Allen Organ Company of Macungie, Pennsylvania (near Allentown) has donated a digital organ for use at papal celebrations in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican News reports. The organ made its debut on December 24 at the Mass During the Night (popularly known as “Midnight Mass,” though it oftentimes begins before midnight) celebrated by Pope Francis.
The four-manual pipe organ built 1954-1962 by the firm of Giovanni Tamburini remains in use for smaller celebrations held at the Altar of the Chair. “It is truly perfect for that space in all its breadth, through the real sound of the pipes, without requiring amplification,” Sistine Choir director Msgr. Palombella said.
The difficulty is that this organ had to be amplified in order to fill the basilica and St. Peter’s Square, which cased frequency distortion and problems related to background noise.
The challenge of filling St. Peter’s Basilica with organ music came about only after the Second Vatican Council. “Before Vatican II,” Msgr. Palombella explains, “papal celebrations were held in the Sistine Chapel, and the problem with broadcasting internationally or using microphones didn’t yet exist.”
French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899), whom some consider the greatest organ builder of all time, developed in the 19th century a proposal for St. Peter’s Basilica which would have been the largest-ever mechanical-action organ in the world. But Italian politics got in the way. After the unification of Italy in 1871, against the bitter opposition of the popes, St. Peter’s Basilica stood within Italian rather than Vatican territory. The Italian state did not allow the installation of an organ at the eastern wall of the basilica. (The situation was normalized only in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty between the Vatican and the Italian state under Mussolini.)
Relations are markedly better than they were in the 19th century between the Holy See and modern states and societies. As Vatican News writes:
The digital organ of St. Peter’s Basilica is a new way of responding musically to the challenges set out by the Second Vatican Council for a Church willing to dialogue with the contemporary world and always seeking to broadcast the beauty and living reality of tradition.