Your Cart UMS

The Great Pipe Organ

From April to October 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition—called the “White City” for its alabaster architecture and its nightly illumination by millions of electric lights—drew the rapt attention of much of the world. Some 27 million people traveled to Chicago’s Jackson Park to see it. Of these, several hundred thousand entered the 10,000-seat Festival Hall to hear what was widely regarded as one of the greatest musical instruments—and certainly one of the largest—ever constructed.

It was a 3,901-pipe organ, 34 feet wide by 25 feet deep, 38 feet tall at its highest point, manufactured by the Farrand & Votey Company of Detroit to specifications drawn by the eminent organist Clarence Eddy of Chicago, incorporating features invented by Frank Roosevelt of New York City, first cousin to Theodore Roosevelt. It was one of the first great organs to rely on electrical connections from its keys to its pipes, which ranged from the size of soda straws to the size of tree trunks. Together they could replicate the sounds of a vast symphony orchestra.

Photo: The Ferris Wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition

Over the six months of the fair, “the most eminent of contemporary organists” entertained crowds at 62 recitals in all. On the fair’s last day, Clarence Eddy himself wrote of the organ that “musically, it is worthy of rank among the few great organs of the world, while from a technical standpoint it occupies a supreme position.

Later the following winter, long after the last fair-goers had gone home, workmen entered Festival Hall, took the organ apart, packed the pieces in crates, and loaded the crates on rail cars bound for Cincinnati. After a few months in storage, the parts were packed up again and shipped to Ann Arbor.

In the era before radio and high-quality phonographs, when symphony orchestras were relatively rare, Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries listened to great pipe organs with a mixture of technological awe, local pride, and aesthetic rapture. Cities competed to buy the biggest and best. The steel baron Andrew Carnegie, famous as the benefactor of city libraries, also gave millions for municipal organs. Community fund drives were organized to buy instruments made by the most prestigious manufacturers and played by the most famous musicians. When the preeminent organmaker Ernest Skinner installed a new instrument in Cleveland in 1922—”The Finest Musical Instrument ever built by man,” ads said—a crowd of some 20,000 swept past police to squeeze into an arena built to hold only 13,000. (The show went on as planned.) The richest Americans had genuine pipe organs installed in their homes, and a new industry grew up to provide humbler home organs for the middle class.

For many years before the Columbian Exposition of 1893, Henry Simmons Frieze, professor of Latin and three times the University’s interim president, had argued for the installation of a first-class organ on the campus.

Frieze was the progenitor of Michigan’s musical tradition. A fine amateur organist, pianist and conductor, he launched student bands and choral clubs and introduced organ music to the daily chapel services. He persuaded the Regents to appoint the first professor of music. He was the principal founder of the University Musical Society (UMS), which was to make Ann Arbor a national center of fine music.

Frieze believed the shared experience of music was essential to a liberal education and to community life, and students agreed. In 1874, student journalists proposed a scheme by which a fine organ could pay for itself in six months through the sale of ten-cent tickets to all those who couldn’t afford a piano in their homes.

“Music,” they wrote, “good refining music, at a low price, is what the thousand homeless students and the poor people of this city are craving, and they will gratefully acknowledge as a benefactor whoever will furnish it to them.”

No benefactor stepped forward, and Frieze died in 1889, but his campaign for an organ soon was taken up by the University Musical Society. It was led by Professor A.A. Stanley, first dean of the new School of Music (and co-composer of the beloved U-M anthem Laudes Atque Carmina), and Francis W. Kelsey, professor of Latin (and namesake of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology). Both were indefatigable organizers. First they raised money from townspeople to construct a new building for UMS. Then the two professors set their sights on Chicago, where, in the wake of the Columbian Exposition, the great Farrand & Votey organ was for sale.

The country was in the midst of a financial depression. Farrand & Votey had rented the organ to the Exposition for $10,000. Now they were asking a purchase price of $15,000—nearly $400,000 in 2010 currency. The University was in no position to pay such a sum for a musical instrument, however grand.

So Professors Kelsey and Stanley designed a public appeal. Major donations came from U-M alumni and music enthusiasts in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Chicago, and New York. More was raised through the sale of tickets to a grand inaugural concert—$5 to cover the cost of the concert plus train fare from anywhere in the state.

It was enough. For five months, workmen reassembled the organ in the auditorium of University Hall, then the central building of the campus, fronting State Street just east of where Angell Hall stands now.

On December 14, 1894, before a full house, Professor Kelsey declared that the organ was to be named in honor of Henry Simmons Frieze. Then he formally turned it over to the Board of Regents.

“Its splendid harmonies will ever please,” Kelsey said, “but those keys, touched by master hands, will speak a deeper message than that merely of beauty, of aesthetic pleasure. This organ will become an educational force in the hearts and lives of our young people…. May it touch and thrill their inmost natures…lifting them away from that which is mean and trivial into the clear shining of the ideal.”

