Photos courtesy of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Millburn
By Steve Sears
A Beckerath organ, which was built specifically in 1970 for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Millburn, is celebrating a very special 50th anniversary in 2020.
A series of three recital concerts, one held in November 2019, and one each in February and April of 2020, were scheduled as a highlight.
“The organ at St Stephen’s is unusual in that it is just one of a handful of instruments made by the noted German organ builder, Rudolf von Beckerath, in the eastern United States,” says John Schucker, organist for the church. “It’s installation at St. Stephen’s came at a time when there was a general movement towards recreating Baroque instruments of all kinds to play the music of that era. Nowadays it is quite common to hear the music of Bach, Händel, and Vivaldi played on period instruments, but in 1970, the congregation of St. Stephen’s was very forward thinking in choosing this style of organ.”
The organ was specifically built to fit into a prominent spot in the church, which was built in 1855. “Organs in churches and auditoriums are incorporated into their settings in many different ways,” explains Schucker. “Sometimes most of the instrument is hidden away in compartments as indeed the former instrument at St. Stephen’s was, with just a single row of pipes visible in an arched opening into the church. The Beckerath organ instead is free standing in the rear of the sanctuary, rising to the very tall ceiling of the church. An antique Baroque organ would have had a richly carved and highly ornamented case. The organ at St. Stephen’s has the austere, modern era design of 1970, but it blends well with the simple carpenter gothic design of the church interior with its plain, dark, wooden beams and columns.”
For Schucker – whose February recital included works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Gottfried Walther, rarely heard pieces by a 20th Century composer named Hugo Distler, and a concluding Sonata by Felix Mendelssohn – playing the Beckerath organ is a pure joy. “The quality of craftsmanship of this instrument is unparalleled with any other organ I’ve known. It’s one of the reasons that I drive an hour from home each Sunday to play for the services there, not to mention the lovely group of people that make up the congregation of the church. In the 16 years I’ve been playing it, the only maintenance it has required besides regular tuning has been related to the electric components of it and not the instrument itself. This is unheard of, really.”
St. Stephen’s, a small, intimate congregation, does an incredible amount of outreach to benefit the greater community. The Beckerath organ has been and is still a big part of that outreach. “I think it’s wonderful that they have dedicated resources for the past 50 years to sharing this unique instrument with the community through the organ recital series, giving people an opportunity to not only hear music performed on an instrument of exceptional quality, but also to hear performers from around the globe,” says Schucker. “In fact, our final recital this season will feature Johann Vexo from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on April 19.”
Rev. Paula Toland adds the following. “The 50th anniversary of our Beckerath organ could not have come at a better time. In these days, when there is so much anxiety and fear, anger and hostility, celebrating this magnificent instrument means St. Stephen’s is able to share beauty and joy with those who come to hear the organ played by incredibly talented artists, each of whom brings something different to the recital series. We call St. Stephen’s “the Church on Main Street, where love begets love”. Being able to open our doors, to extend warmth and hospitality to the community, is as much a blessing to us as it is those who come to be inspired and uplifted by the music. My hope and prayer is that by doing this we provide a bit of respite and peace in a world that has such need to be reminded of beauty in all its forms.”
Schucker closes by adding, “The committee that decided to purchase and install this organ 50 years ago had great foresight. They provided the church and the community with a great musical legacy that will potentially last not just for 50 more years but for centuries.”
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church is located at 119 Main Street in Millburn. Visit www.ststephensmillburn.org for more information.