The History of Eastern Mennonite’s Pipe Organ Revealed

What could $50,000 buy in 1975? Well, Edith and Marilyn Steinbright spent that amount for the pipe organ that still stands in Lehman Auditorium.

When the Steinbright sisters were approached by EMU (then called EMC) for donations to the school, they wanted to give something toward the music program. At that point, EMU still held conservative views concerning the use of instrumental accompaniment for singing and many expressed concerns about the effects that the organ would have on the tradition of singing a cappella music.

John Fast, professor in the Music Department, arrived at EMU shortly before the organ was installed in Lehman Auditorium.

He did not consider the organ to be a controversial topic as he had grown up in Minnesota, where “organs were just part of the fabric of life.”

However, Fast was aware of the long tradition of a cappella music for Mennonites living in eastern states.

Until the early 1960’s, instrumental music was banned from WEMC-FM, EMU’s public radio and Virginia’s first public radio station.

While EMU did not necessarily ban instruments altogether—there were several pianos on campus as well as opportunities for instrumental lessons and ensembles—the use of instrumental accompaniment for worship services was strongly discouraged.

However, the administration approved the gift of the organ, which was promptly installed in the spring of 1976. In1994,the Steinbright sisters also donated a small organ to Martin Chapel.

The dedication service for the organ was a short half-hour recital held after the homecoming service (in the past, homecoming weekend was held in the spring semester).

“That’s quite traditional,” said Fast, “that when you get an organ you have a dedication recital.”

He recalls performing several pieces by Bach, who made considerable contributions to the realm of organ playing and was an organist himself.

“Bach is sort of the organist’s dream,” expressed Fast. He also played several hymn-based preludes, which were most likely similar to those played at the Christmas concert last year.

Fast came to EMU as a professionally trained organist and has spent the past 38 years playing for special events such as convocation, the annual Bach festival, and choral events.

“We had a dedication service for that organ,” recalled Fast, “but neither of the women [were] able to make it to that one.” In addition to the aforementioned occasions, the organ in Lehman auditorium is used for organ lessons, taught privately by Fast.

“Usually I have one or two students, but this year I have three, which is a nice surprise,” he explained.

Occasionally there will be a student who is interested in specializing in organ playing within their music major, and so will hold a recital at the end of their senior year.

First-Year Sarah Sutter is taking organ lessons with Fast this semester, and she has enjoyed learning a new instrument with a teacher whom she described as “an extremely talented organist, patient teacher, and great person overall.”

“I like that with an organ, you can get such a wide variety of sounds,” she said. “Growing up playing piano, it’s a nice change, because although the instruments are similar in that they’re both keyboards, there are big differences as well.”

While the campus organs may not be used as much as the other instruments at EMU, students like Sutter and faculty like Fast have deep gratitude for the unique existence of the organ, and they are keeping the age-old tradition alive.

Lauren Sauder

Categories: Feature

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