Wolff, Opus 40

by Hellmuth Wolff & James Louder​

If we organ builders learn nothing else in the course of our careers, we learn to be flexible. We learn this the hard way, by grappling with the architectural and acoustical shortcomings of the buildings where we install our instruments. Rarely are churches and concert halls built with adequate provision for a pipe organ; usually something is seriously amiss. There is acoustic tile on the ceiling or spongy plaster on the walls; the roof is too low or its shape is wrong; there is a fine west gallery dominated by a rose window that must not be hidden; the room is big and voluminous, but there is carpet everywhere and cushions on all seats, etc., ad nauseam. Still, it is the organ builder's job not to be sickened by these things, but to grin and bear them, and to succeed with the instrument anyway.

Bales Wolff, Opus 40In this project we have found ourselves in the most unusual position of having everything exactly as we would wish. When Jim Higdon first contacted us, holding out the prospect of a hall built for the organ and only for the organ, we could barely believe our good fortune. To be told that everything would be done to provide an ideal acoustic seemed already grace beyond measure. During our first discussions with Jim Higdon and Michael Bauer, we all agreed that the visual impact of the organ should be enhanced by a beautiful design for the hall, that the hall should not just be an overgrown practice studio, but a proper recital hall, with architecture worthy of the name. It was then that we all began to realize that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime project. And then someone mentioned the idea of having a bit of stained glass....

As so all the conditions came together for the realization of a project with no artistic compromise whatsoever. Clearly, such a tremendous opportunity imposed an equally tremendous responsibility. We are thankful that, in a very real sense, we did not have to face it alone. Beyond the constant and invaluable input from Jim Higdon and Michael Bauer, we profited from the talents of several distinguished professionals whose contributions to the success of this project were incalculable. First among them is Robert F. Mahoney, who is responsible for modeling the fabulous acoustics of this hall, for establishing the architectural parameters, and for seeing that his intentions were realized. Few are the acousticians who really understand the organ, but Bob is such a one. We organ builders often say that the acoustics of the room are the most important "stop" on the organ. Bob has voiced his stop with consummate skill.

We are also most grateful to Horst, Terril, and Karst, architects, for their excellent design of the hall, which realizes a timeless concept in a very clever and thoroughly modern way. The collegial spirit in which HTK dealt with us showed their exceptional professionalism. It is not every architect who is willing to be instructed by an acoustician and an organ builder. We are especially thankful to project architect Steve Scannell for a very positive working relationship. Thanks to Steve's readiness to advise and be advised, we were able to work through some tricky questions together and enjoy ourselves in the process.

Next to all these fine instances of cooperation, Peter Thompson's work on the pipe shades is in a class by itself, the more remarkable for having been unexpected. We had hoped that the decoration of the organ case, whose shape derives from the 15th century organ case in the cathedral of Strassburg, would announce the modern character of our instrument. We had not yet come up with a design which satisfied us, when Jim Higdon mentioned Peter might be willing to try his hand. With the evidence of Peter's talents before us in his designs for the beautiful stained glass windows, we were quick to say yes! To watch these pipe-shades evolve, as successful drafts came in, was to be instructed in the learning and rigor that guides all true Art. Peter's final work is not before our eyes of the world and we can only marvel at how completely this artist entered into the spirit of the organ.

The Spirit of the Organ

The years since World War II have been a sort of golden age for organ building. The revival of interest in historic styles has deepened everyone's understanding of the instrument and proved a great stimulus to the creativity of those builders (ourselves among them) whose main object has been to create a truly contemporary instrument. In the great organs from the past we have searched not so much for pipe-scales and wind-trunk dimensions, as for the underlying values which give the old instruments their artistic integrity, which makes them so profound. Dare we revive the idea of a "classical" style?--not frivolous, ornamental sense, dressing a new organ in the borrowed plumage of the past or fixing upon an arbitrary moment in history; but rather by hewing to the unchanging values of simplicity, coherence, logic, order, humanity, and grace.

Such nobel words are easy to write, but to realize their meaning is the work of several lifetimes. In a very real sense, this organ is a summation of almost three decades of our experience, so that when we stand back and look at the result, we do not find that we have done anything particularly audacious. It may sound terribly conservative to say so, but new ideas seem to succeed best when they are wedded to proven concepts. There are some things which are new for us, for example, the Quintaton 16' and the Voix Humaine of the Recit, both derived from Cavaille-Coll. The sheer size of the Recit division, with 14 stops on one chest, was a challenge in itself. The generally French character of the stoplist follows from the requirements that the organ do justice to the symphonic literature and the sound of the manual reeds announces this character unambiguously. But the organ is not a copy of anything. It is an organ to wrap up this century and, we may hope, to carry us into the next. The organ's heart is what we have come to call among ourselves, "historically authentic Wolff."

We must not close without a most important acknowledgement to the donors, Dane and Polly Bales, without whose generosity we would have neither tin, nor wood, nor iron, nor brick, nor glass to make this project a reality. We owe them our deepest gratitude. We would also like to thank the Kansas University Endowment Association for their unflagging support of this project and to all the other members of the University community who have helped us in ways large and small.