* * *

Photo: Hill Auditorium stage in 1913.

The organ was played in University Hall for nearly 20 years, including at twice-a-week vesper services. In 1913, it was once again disassembled, moved a couple hundred yards to the north, then re-installed—with $16,000 worth of additions—as the centerpiece of the new Hill Auditorium. (It took an estimated 100 wagon trips to roll the components over to the new site.) It was played at countless performances, including regular “Twilight Recitals” for students enjoying late-afternoon respites after class.

In 1928 most of the organ’s parts were replaced in a major overhaul by Ernest Skinner—the designer whose installation in Cleveland had caused a near-riot six years earlier—but the new instrument remained the Frieze Memorial Organ. Further reconstructions and additions followed in 1955, 1985, 1990 (after extensive damage from a roof leak) and 1995, when digital circuitry and solid-state components were added.

According to James Kibbie, U-M professor of organ, the Frieze instrument now contains “120 ranks [of pipes] plus an additional 4 ranks in the Echo division above the central skylight, totaling 7,599 speaking pipes.” Of those 120 ranks, a dozen ranks remain from those that were manufactured at Farrand & Votey’s factory in Detroit—the last original components of the Frieze Memorial Organ.

Celebrate this Valentine’s Day on Sunday, February 14, 2016 at 4 pm with the UMS Choral Union Concert: Love is Strong as Death.

(Sources include James O. Wilkes, Pipe Organs of Ann Arbor (1995); James Kibbie, The Hill Auditorium Organ; James B. Angell, “A Memorial on the Life and Services of Henry Simmons Frieze” (1890); Frank D. Abbott, ed., “Musical Instruments at the World’s Columbian Exposition” (1895); Craig R. Whitney, “All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters” (2003), Charles H. Gray, “Musical Interests at the University of Michigan,” American University Magazine (1897); and “The U of M Organ,” The Song Journal (1895).)

This article appears courtesy of the online alumni magazine Michigan Today. It was published on May 12, 2010.

Why Audra McDonald Loves Ann Arbor


When singer Audra McDonald performed in Ann Arbor in 2011, we asked her what she loves about Ann Arbor audiences. She returns on September 17, 2015.

Our Very Own Audra McDonald Round Up

audra mcdonald
Audra McDonald. Photo by Andrew Eccles. 

We can’t wait for the return of six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald. She’ll perform at Hill Auditorium on September 17, 2015.

UMS has had the honor of presenting Audra McDonald a few times over the course of recent year, and the singer has been very generous with her time with students, staff, and more.

Here’s a round up of our favorite Audra McDonald moments in the past few years.

1. The one where she raves about Ann Arbor audiences:

2. The one where she sings a birthday song for Hill Auditorium:

3. The one where she answers questions from University of Michigan students:

4. And of course, the one where we got to ask a few questions.

What are your favorite Audra McDonald moments?

U-M Swimming & Diving Team Meets UMS

On a summery July 2015 day, the University of Michigan Swimming & Diving team spent the day with UMS, getting an up close look at Burton Tower and historic Hill Auditorium, and learning more about performance. Go blue and watch the highlights of the day:

Interested in more? Read this great re-cap of the day.

Ann Arbor History: Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea’s Hill Auditorium Reunion

If you’re a jazz lover, chances are you’re just as excited as we are to see jazz legend Chick Corea with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on March 31, 2018.

January 26, 1978 concert poster found in Lee Berry's office.

January 26, 1978 concert poster found in Lee Berry’s office.

But, did you know that this upcoming performance won’t be the first time that the master pianist will be in Ann Arbor? In 1978, jazz legends Chick Corea  and Herbie Hancock were brought to Ann Arbor by Eclipse Jazz, a University of Michigan student group that existed from 1975 to 1987. Eclipse brought world-class jazz musicians to Ann Arbor for concerts, lectures, and workshops, and presented such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Sun Ra, Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams, Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

We asked Lee Berry, former director of Eclipse Jazz and current Chief Development Officer at the Michigan Theater, to tell us all about the epic concert.

Hancock and Corea’s first show together at Hill Auditorium was scheduled for January 26, 1978, a date that might ring some bells for those who were university students during this time, because it was also known as the Great Blizzard of 1978. The University shut down due to snow that day.

Says Berry, “I think we learned that school was being cancelled, and then they called and said that [Herbie and Chick] couldn’t get out of New York.” The only reschedule date that worked for the musicians, Eclipse, and Hill Auditorium was February 26, 1978. The sold-out performance was to occur that day during the day time. Still, most of the 4177 ticket holders showed up, and, as Berry puts it, “it was a beautiful, beautiful show.”

220px-Hancock_Corea_EveningThe encore of that Hill Auditorium performance is side four of An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea: In Concert, an album that Berry describes as a departure from the electric keyboard and fusion style of jazz that Corea and Hancock were known for before that album, and as a return to the acoustic piano and older, more collaborative style of playing that is the kind of jazz that has survived and is still thriving today.  The recording, featuring two jazz greats changing the course of jazz’s future, was a moment in history. As Berry remembers, “Not too long after is when Wynton [Marsalis] came out, maybe ’81, and it was like old-school was back. This was kind of like a link between those two periods.”

Updated 6/5/2017

Michael Tilson Thomas at 1988 UMS May Festival

We’re getting ready for another visit from San Francisco Symphony on November 13 and 14, 2014. This visit celebrates the 70th birthday of music director Michael Tilson Thomas, and we wanted to share two archival photos from another performance featuring conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the 1988 UMS May Festival.

In this photo, the Pittsburgh Symphony performs at 1988 May Festival with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.
MTT-and-SFS-03151996

Michael Tilson Thomas signs autographs backstage in Hill Auditorium.
Michael Tilson Thomas signs autograph backstage May Festival 1988

To learn more about the May Festival’s one-hundred year history, watch “A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone,” our feature documentary about Hill Auditorium.

Interested in more from our archives? Check out our digital archives at umsrewind.org.

UMS Documentary Wins EMMY Award

Sara Billmann with EMMY award

We are honored to report that our “A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone” documentary has just won the ‘Best Historical Documentary’ EMMY at the Michigan EMMY award! Thank you to everyone who worked on the film and congratulations! Our own Sara Billmann holds the award in the photo above.

Watch the film in full on ums.org.

This Day in UMS: Twentieth Annual UMS May Festival

Editor’s Note: “This day in UMS History” is an occasional series of vignettes drawn from UMS’s historical archive. If you have a personal story or particular memory from attending the performance featured here, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

May 14-17, 1913: Twentieth Annual UMS May Festival

51413-20thMayFestival

Featuring five concerts over five evenings, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, UMS Choral Union, and the Children’s Choir were featured on the Twentieth Annual May Festival, the opening series of concerts at Hill Auditorium. The opening concert featured works by Wagner, Beethoven, A.A. Stanley, and Brahms.

Hill Auditorium celebrated its one hundredth birthday on May 14, 2013. If you’d like to learn more about our history with the storied venue, watch our documentary A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone.

This Day in UMS: Jascha Heifetz

Editor’s Note: “This day in UMS History” is an occasional series of vignettes drawn from UMS’s historical archive. If you have a personal story or particular memory from attending the performance featured here, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

March 14, 1951: Jascha Heifetz in Hill Auditorium

031451-HeiftezSandwichBoards

Photo: Charles and Alva Gordon Sink. 

We love this photo of first UMS president Charles Sink and his wife Alva Gordon Sink and a promotional sandwich board featuring Russian violinist Jascha Heifetz’s 1951 performance in Ann Arbor.

He first performed in Ann Arbor in 1919, at age 18. He was already a sensation. He was also, as Charles Sink Remembered, “a normal boy interested in everything before him.” Touring the campus before the concert Heifetz wanted to see the medical school, asking, “Do they cut up bodies, and can one see them?” Sink arranged to take him to the anatomy lab, where Heifetz watched intently, asking many questions. To Sink’s relief, the medical students “refrained from their usual practice of dropping stray toes” or other body parts into the pockets of an unwary visitor.

Heifetz returned for many concerts and he always mentioned his Michigan “medical course.”

This Day in UMS: Vladimir Horowitz

Editor’s Note: “This day in UMS History” is an occasional series of vignettes drawn from UMS’s historical archive. If you have a personal story or particular memory from attending the performance featured here, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

January 31, 1930: Vladimir Horowitz in Hill Auditorium

13130-HorowitzAdvertisement13130-Horowitx1978Program

Photos: (Left) 1930 advertisement in the Ann Arbor News (Ann Arbor News Ann Archives, Arbor District Library). (Right) Program from 1978 performance.

The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz first performed in Ann Arbor on January 31, 1930, and then on another 8 occasions before 1953, when he began his long “intermission” from the concert stage. For music lovers, those years only enhanced his legend, and his return to stage in the 1970s caused a sensation.

For the inaugural concert of the hundredth season of UMS concerts in 1978, no artist could have been more fitting. Adding to the centennial pride of the local audience, the pianist was celebrating his fiftieth anniversary of his own American debut. This 1978 performance, before an enraptured audience, featured a program of works of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and an enraptured audience found it hard to let Horowitz go, calling him back for four encores.

Love great music, theater, and dance?

Love great music, theater, and dance?

Surely your inbox has room for one more email... Sign up for notifications on new digital and live performances, plus season updates.

Thanks! We'll keep you updated.