Nicaragua: Walcker Pipe Organs for the Lasallian Brothers, pt. 1

23

October
2013

Walcker Organ,  Instituto Pedagógico La Salle, Managua (photo: IPLS)

Walcker Organ, Instituto Pedagógico La Salle, Managua, 1953 (photo: IPLS)

The pipe organ is arguably the most ancient of musical instruments—at one time the most complex machine in the world—which has been part of the Catholic tradition for over a millennium. This includes Latin America (via the Spanish Conquest) from at least the sixteenth century to the present day.

We don’t yet know when the first pipe organs were introduced to the Province of Nicaragua during the Spanish Colonial Era. The earliest (semi-reliable) reference I’ve been able to locate places a highly decorated organ in the church of a small town near Managua during the 1750s, however, there must have been others already installed in the principal colonial cities of León and Granada, at the very least in their respective cathedrals. Another document I came upon confirms that the cathedral in León did not have one in 1651, for whatever that detail is worth.

The only kinds of organs I have consistently found in Nicaraguan churches from the second half of the nineteenth century onward is the harmonium, whose mechanism requires the player to pump a set bellows with the feet, which then push air through a system of vibrators (as opposed to pipes), controlled by a typical keyboard. The concept is not unlike the basic way a harmonica works.

Harmoniums were in common use just a few decades ago until supplanted by the Hammond organ, a sophisticated electronic keyboard instrument needing very little maintenance in comparison to the pipe organ or harmonium. I’ve seen Hammond pedal organs in León and Jinotepe, and I have confirmed their presence as far north as [El] Ocotal.

And yet the Hammond organ eventually came to a demise, thus, replaced by the generic electronic keyboard and amplifier (both quite portable) heard in many a Catholic service today throughout the western half of the country.

Lamentably, when one speaks of the organ in Nicaragua, it is of the generic electronic keyboard and the artificial sound that embodies it.

However, there is more to be said about the history of the pipe organ.

One is last seen in León cathedral in 1904, at a time when the bishop initiated a large-scale restoration and remodeling of the facade and interior. We don’t yet know what happened to that instrument. It may have ended up much like other items from the cathedral that were no longer needed, and might have been given to a church, chapel or hermitage in or near the city.

Of the only pipe organs I know to have existed for sure, one was found in Managua from 1953 to 1972 (pictured above).

It was last photographed in the days following the great earthquake that destroyed the capital, in the same place it had come to rest when it first arrived in the city in 1953, the chapel of the La Salle Institute.

That organ (and another, smaller one destined for León) was built especially for the La Salle Brothers of Nicaragua in the early 1950s by the Walcker Company based in Ludwigsburg, Germany.

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