Bales Organ Recital Hall Hellmuth Wolff, opus 40 (1996) Tonal Specifications

Grand Orgue (manual II)

  1. Montre -16'
  2. Montre - 8'
  3. Flûte conique - 8'
  4. Flûte harmonique - 8'
  5. Prestant - 4'
  6. Flûte à fuseau - 4'
  7. Nazard - 2 2/3'
  8. Doublette - 2'
  9. Tierce - 1 3/5'
  10. Fourniture - VI (5 1/3' engaged with Montre 16')
  11. Trompette - 8'
  12. Clairon - 4'

Positif (manual I)

  1. Montre - 8'
  2. Bourdon - 8'
  3. Prestant - 4'
  4. Flûte à cheminée - 4'
  5. Sesquialtera II
  6. Doublette - 2'
  7. Flûte à fuseau - 2'
  8. Larigot - 1 1/3'
  9. Fourniture - IV
  10. Cromorne - 8'


Récit Expressif (manual III)

  1. Quintaton - 16'
  2. Flûte à cheminée - 8'
  3. Viole de gambe - 8'
  4. Voix celeste - 8'
  5. Prestant - 4'
  6. Flûte octaviante - 4'
  7. Octavin - 2'
  8. Cornet V
  9. Plein-jeu V
  10. Basson - 16'
  11. Trompette - 8'
  12. Hautbois - 8'
  13. Clairon - 4'
  14. Voix humaine - 8'



  1. Soubasse - 32'
  2. Contrebasse - 16'
  3. Montre (G.O.) -16'
  4. Soubasse - 16'
  5. Montre (G.O.)-8'
  6. Bourdon- 8'
  7. Octavebasse - 8'
  8. Prestant - 4'
  9. Fourniture V
  10. Trombone - 16'
  11. Trompette allemande - 8'
  12. Trompette (G.O.) - 8'
  13. Clarion (G.O.) - 4'

Récit - G.O.

Positif - G.O.

Recit - Positif

Tirasse G.O.

Tirasse Positif

Tirasse Recit


Solic mahogany case

Temperament: ninth-comma meantone

Mechanical key action (suspended)

Electric stop action

The Builders

Hellmuth Wolff

Hellmuth Wolff has been part of the organ reform in North America since the movement came to this continent in the early 1960s. While still a teenager, Wolff began his apprenticeship in his native Switzerland with the firm of Metzler und Sohne, where he acquired a solid foundation in the techniques of his craft. Later, as a journeyman, he perfected his skills, working with several builders in Holland, Austria, and the United States. He gained valuable experience in design at the Rieger firm in Austria, under the guidance of Josef von Glatter-Gotz. A stage with Otto Hoffman in Austin, TX, and another with Charles Fisk in Gloucester, MA, introduced Wolff to the North American organ scene. Besides playing the piano and singing in choirs wherever he went, Wolff completed his musical language training by taking organ lessons with Wim Dalm in Amsterdam and later with Bernard Lagace in Montreal.

Wolff moved to Canada in 1963 to work for Casavant Freres, Inc., of St.-Hyacinthe, Quebec, bringing his knowledge and skills to the newly established mechanical action department. The organs of the parish church of Saint-Pascal de Kamouraska, Quebec, Our Lady of Sorrows in Toronto, and Marie-Reine-des-Coeurs in Montreal were built after his designs. Subsequently he worked as a designer and voicer in Geneva, returning to Canada in 1966 to renew his collaboration with Karl Wilhelm, who had also worked at Casavant. Wolf founded his own firm in 1968 in Laval, Quebec, a city bordering Montreal.

In the 25 years of its existence, the firm of Wolff has built a large variety of organs throughout North America, ranging from a one-manual positif organ to a four-manual organ for a cathedral. With this range of sizes has come a range of styles as well. Some instruments have been built in strict historic style, notably a French Classic organ for McGill University and a Nordic organ for the University of Toronto. These instruments, each the first of its kind in Canada, set new standards for this kind of work.

The work of Wolff and Associates is by no means confined to historic organs. Most of the firm's work has been devoted to eclectic organs, truly modern instruments for a modern organ culture, as expressed in both sacred and secular performance. Wolff and Associates are proud to be at the forefront of this field, where the lessons learned from the old masters inform, but do not tyrannize, genuinely creative organ building.

James Louder

James Louder and two other men talking by the organJames Louder, born in Johnstown, PA, was the son of a Navy man and first came to Canada at the age of 12, when his father was transferred to Newfoundland. He has made Montreal his permanent home since his student days at McGill University.

Louder's passion for the organ began with a teenager's astonishment at the music of Bach, played by E. Power Biggs on the famous Flentrop tracker organ at Harvard. His musings over the stoplist on the jacket of Bach Organ Favorites led him to the article on the organ in the last edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, arguably the most opaque piece of writing ever to have been published on the subject. The confusion it sowed in his mind seems to have proved fruitful in ways that he could not have predicted, since by the time he had sorted out all the new questions raised by this article, he was truly "hooked".

Louder did his musical studies, such as they were, on the flute and later, the classical guitar. Like many another musician turned instrument maker, he eventually realized that his hands were better suited to making things than to playing things. In 1974 the guitar gave way to the organ for good, as he began his apprenticeship under Hellmuth Wolff, the only man he has ever called Master. In over 20 years with the Wolff firm, Louder has set his hand to almost every facet of the craft. Currently, Mr. Louder owns his own organ business Montreal, Canada.