and the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, organist Craig Cramer says, students will be able to explore and perform the breadth and depth of the organ literature of the last 400 years. In the professor’s words, the two Fritts organs will be the best teachers these students ever have.

Notre Dame Magazine will continue reporting on the Murdy here in the days leading up to the dedication Mass and first recital on January 20, 2017, the Feast of Blessed Basil Moreau, Founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross.