From outside it has barely been audible but the last few weeks Charles University’s historic Carolinum has echoed with the sounds of construction. Not just hallways and offices are being renovated but also a big part of the Great Hall itself, ahead of the installation of a new pipe organ. The instrument is most often heard on special occasions: from graduation ceremonies to the awarding of honorary degrees.
The university commissioned the new pipe organ from the German family firm Orgelbau Vleugels but before it can be installed, long before a single new note will float acorss the hall at at Christmas concert in December, the space for the instrument needs to be prepped. The floor above and balcony overlooking the Great Hall that visitors normally never see but peer upwards when the music begins. How far along is the project? Forum spoke to Charles University’s organist Jan Kalfus while Forum photographer Vladimír Šigut captured scenes of repairs underway.
“The new pipe organ will be a little smaller than the previous one,” Kalfus explains, “But it will have better accoustics” pointing to the balcony where the instrument will be installed and where he will be seated. There is one advantage: the new organ can be played mechanically, above, but also electronically from below, as part of an orchestra in the Great Hall itself. That means the organist for once, will be visible to the public as he performs.
Renovations allowing the installation of the new pipe organ mean changes to the balcony, lowering the floor by 35 centimetres so that the visible part of the instrument, the organ pipes, come up below the Great Hall’s wooden ceiling. The positioning of the instrument should also allow easier access to the pipes for servicing when necessary. The space above the hall must be completed by the end of May, as graduation ceremonies will resume in person next month.
Graduates will still be able to hear celebratory organ music as they are awarded their diplomas or doctorates, Kalfus says, albeit by electronic keyboards this time, imitating the sounds of the original. “I hope it won’t be a shock for visitors to the Carolinum when they look up and see the balcony window empty – without the instrument and decorative elements. The last will be returned only after the new pipe organ is fully installed.”
The new pipe organ is being put together at present (photograph on the left) after which it will be carefully dismantled and only then shipped from Germany to the Czech Republic. Charles University opted to replace the previous organ after it no longer met technical and acoustic requirements for an important historic building which greets tens of thousands of visitors each year.
The cost came to 18.6 million crowns (the equivalent of some 730,000 euros) with a large part covered by funds from the Education Ministry. Jan Kalfus expects the sound will not only be exceptional but, with proper care, will wow visitors to the Carolinum for the next 100 years or more.
“The promise of this better instrument that made dismantling the previous one less emotional. Before it was taken apart we met for one last time, I played Bach’s Toccata and fugue in d minor then hit the main switch and that was it.”
A final point of interest: the installation of the new pipe organ (as the well as the previous one) are being captured on time-lapse video to provide a unique glimpse into the process and what it takes to install a majestic new instrument after retiring the previous one.