Grand Entrance: The Murdy Organ Installation in 130 Seconds


Author: Photography by Barbara Johnston

Shortly after lunchtime on the 12th day of its installation, the Murdy Family Organ received yet another distinguished visitor, one more person in the quiet parade of stakeholders and spectators who wanted their own sneak peek at the campus’ celebrated newcomer without disturbing the delicate maneuvering and breakneck pace of its final construction. That afternoon, for the first time since its piecemeal arrival inside Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart on July 31, the instrument was presentable.

The scaffolding had come down. The façade pipes — great and small — were up, their gilded shades conspiring with the capitals of the basilica’s columns to evoke a hanging garden of mature golden plantings — a natural, visual connection between musical architecture and sacred space.

The casework of the Rückpositive, a “division” of stops that will sit behind the organist and hang embedded in the railing of the choir loft above the church’s back pews, was finally in place after a day of wrestling, remeasurement, sawing and snug-fitting. The four riggers, professional organ assemblers hired to help Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders with this last leg of their four-year project, were packing their gear to leave — three days ahead of schedule after their biggest job of the year.

Visiting amidst this bustle was Margot Fassler, Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy, director of Notre Dame’s flourishing program in sacred music, and one of the few people with a legitimate reason to enter the closed-church-turned-organ-building-workshop before its official reopening and the start of the academic year.

Fassler walked down a side aisle toward the altar, speaking softly with longtime ND organ professor Craig Cramer, careful not to steal a look over her shoulder. Reaching the front pew, she sidled to her right toward the center aisle, planted her foot and pivoted for her first view of the organ in its full grandeur.

She gasped.

“It’s great!” Fassler said to her guide, pausing to take it in. “It’s just beautiful! It gives life and energy to this side of the church!”

When Johnston asked for a second demonstration, basilica organist Andrew McShane used nearly every available stop to play a Gloria composed by Bach’s organ teacher, Georg Böhm, along with a somewhat more familiar tune.

Fassler’s sentiments could be taken to represent those of the dozens of University administrators, Holy Cross priests, Basilica staffers, residence hall rectors, security personnel, organ students and accidental tourists who found themselves trundling through the basilica during the first half of August, often with jaws slack and wonder in their eyes. “Shock and awe, that’s our business,” rigger Amory Atkins of Boston’s Organ Clearing House told one visitor.

Father Richard Bullene, CSC, the architecture professor who served on the Murdy organ’s planning committee, called his daily visits from adjacent Corby Hall his “snoop du jour.”

Moments after Fassler’s marveling, Paul Fritts, the organ’s creator, descended to introduce himself to her before being summoned away just as quickly to answer questions from his crew.

That was Thursday, August 11. All the while, University photographer Barbara Johnston’s cameras continued to snap, snap, once every two minutes, capturing every step of the process from the altar, the center aisle, the arches high above, since Day One.

Within 24 hours, Johnston, too, would pack up her gear. The result of her work, which required patience, stamina and a lot of unpleasant trips into the tight spaces above the basilica’s ceiling, is the time-lapse video attached to this story that she produced with ND Multimedia colleague Ryan Blaske.

While the organ appeared nearly ready to play at that moment, the real work of installing the 70-stop, 5,164-pipe organ and making it truly one with the landmark church that is expected to be its home for hundreds of years was only beginning. Still to come were the meticulous placement of thousands of interior pipes, the connection of the yet-exposed bellows to the rest of the wind system, the linkage of all the mechanical key and stop actions, the tuning and voicing of every single pipe to the basilica’s unique acoustics.

Organ builder Bruce Shull said all of that is happening now, the work time wedged around Sacred Heart’s full schedule of daily Masses and weddings. On a typical day, the craftsmen arrive at 8, step out as sacramental routine requires, and return to their local apartment around sunset.

By August 31, Shull reported, he, Fritts and colleague Erik McLeod had tuned and voiced nine stops in the Rückpositive and had four more stops of reed pipes ready to go. Another five stops were playing “and for the most part finished” in the Swell division high up in the case’s center section, as were two stops of Spanish trumpets.

Off to such a promising start, Fritts hinted at his hope that when the three of them fly home to Tacoma, Washington, for Thanksgiving, they won’t need to return to campus until the dedication Mass and concert, scheduled for the Feast of Blessed Father Basil Moreau, CSC, on January 20.

In the meantime, they’ll rotate out for occasional, week-long breaks to clear their ears and recuperate from the brain-numbing effects of sound waves and sensory overload.

With some 1,600 pipes down and another 3,500 to go. McLeod had enough to improvise a little test of the 4-foot Rohrflöte pipes in the Rückpositive to accompany Johnston’s video.

By contrast, when Johnston asked for a second demonstration, basilica organist and choir director Andrew McShane ’93M.M. used nearly every available stop to play “Allein Gott in der Höh Sei Ehr,” a Gloria composed by Bach’s organ teacher, Georg Böhm.

Along with a somewhat more familiar tune.

— John Nagy ’00M.A.

Notre Dame Magazine coverage of the basilica organ project continues throughout the fall. Check out for videos, photo galleries, profiles of the Fritts craftsmen, stories about organs and organ studies at Notre Dame and a chronology of the Murdy organ’s long crescendo from ideas on paper to a living instrument that will grace the University’s central house of worship for centuries to come.

The magazine welcomes comments, but we do ask that they be on topic and civil. Read our full comment policy.